Major increases in levels of self‑reported work-related ill health (SWI) were recorded in the latest statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The number of people in Great Britain who believed they were suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their current or past work rose by 10% in 20006/07, compared with the previous year and the number of working days lost because of illness attributed to work rose by a quarter.
The stark figures, contained in the eighth HSE survey on self-reported work-related illness and injuries,1 reverse the overall trend in incidence and prevalence of all main categories of SWI that had been recorded over the past four years (see chart).
There was a 25% increase in working days lost attributed to workplace ill health and injury compared with the previous year: a total of 36 million in 2006/07 compared with just over 30 million in 2005/06. Work-related illness accounted for 30 million days of the 2006/07 total compared with 24.3 million days in the 2005/06 survey.
The incidence rate for work-related illness was the worst since the 2001/02 survey, reversing the downward trend of the intervening years.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and “stress, depression or anxiety” (SDA) remain by far the most important categories of work-related ill health in the SWI survey. In terms of prevalence, MSDs – with 1,144,000 people affected – were more common than SDA, which 530,000 people attributed to their work. In terms of new cases, these two categories were equally represented, with 247,000 and 245,000 cases respectively.
These two “common health problem” categories also accounted for similar proportions of total working days lost in 2006/07: an estimated 13.8 million days lost due to SDA compared with 10.7 million days due to MSD complaints.
The average annual days lost per case, however, was far greater for SDA, which, at 30.2 days, was statistically significantly higher than that for musculoskeletal disorders, at 16.7 days.
The SWI survey does not provide “hard” scientific data and responses to the questionnaires and interviews involved, “depend on lay people’s perceptions of medical matters”, the HSE acknowledges by way of qualification of these results. “Such perceptions are of interest and importance in their own right. However, they cannot be taken directly as an indicator of the ‘true’ extent of work-related illness. People’s beliefs may be mistaken: they may ascribe the cause of illness to their work when there is no such link and may fail to recognise a link with working conditions when there is one, eg possible multi-factorial nature of ill health or delay between exposure and ill health.”
All regions of Great Britain saw statistically significant increases in occupational ill health incidence rates in 2006/07. However, the HSE figures indicate that the highest rates remain in Wales (where 6% of respondents reported that they were suffering from occupational ill health) followed by Scotland and England (5.2% and 5%, respectively).
The decline in occupational injuries seen in recent years continued in 2006/07. The incidence rate of reportable non‑fatal injuries to workers remained stable between 1999/2000 and 2002/03 but has since fallen, reaching 1,000 per 100,000 workers in 2006/07.
However, this improvement was outweighed – in terms of working days lost – by the increased levels of occupational ill health. Thus the HSE notes that the overall increase in days lost per worker due to ill health or injury in 2006/07 was entirely due to increased numbers of ill-health cases.
1. Self-reported work-related illness and workplace injuries in 2006/07: results from the Labour Force Survey, May 2008, www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/publications/swi.htm?ebul=stats/may-08&cr=01.