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March 20, 2015

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A life-saving strategy to cut fatalities

Melvyn French argues that current efforts to reduce the number of workplace deaths from accidents are failing. Unless practitioners drill down to find the root cause of each fatality and resolve those individual failings, the UK’s declining curve will flatten out.

It is reassuring to see fatal accident figures from workplace accidents decline. HSE’s statistics on fatal injuries show that the number has fallen from just over 300 in 1993/1994 to an all-time low of 148 in 2012/2013.

The question is – will these figures come down further? Personally, I don’t believe that we will see any significant reduction in the future.

The last thing that anyone wants to see at work is a fatal accident. Employers invest a huge amount of time, money and effort into health and safety to avoid and prevent deaths. But are we approaching this in the right way?

If we look at the workplaces in which the fatalities occurred, of the 171 occupational fatalities in 2010/2011, 49 were in construction; 33 were in agriculture; 10 in extraction industries; 31 in manufacturing and 31 in gas, electricity and water supply and sewerage, waste and recycling.

However, do these figures really help us identify the likelihood of a fatal accident? Arguably, one should look at HSE’s statistics for fatal injuries to employees, self-employed and workers in Great Britain by the kind of accident, severity of injury and main industry

This enables us to look at the number of people exposed and fatalities per 100,000 employees. In doing this, we can see that of the four top causes of death, the biggest culprit (40) was falls from height, followed by 31 that were struck by a moving, including flying/falling, object; 22 from being trapped by something collapsing/overturning; and 21 struck by a moving vehicle.

All of this data is very helpful in highlighting the activity being undertaken at the moment of the accident but it doesn’t take into consideration important factors that may impact on the statistics such as the worker’s age, the hours they worked, any language difficulties they may have, where they live and also their housing conditions, which can impact on their work.

Also, unless we dig deeper and do further research, we don’t really know how many of these fatalities were caused by a failure to plan, manage and comply with health and safety procedures.

Was the death caused by a lack of training, understanding and supervision, all of which are requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, or the absence of a risk assessment? How many were due to contributory negligence and how many were due to equipment failure and caused by the employer failing to comply with health and safety?

All of this valuable information can be found by looking through HSE’s investigation reports, coroners’ verdicts and trial transcripts. But realistically, how many safety professionals would be prepared to go to these lengths to uncover this material?

So what’s wrong with the current approach? Let’s take legislation first. When HSE published figures showing that 25 per cent of all fatalities were associated with falls from height in the early 2000s, the Government introduced the Working at Heights Regulations 2005. Over the following years, HSE figures revealed that some 25-30 lives had been saved each year due to the introduction of the regulations.

However, the number of deaths has plateaued at around 40 over the past five years and, as a percentage of all occupational fatalities, they are now at their highest – 31 per cent.

Overall, the number of employees and others that have been killed due to work-related activities has been reduced by 85 per cent over the past 40 years, which may be attributed to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and its associated regulations. But would more legislation reduce this number further? I am not convinced it would.

Also, there is no new legislation pending – except of course the Deregulation Bill, which seeks to remove ‘burdens’ on certain self-employed workers by exempting them from health and safety law.

Self-employed figures show that there has been hardly any variation in the number of self-employed people being killed over the past 10 years, which stands around the 50 mark.

Many are lone workers, and few have the peer pressure or corporate emphasis on health and safety or perhaps the training. They are more likely to have to get the job done on time to make ends meet and therefore may be prone to take short cuts and use inferior equipment. For this reason, I can’t see this figure declining, and it may even rise as more people look to run their own business.

The next sticking point for me is the theoretical approach. When people started to look seriously into industrial accidents and prevention, one of the leading exponents was H W Heinrich and his accident triangle. This postulated from data that for every fatality, there were some 10 serious accidents/injuries and for these there were some 300 less serious and 600 of so called near misses.

The argument goes that if we were to put all of our effort into dealing with near misses and prevent the less serious accidents, then we will reduce the chance of a fatal accident. The problem is that many practitioners struggle to get all the near misses reported. Today’s figures would equate to something in the order 1:1,560: 2430 – so many more near misses and less serious before we begin to touch the fatalities.

Also, while we may have our fair share of incidents such as slips, trips and falls, fortunately few companies will experience a fatality. Therefore, the majority of safety professionals will focus on the most significant accidents that their company has and work hard to keep those figures down.

Are we really trying to prevent a fatality? Does it follow that if we follow Heinrich et al and deal with the other accidents in the triangle we will statistically not have a fatality? Even if we do not have many of the serious accidents highlighted above e.g. falls from height, do we still make an extra effort to tackle the areas where fatalities are known to occur?

The other flaw in the current approach is the threat of prosecution. It could be argued that the fear of prosecution is a strong motivator for preventing fatalities but if this is the case, why are they still happening? I suspect that most companies just don’t think it will happen to them.

In March 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) charged an employer with killing under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, the fourth prosecution announced in as many months.

The recent spate of charges begs the question of whether the three convictions under this legislation have given the CPS the confidence to try to bring more cases, or whether it is simply trying harder to achieve its original forecast of 10 to 13 prosecutions a year when the law first came into force? Although the number of prosecutions is increasing, they have so far all failed to test the scope of the new law.

By introducing this act, which came into force on 6 April 2008, the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that the legal test for the former common law offence of corporate manslaughter did not reflect the reality of decision-making in large organisations, and “therefore failed to provide proper accountability”. A charge would only stick if a “directing mind” at the top of the company was responsible for the events that led to the death.

For large companies, it was a seemingly impossible task for the prosecution to link the actions of a “directing mind” to the death. It’s not that there are no big suspects. Workplace deaths may have decreased but the same failures and lack of controls can still be found now, as before April 2008, for both small and large organisations.

However, five years after its introduction, no large firms have been brought to court. Is it simply that there are no such cases warranting a prosecution, or does the law not fit larger organisations?

To sum up, there is no evidence to suggest that a significant reduction in deaths at work from accidents, as opposed to activities causing ill health, is going to occur.

Until we thoroughly investigate the aetiology of each fatality and resolve the safety/management issues around them, I do not see how we can continue to reduce the number of deaths in the workplace.

Mervyn French is a retired professional health and safety adviser

The views expressed in this comment piece are those of the author and do not represent those of SHP.

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Vince Butler
Vince Butler
9 years ago

I agree with Mr French, death rates for accidents within workplaces have hit a plateau, in future years there will some minor reductions and unfortunately increases, but likely by small numbers or percentages. The points are well made about training, risk assessments, supervision having a contributory cause to deaths. It would be reasonably expected that in an inquisition to determine what went wrong after a death at work, all of the issues of planning and controlling work would be exhaustively investigated and expertly considered. This article does not (as many others) look at the biggest cause of ‘death at work… Read more »

Dominic Cooper
Dominic Cooper
9 years ago

Very Well Said. I am glad you have brought attention to this issue. Hopefully it will help to focus people’s minds on identifying potential Serious Injuries & Fatalities, before the event occurs..