Highlighting Health at Work

In October 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published its latest statistical annual report on work-related injuries, fatalities and ill health for Great Britain for the period 2013/14.

The report was welcomed with great interest by those with an interest in work-related health, not least because it has been two years since comparable information on the subject has been collected. The HSE’s report for 2012/13 failed to feature updated occupational ill health figures for the period — as collected by relevant questions commissioned by the HSE in the Labour Force Survey (LFS) — a decision apparently made as a result of budgetary constraints.

The new figures for 2013/14, however, indicate that 2 million people told the LFS interviewers that they were suffering from an illness — either long standing or a recent health problem — which they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work. Of this 2 million, there were 535,000 new cases of work-related illness that had started in the previous 12 months. Comparable figures from the 2012/13 period are not available, for the reasons outlined above, but it is clear from the preceding figures for 2011/12 that the corresponding figure was 1.8 million people, representing a significant increase over the two-year period. Similarly, the new cases reported in 2011/12 were 452,000: again illustrating a rising trend compared with the figure of 535,000.

iStock_000006709008LargeAnalysing other figures available from the HSE, it can be noted that in 2013/14 around 4000 workers per 100,000 self-reported cases of work-related illness (new and existing cases). In 2011/12, the corresponding figure was 3660 per 100,000, representing a significantly higher figure than the last available figure two years ago.

Reacting to the new figures, a source at the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) bluntly said, “We’ve put safety first, at the expense of health.”

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said the figures painted “a worrying picture”, noting the rising number of people being made ill through work, and an end to the previous long-term downward trend in figures.

In this regard, indeed it should be noted that the longer term outlook on worker health is more favourable. In 2001/02, around 5000 workers per 100,000 self-reported cases of work-related illness (new and existing cases), which indicates significant long-term progress compared with the latest figure of 4000 mentioned above.

Deaths as a result of work-related illnesses

The HSE has a long and proud history of scrupulously recording each and every work-related accident and fatality in the workplace. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising to note that it was only in 2010 that the HSE started to issue estimates of the numbers of people who die each year from work-related illnesses. As a result, figures to analyse year-on-year trends for most deaths due to work-related ill health are not available.

However, the latest available estimates indicate that around 13,000 people die each year from work-related ill health, a figure mostly made up by 8000 occupational cancer deaths and 4000 deaths as a result of work-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as bronchitis and emphysema.

Commenting on the latest figures, Steve Perkins, Chief Executive of BOHS, the Chartered Society for worker health protection, compared the figure of 13,000 deaths with the latest number of 133 workers killed at work as a result of workplace accidents, and said, “That means the deaths caused by accidents represent only 1% of the total deaths caused by work. 99% of occupational mortality is attributable to disease.”

The big issues in work-related health iStock_000000736395XLarge

The HSE’s latest statistical annual report points out that 80% of the 535,000 new cases of work-related ill health were either musculoskeletal disorders or stress, depression and anxiety. The figure of 535,000 can be broken down as:

  • 244,000 attributable to stress, depression or anxiety
  • 184,000 to musculoskeletal disorders
  • 107,000 to other illnesses.

On the fatalities side, more than half of the 8000 cancer deaths were caused by past exposures to asbestos (either mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer).

In 2012, there were 2535 deaths from the disease, most of them caused by past occupational exposure to asbestos, up from 2311 in 2011.

Commenting on the asbestos issue, Jane White, Research and Information Services Manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said, “It is not right that people are contracting and dying from mesothelioma and other diseases while at work. We are very concerned about the high number of people dying from mesothelioma and that people are still being exposed today. More should be done to tackle this and all other cancers caused by workplace exposures.”

A massive financial and social burden

The HSE’s latest figures indicate that new cases of workplace illness cost around £8.6 billion. Of course, besides the financial costs, there are social and personal costs borne by society.

Commenting on the latest figures, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, said “Illness or injury caused by work not only leads to absence, it also leaves people suffering pain, disability and financial loss… It’s both a human tragedy and a false economy to continue with two million people living with an illness caused by work”.

New campaigns and future outlook

There is increasing evidence that work-related ill health is slowly but surely gaining prominence in the health and safety world. During 2014, the HSE launched two separate inspection initiatives under a new “Think Health” campaign, to tackle the unacceptably high levels of exposure to health hazards on UK building sites. The safety watchdog’s campaigns in June and then September/October of 2014 featured the slogan “Health as well as safety,” with a firm message to remind employers of their duties to actively manage the risks associated with work-related ill health. This was followed, in early October 2014, by another big campaign focusing on the dangers of asbestos faced by tradespeople.

Similarly, in November 2014, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) launched its “No Time to Lose” campaign, aimed at cutting the number of deaths from work-related cancers and raising awareness about the risks. As for forthcoming initiatives, the BOHS has pledged to launch a major new campaign on occupational lung disease in the spring of 2015.

Even work-related stress, that pervasive area of worker ill health, has benefited from a massive recent boost in awareness with the Healthy Workplaces Campaign for 2014 and 2015 run by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), and focusing on stress with the slogan, “Healthy workplaces manage stress”.

The cumulative effect of all these initiatives no doubt point to an increasing emphasis on ill health in the workplace and will hopefully improve future conditions for workers. It is clear that workplace health is moving out of the shadows, with far greater awareness around the issue.

The regulatory framework to enforce the management of work-related ill health is already in place and now we can increasingly expect to see the full range of the HSE’s enforcement actions focused on this area — from inspections and investigations, to prohibition and improvement notices, and ultimately prosecutions and fines.

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