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Injury and ill-health

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2012

PSE talks to Neal Stone, director of policy and communications at the British Safety Council, about the latest HSE statistics on workplace injury and ill-health, and the role of local authorities as both regulators and employers.

The 2011/12 statistics on workplace injury and ill-health have just been published by the Health and Safety Executive, and contain a mixture of encouraging and concerning news.

Both the number and incidence of major and three-day injuries has continued to fall – although as British Safety Council director of policy and communications Neal Stone explains, it is “quite a complex picture”.

He said there can be too much of an emphasis on fatal injuries alone, with less attention paid to trends in other key statistics.

“It’s true that in terms of workplace injuries, if you look at the trend over the last fi ve years, in terms of fatal, major and three-day injuries, the trend is continuing downward, although it is levelling off.

“Where the improvements aren’t taking place is in relation to work-related illness. Although the number of days lost has come down, the number of new cases and the number of illness cases remains signifi cant, and I don’t think we’re seeing the improvements on the workplace ill-health side that we were expecting to see. There’s much more to do.”

Not a blame game

Asked about responsibility to improve those poor statistics, Stone said much good work is already being done, and nobody in particular is to blame – it’s just an incredibly complex and deep-seated problem.

He explained: “If you look at the programmes put in place by the previous Government and this one on the health and wellbeing agenda, considerable effort has been made, led by the DWP but also across Government, to raise important issues around workplace health.

“If you look at the major causes of days lost through ill-health, it’s ones we’ve known about for some considerable time: stress, muscoskeletal disorders – clearly, ill-health outweighs days lost through injury by fi ve to one.

“It’s fair to say there has been a signifi cant effort put in by government and various regulatory bodies and by a whole number of organisations including trade associations and trade unions to get to grips with ill-health and its consequences.

“There’s still an incredibly long way to go. We’ve found that people sometimes fi nd it easier dealing with the safety agenda.

“It’s tangible, you can see it, whilst the health agenda is far more complex in terms of the role of the regulator, employers, and employees. But the statistics are clear: the burden posed by ill-health at work is immense and costing billions.”

It is estimated that workplace injury and illhealth cost society £13.4bn in 2011/12.


ne of the most worrying elements among the HSE statistics, Stone said, was around prosecution and enforcement.

“There is a very big worry there,” he said, “both in terms of the number of offences that have been prosecuted in England, Wales and Scotland, and the number of enforcement notices served by HSE and local authorities. “Looking in detail at the statistics, there has been a signifi cant reduction in the number of prosecutions, particularly those brought by local authorities and the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland. The number of HSE prosecutions seems to have held up.

“It’s likely to be due to a combination of factors. Some commentators are saying maybe this is one of the consequences of the shift in enforcement priorities, with less focus on the low-risk sectors. It could be that the resources available to the local authorities and prosecuting authorities in Scotland are fewer, with the result that they haven’t got the resources to investigate and bring prosecutions to the extent they did before.

“You could say the performance of employers in terms of complying with the law has improved – but that’s a bit more questionable. There must be concerns, looking at the reduction in the number of prosecutions and enforcement notices, that it is because of resource cuts.”

The statistics on enforcement notices are stark: HSE issued 23% fewer compared to the previous year, and local authorities issued 17% fewer, meaning there was an overall 21% fall.

“Enforcement is a vital part of ensuring there’s compliance with the law, and if this trend continues, it will raise red fl ags that enforcement is slowly drifting away,” Stone said.


However, the drop of 3,800 notices in 2011/12 compared to 2010/11 came after a rise in notices in the previous year, 2009/10. Stone said he hoped 2011/12 was just a one-off year, and not the start of a downward trend.

He said: “It might come back to that shift in priorities the Government announced 18 months ago, in terms of where enforcement should be focused, but that doesn’t explain it really: there’s questions to be asked as to whether or not this has impacted differently in different sectors. Both on prosecutions and particularly on enforcement notices, the decreases are a serious concern.”

In September, when the Government announced its ‘blitz’ on health and safety regulation, as part of the wider drive to eliminate red tape, the British Safety Council warned of a “real danger” of health and safety being identifi ed simply as a ‘burden’ on business and growth.

Its chief executive Alex Botha said: “The myth that there is an army of health and safety inspectors disrupting and stifl ing UK business day-in day-out is just that – a myth. It is estimated that every workplace in Great Britain can, presently, expect a visit from an inspector on average once every 38 years.

“The British Safety Council and its corporate members have played their part in helping take reforms aimed at simplifying our health and safety rules forward. We have contributed to both Lord Young and Professor Löfstedt reviews of health and safety. Considerable progress has been made in taking forward those reforms with the aim of ensuring sensible, proportionate and comprehensible health and safety regulation. It is important not to lose sight that these reviews did not fi nd any evidence to suggest that there was a case for radically altering or stripping back our health and safety framework.”

Following up on that, Stone told us: “It’s the unintended consequences we’re worried about. There’s so much going on; with the Löfstedt reforms, we’re only at the start of the programme to implement those. We’ve seen the fi rst round of RIDDOR reforms, with more to come, we’ve seen the removal of 13 pieces of legislation. There’s a lot of reform going on, but a lot more to come.

“There’s also been this clarifi cation and I suppose re-drawing of enforcement priorities announced 18 months ago. We’ve also got the consequences of ‘Fee for Intervention’, HSE’s cost charging scheme, which came in on October 1, giving the HSE the power to charge employers who are found by inspectors to be non-compliant.

“You have to ask what the impact of that will be: will it encourage law-breakers to be more compliant? We’ve also got the consequences of budget reductions both on HSE’s capacity, but also local authority capacity. Those cuts will have an impact on their effi ciency and effectiveness as regulators.”

Local authorities

Local authorities have an important regulatory role of course, but they also face multiple workplace safety challenges themselves as employers.

Stone explained: “We have to grasp the fact that the risks local authorities have to manage as employers are immense.

“I went and spoke to the senior management board of a London borough a month ago, and it’s clear that chief executives and senior directors have still got their eye very much on the ball in terms of the risks they have to manage, which are huge and diverse. They range from things like asbestos in local authority property, including schools, right through to the risks associated with lone working, working at height.

“For most risks, outside of major hazard, local authorities have to think about them, and trade unions play a very important role in ensuring local authority employees are kept safe.

“But there’s this worry about resources. In the same way there is a worry about the capacity of local authorities to carry out their regulatory role, not just in terms of health and safety, but also food safety and trading standards, there’s also a worry that employers faced with tough resource decisions will look at training and health and safety and see it as ripe for cuts.

“That’s the big worry. But even when forced into a position where you have to make budget cuts, you have to be very wary of reducing your competence and capacity to manage health and safety risks.”

He said currently that’s still a potential worry for the future, and there is “not yet an emerging picture of non-compliance”.

But he added: “There’s no room for complacency: we cannot kid ourselves that everything’s rosy.

“There are still massive improvements to be made, and there are still workers being injured and made ill in their thousands, entirely preventably.”

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