How safe are UK workplaces?

Occupational health practitioners in the UK keenly examine national work accident statistics, but the statistics do not enable the safety of UK workplaces to be compared against other European countries. That is where Eurostat, the European Union’s (EU) statistical agency, can prove useful.

Although there are differences in data collection between old member countries, let alone the new ones, the comprehensive work accident statistics released by Eurostat, covering 1998-2001, make uncomfortable reading for UK health and safety experts.

Serious accidents per 1,000 workers are rated at 100 – for 2001, the UK’s index rose to 110 (although falling to 92 for fatal accidents). By contrast, improvements were made in eastern European countries not known for their health and safety expertise, such as Hungary (whose 100 index fell to 86), and in Poland (to 78), Lithuania (85), Slovakia (84), and the Czech Republic (91). In the old 15-member richer EU, Denmark performed the best (new index, 82), followed by Belgium and Austria (both at 83).

TUC senior policy adviser, Hugh Robertson, says the UK’s comparatively poor record could partly be explained by the recent construction boom, which has increased the workforce in this comparatively unsafe sector.

“We’re meant to be trying to get a 10 per cent reduction in serious work accidents by 2010 (compared with 2000) and we haven’t,” he says, citing the Government’s ‘Revitalising Health and Safety’ targets.

Robertson has called for an increase in reductions to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) general workplace inspection manpower, which he says was being cut from 600 to 550. “We spend 16 times as much on compensation as we do on preventing injuries and that’s stupid,” he says.

He also says that UK-only figures showed a ‘plateauing’ of accident rates, falling 2.4 per cent (per 100,000 workers) for incidents causing more than three days’ absence from 2001-2 to 2002-3, while rising 1.9 per cent for ‘major’ injuries, such as broken legs and finger amputations.

Eurostat’s report – using figures culled from various sources, such as its sister EU agency, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions – does not include effective country-to-country comparisons on raw accident data because these figures are still collected differently, even in the old, non-enlarged EU.

For example, some countries – such as the UK – record accidents via their labour inspection systems, while others – such as Germany and France – note insurance claims. As it is more likely that someone will make a claim than contact the local labour office, it is perhaps unsurprising the statistics show Germany has more dangerous workplaces than the UK, even using adjustments for over- or under-reporting, which Eurostat officials admit are estimates.

This fact of statistical life is underlined by the Law Society, which suggests that compensation claims can, and do, tell a different story. It said that there was a 2.6 per cent increase in the number of personal injury claims in 2003, but that this was mostly because of an increase in industrial disease-related claims from workers such as miners and those suffering from asbestosis. The number of accident-related claims “remained largely static,” said the Law Society.

That aside, within its bloc, the UK appears to perform well – at around 1,750 incidents causing four or more days’ absence per 100,000 workers for 2001, (the most recent year for which comparative figures are available for the old 15 member EU). Compare that with The Netherlands, at around 3,600 per 100,000 workers, and Denmark, at around 2,700 (rather ironic given its good performance in the accident improvement data table), and the UK’s record looks OK. Norway (in the survey as a member of the EU-linked European Economic Area) performs even worse at 4,000 per 100,000.

But accident rate figures, even comparative ones, do not tell the whole story about problems or improvements in workplace health and safety. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has one key criticism: accidents are ‘lagging indicators’ of difficulties – they fail to pick up the workplace problems before an accident happens.

As a result, they have been pressing the HSE to produce more in depth and sophisticated figures on the health and safety ‘inputs’ being introduced by companies, such as risk assessments and training.

Occupational safety adviser at RoSPA, Roger Bibbings, says: “You need to take a rounded view of performance.” Part of the problem is that in health and safety, “the good get better and the not very good stay the same”; broader statistical indicators on precautions might indicate where extra work by the HSE and others would pay dividends in reducing accident rates. There cannot be change if you don’t reach the 20 per cent of businesses giving you 80 per cent of the problems.”

Of course, looking at the long term, these statistical concerns pale against the undeniable fact that offices, construction sites, factories and farms in the UK and other western European countries are much safer places to work today than they were in the 1970s. In Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety in Britain to 2010 and Beyond, issued by the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) last February, HSC chairman, Bill Callaghan, was keen to stress the two-thirds reduction in work fatalities since that decade.

However, that paper commits the HSC to achieving the ‘Revitalising Health and Safety’ targets, which compared with the Eurostat figures, show that there is much work to be done. Apart from the targets highlighted by the TUC, the HSC is also committed to reduce the rate of work-related ill health by 20 per cent and cut working days lost to health and safety failures by 30 per cent.

Looking at Eurostat’s figures, there is a problem. Year-on-year rises in the UK’s serious work accident rates have been sustained since 1998, rising from a base 100 index that year to 106 in 1999 and 2000, and then 110 in 2001. This contrasts with the mid-1990s, which saw a significant improvement in safety, with the index falling from 127 in 1994, to 102 by 1997, a trend that rather uncomfortably follows the switch of government from Conservative to Labour. The figures also compare unfavourably with Germany, France and Italy, which have all seen a pre-1998 improvement in serious accident figures sustained in the following years.

Although the Labour Government could take succour from the fatal accident figures, these are hardly consistent: they fell to an index of 92 in 2001, but had risen to 106 in 2000 (from the 1998 – 100 base).

Indeed, RoSPA warns against using fatal accident figures as an effective guide to health and safety performance. Bibbings says: “There are clearly problems with using such small numbers and interpretation of such small numbers. Any more people killed year on year is extremely worrying, but we need to be careful. There are many factors that can affect fluctuations in fatal accident figures.”

One problem is that fatal accident figures grab more media spotlight than statistics for other less dramatic accidents, heightening their importance in political terms. Not only that, but the HSE has wilfully and formally attached the assessment of its performance to these figures (along with those for serious accidents and those causing significant periods of absence).

However, according to the Eurostat report, what may be more illuminating is that the UK population is much more stressed than nine of its continental counterparts. Also – according to older figures from 1999 – 30.5 per cent of UK men with work health problems linked them to stress. In Italy, it was 12.6 per cent, Portugal was 15.2 per cent, and the Spanish reported just 7.3 of working males with stress health problems. The position with UK women was even worse, with 36.5 per cent of those suffering from serious work health problems blaming stress. Only Portuguese women came close to this (34.3 per cent). Other countries (also including Luxembourg, Sweden, Finland and Greece) had much more relaxed female workers.

So what is being done about stress? Well, aside from the HSE standards on stress published in the UK recently, the EU as a whole is addressing the problem of stress, with EU worker and business federations joining forces to try to reduce workplace stress across Europe.
An agreement, which was signed by the European Trade Union Confederation, the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations in Europe, the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, and the Public Sector Employers’ Federation, commits them to increasing the understanding of work-related stress among employers and staff, suggesting strategies for identifying resulting problems and dealing with them. These guidelines will be handed down to national members of these federations and then to unions and employers.

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