The United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has released its annual statistics for 2020/21, giving valuable insights into the trends around injuries and health issues in the workplace. These data points are essential reading for anyone working in the health and safety arena, and are particularly valuable to industrial safety managers, who can use the information to identify areas in their own organisations that can be made safer for staff and visitors.
As a leading industrial equipment provider, with a keen interest in safety products and equipment, we have taken this opportunity to provide our own key takeaways and analysis of the statistics, as well as comparing them to previous years for more in-depth trend identification.
Unless otherwise stated, all references to statistics are taken from the relevant annual report, available on the HSE website here.
Let’s get the inevitable out of the way first. COVID-19 has, of course, had an impact on the UK workforce. Of the 1.7 million people in the year that reported work-related ill health, 93,000 were suffering from COVID-19 that they believed may have been due to exposure in the workplace. This equates to just under 5.5% of all work-related illnesses – a not insignificant number. How can you better protect your staff? Installing sanitising stations, marking out social distancing guidelines and providing masks are all still highly recommended.
Of course, those figures are purely for those that contracted the virus and believed it was from the workplace. With many companies providing working from home opportunities, the true impact of COVID-19 also extends into other areas – musculoskeletal issues, stress, depression and anxiety, and other types of illness are also linked to COVID-19 with 645,000 workers reporting new instances or worsened symptoms due to the pandemic.
Mental health issues are the most commonly reported work-related health problem by a large margin. For the second consecutive year, these issues accounted for at least half of all maladies: In years 2017/18 and 2018/19, the figure was an already very high 44% – it rose to 51% for 2019/20 and then saw a slight drop to 50% last year. The only notable systemic change to the national workforce in these latter two years is the emergence of COVID-19, so it is fair to assume that the rise is linked. Of the 645,000 reported new issues or worsened symptoms that were related to COVID-19, a massive 70% were mental health-related.
What are the factors? General stress levels have presumably been higher across the board, with concerns about on-site work causing anxiety among those expected to work as usual, and possible ‘cabin fever’ related stresses for those required to work from home. Trying to reverse this trend is a difficult task: flexible working hours, improved working environments and mixed home/site work are good places to start, but not suited for many roles – particularly in industrial environments like manufacturing, logistics and construction.
Musculoskeletal issues are the second most common workplace-related health issue, coming in at 28% of all cases for the year 2020/21. This is actually the lowest percentage of recent years: 2017/18 saw 35%, 2018/19 was 37%, and there was a steep drop to 30% in 2019/20. These numbers can be misconstrued, however – there were actually a higher number of new cases of musculoskeletal issues than in the recent years (dating back to at least 2017).
As with previous years, the leading cause of musculoskeletal issues stemming from the workplace are manual handling, awkward or tiring positions and keyboard work or repetitive action. 470,000 workers in total reported musculoskeletal issues, with 162,000 being new cases; up by 10,000 on the previous year.
Why are there so many new cases? With people working from home, in many cases they are unable to avail themselves of the same preventive measures that have been implemented in the majority of workplaces: adjustable chairs and desks, wrist rests, laptop or monitor risers, anti-fatigue matting, etc. This represents something of a step backwards industry-wide, and can be mitigated by providing the same ergonomically designed equipment and furniture that is supplied on site to those expected to work off-site over the long term.
The non-fatal injury category of the HSE statistics includes a relatively broad spectrum of accident types – everything from tripping over to acts of violence can be the cause of this type of injury. In the year 2019/20 (data is not available for 2020/21, although can reasonably be assumed to be similar), non-fatal injuries in the workplace resulted in 6.3 million missed work days, with around a quarter of the accidents needing more than seven days of absence for recovery – more than enough reason for businesses of all types to take them seriously.
Every year, the statistics say the same thing – the most common cause of a workplace injury, without a shadow of a doubt, is the slip, trip or fall. In fact, in the year 2020/21, this kind of accident accounted for almost exactly one-third of the reported 441,000 non-fatal injuries, which is a small increase on the preceding two years. Slips and trips are never going to completely disappear, unfortunately, but safety products like anti-slip floor matting, hazard warning signs and even entrance matting can all play a large part in mitigating the risks.
The second most common cause of non-fatal injuries in the workplace is manual handling – the carrying, lifting or otherwise manipulating of objects. Eighteen per cent of reported injuries were down to this cause in the last year, down slightly from 20% and 19% in the previous years. Accelerating this decline is essential, particularly on industrial sites where productivity can come to a near-complete stop if a key worker is injured. Good, frequent training on manual handling best practice is crucial, and the deployment of equipment to assist workers (sack trucks, dollies, trolleys, etc.) also has a marked impact on the frequency of these injuries.
Working at height, or more specifically falling from height, accounted for 8% of the non-fatal workplace injuries for the year – a number largely consistent with the previous few years. Once again, training is the key to reducing this number, although safety barriers, scissor lifts, safety harnesses and using the right type of ladder can also have a large impact.
Injuries in the workplace (manual handling, repetitive strain, slips and trips, etc) were statistically higher in the traditionally more laborious jobs: agriculture, forestry and fishing, construction, manufacturing, logistics/transport and food service/accommodation were all above average. Figures for these industries will probably always be higher than those for the general workforce due to the nature of the work: if you stand or walk all day, it stands to reason that you are more likely to trip or slip than someone seated all day, for example.