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Burying Bad News: Workplace Deaths Increased by 25% Last Year and That Doesn’t Include COVID-19

In a good day to bury bad news, the Health and Safety Executive announced a concerning rise in workplace deaths, while most of our attention was glued to England’s Euros match. Sian Norris reports

Construction workers labour on the Weston Homes Aura building site, Edgware, London. Photo: Alamy Stock Images

Burying Bad NewsWorkplace Deaths Increased By 25% Last Year And That Doesn’t Include COVID-19

While most of our attention was glued to England’s Euros match, the Health and Safety Executive announced a concerning rise in workplace deaths. Sian Norris reports

There was a 25% increase in workers killed in work accidents during 2020/21. 142 deaths were recorded – an increase of 29 from the previous year – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced last week. 

The HSE says that workplace deaths in 2019/20 were “low compared to recent years.” But the Hazards Campaign, which supports those campaigning for justice and safety at work, called the decision to release the data during England’s footballing success as “a good day to bury bad news.”

The campaign also raises the numbers released by the HSE “doesn’t include COVID-19 deaths”. The HSE explains that its numbers “do not include deaths arising from occupational exposure to disease, including Covid-19.”

Research conducted by Byline Times found that the UK has the highest healthcare worker deaths from the Coronavirus in Europe and the third highest in the world. Campaigners have criticised the UK Government for not providing healthcare workers with adequate personal protective equipment during the pandemic, putting lives at risk. 

A Complacent Health and Safety Executive? 

The Hazards Campaign has accused the HSE of being “complacent” during the pandemic, not least because there have been “no COVID prosecutions.” 

In a statement, the campaign’s Chair Janet Newsham said: “HSE isn’t carrying out sufficient preventive inspections, isn’t holding bad employers to account, and hasn’t sufficient resources to carry out the enforcement needed to protect workers and prevent these incidents.”

In response, HSE told Byline Times: “Our role in contributing to the national response to reduce COVID-19 transmissions and support economic recovery has been widely recognised and is being further bolstered by ‘Spot Check Support Officers’ who undertake spot check visits. Similar to the proactive telephone-based spot checks introduced earlier in the year, we have implemented the same process for spot check visits to workplaces, using third-party suppliers.”

The HSE has seen a real-terms budget cut of 50% since 2010, according to the Prospect Union that represents HSE inspectors. This has led to staffing cuts, including in “certain specialisms, such as personal protective equipment (PPE).” 

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, the UK Government provided £14 million emergency funding to the HSE to help it carry out “spot inspections”. But Prospect argued at the time that “recruiting and training enough new Inspectors inside a year is simply not possible, however much money you throw at HSE.”

In January, Construction News revealed how the HSE had hired private firms to carry out on-site inspections, for the first time in its history. Two contracts worth a total of £7m were awarded to debt-collection firms Engage (Marston Holdings) and CDER at the end of last year. The contract was intended to “bolster its workforce during the pandemic.”

The contracts did not go through an open procurement process, and were rewarded directly to the two firms under emergency Coronavirus regulations. 

The decision to outsource inspection work to private contractors was criticised by both the Prospect Union and the Hazards Campaign. Quoted in Construction News, Prospect’s General Secretary Mike Clancy said: “The continuing use of third-party contractor staff with very limited health and safety training to carry out basic clipboard assessments risks undermining the role of inspector and perpetuating the myth that health and safety is simply a box-ticking exercise.”

Clancy added: “The proper way to ensure we can keep workplaces safe, and have the flexibility to deal with the next pandemic – should one come along – is to properly fund the HSE and permanently increase the number of properly qualified inspectors.”

A spokesperson for HSE told Byline Times that using Engage and DER “for a limited time has allowed us to significantly scale up our proactive work to check, support and advise businesses on the implementation of the Public Health Safer Workplace guidance while supporting local authorities, and responding rapidly to local outbreaks. It also allowed inspectors and visiting staff to focus on more complex COVID-19 work in addition to investigating reported concerns and investigating incidents.“

COVID-19 Deaths

The HSE data on workplace fatality does not include deaths linked to the Coronavirus.  This is because fatal injury statistics in its annual report exclude “deaths from occupational diseases and diseases arising from certain occupational exposures.” 

By January 2021, 883 health and social care workers had died of Coronavirus in England and Wales. Nurses “had statistically significantly higher rates of death involving COVID-19 when compared with the rate of COVID-19 among those of the same age and sex in the population.”

The Office for National Statistics found that men working in “six of the nine major occupational groups had statistically significantly higher rates of death involving the Coronavirus when compared with the rate of COVID-19 among men of the same age in the population.” These occupational groups were generally jobs that cannot be done from home, such as “elementary occupations”, skilled trades occupations, and caring, leisure and service occupations. 

The decision to remove all COVID-19 related restrictions from 19 July is causing concern about the health and safety of workers in frontline positions, such as public transport and retail. Janet Newsham of the Hazards Campaign said the Government is “prepared to put young people’s lives at risk.”

She added that the Hazards Campaign “will continue to demand that the HSE and other enforcement bodies hold employers to account if they fail to control the transmission risks and putting the lives and health of workers and others at risk.”

“As the UK Government forces a return to work without the necessary controls in place to protect workers and prevent further infections and deaths, we need an HSE enforcing health and safety law not cosying up to employers or Government,” she added.

“HSE takes COVID-19 safety at work very seriously and it is playing a critical role in the national response to the pandemic,” a spokesperson told Byline Times. “We are facilitating swift responses by employers through direct persuasion, advice and reprimand, not slower legal proceedings. We have found the vast majority of businesses are willing to make necessary changes promptly and without the need for enforcement notices. HSE will continue to take enforcement action where appropriate, but the best use of its time and resource to ensure employers take the right action promptly is often to educate, persuade or require matters to be put right immediately.”

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