HSE statistics 2020/21 | More fatalities despite fewer people working?

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HSE statistics 2020/21 | More fatalities despite fewer people working?

Written by Nick Wilson on 16 July 2021

Few things drive home the importance of workplace health and safety like the HSE’s annual fatality statistics. And according to the regulator’s latest report, there is still more work to be done to ensure all employees return home safe and well at the end of each working day.

Provisional data shows that a total of 142 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2020/21. This brings the five-year average to 136 worker deaths per year.

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

  • 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%) of those killed at work were male. In addition, a disproportionate number of fatal injuries occurred to workers aged 60, who accounted for around 30% of deaths despite making up just 11% of the workforce.

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Worse than it appears?

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.

Despite the notable increase of 28% on last year’s total of 111, the HSE points out that the number of deaths in 2019/20 was particularly low compared to recent years. In a follow-up report, it suggested that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy may have been a “contributing factor”.

So, what’s the problem? Well, this is actually the first complete year which we know has been impacted by the pandemic. The latest report is based on data from the period March 2020 to March 2021, during which time absences, furlough, business closures, etc. meant that fewer people were in work.

Indeed, despite many commentators chalking up last year’s anomaly to the pandemic, the effects on the workplace would arguably have been minimal before March 2020, as most businesses didn’t revert to remote working until after the first lockdown announcement on 23 March 2020. Could this really have been the cause of such a dramatic decline in work-related deaths? 

The HSE seems to think this is possible, saying that “even prior to , many businesses would have been making adjustments, some earlier than others, particularly essential services such as healthcare.” However, this isn’t wholly convincing, and even if we accept that the pandemic was partly responsible for the lower number of fatalities in 2019/20, why haven’t we seen the same this year?

It’s worth noting that the HSE’s fatal injury statistics don’t include deaths from occupational exposure to coronavirus, nor has there been 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%.

While the full impact of coronavirus on fatal injury figures isn’t completely clear, one thing we do know is that the latest statistics are a sombre reminder of the worst possible outcome that can occur in the workplace. Employers must ensure that they are doing all that is reasonably practicable to protect workers and others affected by their work activities.

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