Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the landmark ‘Robens Report’, which prompted passage of the Health and Safety at Work Act, in 1974, and the creation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in the following year, the latest annual statistics (2021/22) for work-related fatalities were released by HSE, on 6 July 2021.[i]
As usual, these statistics exclude deaths arising from occupational diseases or diseases arising from certain occupational exposures, including COVID-19.
To read our analysis of last year’s 2020/21 statistics (then provisional, but since finalised), see our article in edition 332 of BC Disease News (here).
Provisional data for the latest reporting period (between April 2021 and March 2022) shows that 123 workers suffered fatal injuries at work, meaning that, for every 100,000 workers, 0.38 died. 15% (22) fewer workers died in an occupational accident in 2021/22 than in 2020/21, but this difference was not deemed to be ‘statistically significant’ and could be explained by ‘natural variation’.
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 work (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 (2012/13 to 2021/2022), the average number of occupational fatalities has been 138.[ii]
The Executive acknowledges that, over the past few years, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced challenges to measuring employment, particularly in respect of workers that have spent time either permanently or temporarily on furlough.
Including furloughed workers in the 2020/21 and 2021/22 data had the effect of potentially overestimating the number of workers actually ‘at-work’ in these years compared to previous years and, in turn, underestimating the fatal injury rate. To account for labour market changes, deaths per 100 million hours worked were calculated as a ‘check and balance’ measure of the usual fatality rate.[iii]
Ultimately, this measure echoed the pattern of incidence rates per 100,000 workers and thus supported the initial conclusion that rates of fatal injury in both 2020/21 and 2021/22 were consistent with pre-pandemic levels.
Worker Deaths by Industry
The ‘construction’ sector claimed the most deaths (30) in 2021/22, with the ‘agriculture, forestry and fishing’ and ‘manufacturing’ industries occupying joint 2nd place (22).
Moreover, the rate of fatal injury for workers in the ‘agriculture, forestry and fishing’ sector was 21 times higher than the average rate (0.38 deaths per 100,000). Despite claiming a larger share of the annual fatality count, the rate of deadly injury in ‘construction’ was considerably lower, though still 4 times higher than the average rate.
Worker Deaths by Activity
The most common types of activity attributed to deaths at work were as follows (from most to least common):
- Falling from a height – 29 (17% decrease from last year);
- Being struck by a moving vehicle – 23 (8% decrease from last year);
- Being struck by a moving object – 18 (6% increase from last year);
- Making contact with moving machinery – 15 (7% increase from last year);
- Being trapped by an overturning/collapsing structure – 14 (no change from last year);
- Coming into contact with electricity – 9 (no change from last year);
- Drowning or asphyxiation – 4 (100% increase from last year);
- Exposure to fire – 2 (100% increase from last year);
- Other kinds of accident – 2 (75% decrease from last year);
- Striking against something fixed or stationary – 2 (no change from last year);
- Acts of violence – 1 (50% decrease from last year);
- Being injured by an animal – 1 (86% decrease from last year);
- Exposure to an explosion – 1 (no change from last year);
- Exposure to, or contact with, a harmful substance – 1 (50% decrease from last year);
- Slipping, tripping or falling on the same level – 1 (67% decrease from last year);
- Injury through handling, lifting or carrying – 0 (no change from last year).[iv]
Worker Deaths by Age
Occupational deaths in the ‘aged 60 and over’ category equated to 24% of the total number of fatalities in 2020/21. However, this category constituted just 11% of the total Great British workforce.
Normally, rate of fatal workplace injury increases with age and 2021/22 was no different from any other year. Workers aged 60-64 died from occupational injuries at a rate that was around twice the average rate across all age groups, while workers over the age of 65 died at a rate four times higher than the average rate.
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.
In 2020, 2,544 workers died from mesothelioma, as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos-containing materials. This is 6% (140) more than in 2019, in which 2,404 workers died. N.B. this figure was originally reported as 2,369 deaths last year, but was subsequently revised.[v] Mesothelioma mortality in 2020 is also a slight increase on the average number of fatalities (2,523) over the 8-year period from 2012-2019, but is consistent with statistical projections based on a statistical model.
The majority of deceased workers will have been employed in the construction industry, including carpenters, plumbers and electricians.
Breaking down mesothelioma deaths by sex, there were 2,085 male deaths in 2020. This represents a rise of 6% in comparison with 2019, but does not invalidate forecasts that annual male deaths should have started declining from 2020 (averaging 2,107 deaths from 2012 to 2019). Similarly, there was a rise of 7% of female deaths in 2020, as opposed to 2019. In total, 459 females died, which tallies with predictions that 400-500 females will die every year in the 2020s (averaging 416 deaths over the previous 8-years) and wane beyond that.[vi]
In 2020, there were also 1,910 cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), compared with 2,025, in 2019. Even though there was 6% fall in the total number of IIDB cases, there were 40 more (280) female cases assessed for the scheme in 2020, than in 2019 (240).
Past projections placed an average yearly figure of approximately 2,500 mesothelioma deaths as continuing ‘up to around 2020’ and this has indeed happened. Annual counts hereafter are expected to stabilise at present levels before starting to dip.
There is evidence of declining mesothelioma mortality among individuals younger than 65-years-old, with more than two-thirds of annual deaths among males and females having occurred among those aged 75 and above.
HSE considers that 2020 statistics on mesothelioma mortality may have been affected to some extent by the coronavirus pandemic. In its report, it reflected that:
‘A small number of individuals with mesothelioma and who developed COVID-19 may not have died in 2020 had pandemic not occurred. Conversely, delays in the death certification system could mean that a small number of additional 2020 deaths will be identified in the future’.
More HSE figures (including those pertaining to occupational disease) should be published in the later months of this year.
[i] ‘Workplace fatality figures published’ (6 July 2022 HSE) <https://press.hse.gov.uk/2022/07/06/workplace-fatality-figures-published/> accessed 11 July 2022.
[ii] <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/ridhist.xlsx> accessed 11 July 2022.
[iii] ‘Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2022’ (6 July 2022 HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/pdf/fatalinjuries.pdf> accessed 11 July 2022.
[iv] <http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/ridfatal.xlsx> accessed 11 July 2022.
[v] ‘Mesothelioma statistics for Great Britain, 2022’ (6 July 2022 HSE) <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/mesothelioma/mesothelioma.pdf> accessed 11 July 2022.
[vi] <https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/tables/meso01.xlsx> accessed 11 July 2022.