Workplace fatalities increase by more than a quarter

Nick Wilson examines the latest data from the Health and Safety Executive and the role Covid and the subsequent restrictions have played

The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) annual workplace fatality statistics are always met with trepidation given we know there are tragedies behind these numbers. Little else emphasises the importance of workplace health and safety. For employers – particularly in the most affected industries – it is a stark reminder that we must do our utmost to minimise this number.

In a year as testing as 2020/21, the regulator’s latest report makes particularly sobering reading given there were more fatalities despite fewer people working. So, what’s behind this year’s figure and what must employers address? 

Fatalities at work increase in the last year

The provisional data shows that a total of 142 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2020/21 compared to 111 in 2019/20 – an increase of 28 per cent.

As usual, the report breaks down the figures by sector, accident type, gender and age, among other metrics. Headline findings for 2020/21 include:

  • More workers died in construction than any other sector (39 out of 142 deaths). However, the rate of fatal injury (deaths per 100,000 workers) was highest in agriculture, forestry and fishing at 11.36 – that’s six times higher than construction (1.84) and 20 times higher than the all-industry average (0.43).

  • Following the same pattern as previous years, the top three causes of fatal injuries to workers were falls from height (35), being struck by a moving vehicle (25), and being struck by a moving object (17).

  • The overwhelming majority (97 per cent) of those killed at work were male. In addition, a disproportionate number of fatal injuries occurred to workers aged 60 or over, who accounted for around 30 per cent of deaths despite making up just 11 per cent of the workforce.

What role has Covid played?

At face value, the total number of fatalities in 2020/21 (142) is broadly similar to recent years. In 2016/17 the figure was 137, 144 people died at work in 2017/18, and this rose slightly to 147 in 2018/19.

The HSE points out that the number of deaths in 2019/20 at 111 was particularly low and in a follow-up report, it suggested that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy may have been a contributing factor. 

However, this isn’t entirely convincing given the annual data spans March through to March, and the effects of Covid on the workplace would arguably have been minimal before the first lockdown announcement on 23 March 2020. Why too did we not see the low figure continue into the subsequent year?

It’s worth noting that the HSE’s fatal injury statistics don’t include deaths from occupational exposure to coronavirus, nor was there any mass incident that may explain why the numbers are higher than one might expect.

In short, there have been more fatalities at a time when fewer people were working. This could mean that this year’s incidence rate (deaths per 100,000 employees) is higher than the report suggests. 

The HSE has since acknowledged this and has offered an alternative measure that looks at the fatality rate per 100 million hours worked. As suspected, standardising against last year’s figures shows a greater percentage increase in fatalities between 2019/20 and 2020/21 of 40 per cent.

A timely reminder for employers

The figures suggest that staff absence and changes in the workforce caused by Covid could have compromised safety standards in the workplace. This should serve as a reminder to us all that as employers, we must ensure that we’re doing all that is reasonably practicable to protect workers and others affected by their work activities.

With more normal operation returning as we emerge from the pandemic, ensure you have carefully reviewed all risk assessments, in particular identifying where process, equipment and staffing may have changed or reverted. Involve your team members, communicate your findings, and ensure follow-up action. This may involve robust training for new staff as well as refresher training for others.

 Businesses are naturally concerned about the consequences of non-compliance, but if you do not have a health and safety expert within your organisation, it can be hard to know you’re doing enough. It’s all too easy to miss the mark, so turn to professional expertise where needed. 

Nick Wilson is director of health and safety services at Ellis Whittam, a former HSE inspector and a chartered safety practitioner