Annual statistics (2020/21) for work-related fatalities were released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on 7 July 2021. These exclude those arising from occupational disease, including COVID-19.[i]
To read our analysis of last year’s 2019/20 statistics, see our article in edition 310 of BC Disease News (here).
Provisional data for the latest reporting period (between April 2020 and March 2021) shows that 142 workers suffered fatal injuries at work (29 more than last year), meaning that, for every 100,000 workers, 0.43 died.
Broadly speaking, though, incidence of workplace fatalities has broadly plateaued in recent years:
Historically, Britain has consistently boasted one of the lowest fatal injury rates internationally, as is demonstrated by the graph, below:
Around 40-years ago, workers had a significantly higher risk of dying in the course of their employment (or as a consequence of it) – in 1981, there were 495 workplace fatalities (2.1 deaths per 100,000).
At the turn of the millennium, in 1999/00, annual workplace deaths were halved to 220 (0.8 deaths per 100,000).
Over the past decade (2011/12 to 2020/2021), the average number of occupational fatalities has been 143 (0.46 deaths for every 100,000 workers).
The 2020/2019 figures convey a return to levels previously recorded in 2018/19, which confirms that HSE was correct when it described last year’s record low deaths as a ‘natural fluctuation’, as opposed to a ‘major shift in the inherent dangerousness of workplaces’.
That being said, the Executive, this year, considers the data to be of some magnitude, as the novel coronavirus pandemic has had a ‘significant effect’ on the UK labour market (e.g. mandatory cessation of operations, new working practices, homeworking, furlough, etc.) and, thus:
‘The number of workplace deaths in 2020/21 should be seen in the context of these challenges in the labour market this year’.
Worker Deaths by Industry
The ‘construction’ sector claimed the most deaths (39) in 2020/21, with the ‘agriculture, forestry and fishing’ industry occupying 2nd place (34). The former represented a fatality rate 4-times higher than the average industry rate. However, the latter continues to account for a large share of the annual fatality count, with the highest rate of fatal injury of all the main industry sectors (around 20-times higher).
Worker Deaths by Activity
The most common types of activities attributed to deaths at work were as follows (from most to least common):
- Falling from a height – 35 (12% increase from last year);
- Being struck by a moving vehicle – 25 (4% increase from last year);
- Being struck by a moving object – 17 (6% increase from last year);
- Being trapped by an overturning/collapsing structure – 14 (no change from last year);
- Making contact with moving machinery – 14 (27% increase from last year);
- Coming into contact with electricity – 9 (800% increase from last year);
- Other kinds of accident – 8 (100% increase from last year);
- Being injured by an animal – 7 (250% decrease from last year);
- Slipping, tripping or falling on the same level – 3 (50% increase from last year);
- Exposure to, or contact with, a harmful substance – 2 (100% increase from last year);
- Striking against something fixed or stationary – 2 (100% increase from last year);
- Acts of violence – 2 (100% increase from last year);
- Drowning or asphyxiation – 2 (more than last year); and
- Exposure to an explosion – 1 (50% decrease from last year);
- Exposure to fire – 1 (no change from last year);
- Injury through handling, lifting or carrying – 0 (no change from last year).[iii]
Worker Deaths by Age
Occupational deaths in the ‘aged 60 and over’ category equated to 29% of the total number of fatalities in 2020//21. However, this category constitutes just 11% of the total Great British workforce.
It is thought that the UK and Australia still have the highest mesothelioma rates worldwide because of heavy, uncontrolled use of amosite, otherwise known as ‘brown asbestos’, in the 1970’s. Amosite was subsequently banned in the UK, in 1985, along with crocidolite (‘blue asbestos’).
Owing to this fact, the HSE’s mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain are a source of great insight, with the latest information being published earlier this month.[ii]
In 2019, 2,369 employees died from mesothelioma, as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos-containing materials. This is 3% (77) less than in 2018 (2,446), as was reported in our article circulated last year (here). It is also 7% less than the average number of deaths (2,540) over the period from 2012-2018.
The majority of these workers will have been employed in the construction industry, including carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Whilst the number of deaths among females (424) remain constant, deaths among males (1,945) are falling (9% down versus 2012-2018 average).
In 2019, there were also 2,025 cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), compared with 2,230, in 2018. There were 5 fewer (240) female cases assessed for the scheme in 2019, than in 2018 (245). Despite this decrease, the proportion of female-to-male IIDB assessments was 2% higher in 2019 than in 2018.
Past projections placed an average yearly figure of approximately 2,500 mesothelioma deaths as continuing ‘up to around 2020’ and this did indeed happen. Annual counts during the 2020s are expected to stabilise at present levels before starting to dip.
Mesothelioma mortality in individuals younger than 70-years-old is on the decline, with more than 50% of annual deaths now occurring among those aged 75 and above.
HSE considers that the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to have adversely affected the 2019 statistics, despite the fact that some deaths took longer to be registered because of it. It bases this presumption on the number of late registrations (by the March 2021 cut-off date) being ‘similar to the number expected based on patterns of late registrations in previous years’, i.e. there is no indication towards a backlog of unregistered mesothelioma deaths.
A more detailed assessment of HSE figures (including those pertaining to occupational disease) should be published in the later months of this year, in conjunction with the release of annual Health and Safety Statistics.
[i] ‘HSE releases annual workplace fatality figures for 2020/21’ (7 July 2021 HSE) <https://press.hse.gov.uk/2021/07/07/hse-releases-annual-workplace-fatality-figures-for-2020-21/> accessed 8 July 2021.
‘Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2021’ (7 July 2021 HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/pdf/fatalinjuries.pdf> accessed 8 July 2021.
[ii] ‘Mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, 2021’ (July 2021 HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/mesothelioma/mesothelioma.pdf> accessed 8 July 2021.