Fatal accidents at work are becoming less common – but what can be done to keep driving the figures down further?
Safety and health practitioners spend their professional lives trying to reduce harm to employees and the public, with fatality prevention a top priority. So it must be dispiriting for some to see levels of fatal accidents plateauing in some countries and rising in others. What prospect is there for us to make meaningful reductions in national statistics, and is a world without work-related fatalities anything more than a pipe dream?
In 2014, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published its first figures for global work injuries and illness, including an estimated total of 352,769 fatal accidents for 2010. By 2017, when it published the next figures – for 2014 – the total had risen to 380,500. The 8% jump partly reflects increasing levels of world employment and refined estimation of deaths in countries that do not publish official statistics – still, it’s hardly heartening for anyone hoping to see the end of workplace deaths.
Even in the UK, which has a low fatal accident rate relative to most countries, there were signs of a levelling-off after decades of improvement. The total of 111 work deaths (excluding road fatalities) in 2019-20 was the lowest ever recorded. The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) notes that the drop of 38 deaths on the previous 12 months may only partly be explained by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many workplaces begin to close at the end of the period. But, overall, says the HSE’s statistical release, this latest drop could have been caused by natural variation and ‘may not reflect any major shift in the inherent dangerousness of workplaces’. Although it is about one-fifth of the level of the late 1980s, at about 0.5 per 100,000 workers, the death rate has been broadly flat for the past seven years.
A lot of the fatal accidents we see are underpinned by poor decision-making
Getting the message across
Dr John Rowe heads the HSE manufacturing and utilities unit. He says the UK regulator is not complacent about the fatal accident total and maintains downward pressure through various channels, especially by trying to reach the small businesses in agriculture, construction and manufacturing that account for more than two-thirds of workplace fatalities.
‘We put a lot of our efforts into communications now,’ John says. ‘Not just dealing with duty holders face to face but trying to find effective ways of using the media. A big way of getting to SMEs is through social media.’ Supply chain influence is another lever. ‘We look to larger companies to take the lead, to influence their supply chains in a positive way,’ he says.
John adds that the reminders to businesses to manage potentially fatal risks in sectors such as construction and agriculture continue. ‘In both of those industries it’s pretty clear – falling off something or being hit by a moving vehicle are the things that are most likely to kill you,’ he says.
According to Kevin Myers CBE, president of the International Association of Labour Inspection, it gets harder for national regulators and other stakeholders to significantly reduce injury figures as the rate goes down. ‘As you approach zero, the amount of progress you get for the same level of investment gets less and less,’ he says.
John agrees: ‘The ill health statistics dwarf fatality statistics and that is the space that we in HSE, pandemic aside, are occupying and trying to make a difference in now. We are never going to stop the focus on fatal injuries, but we have to balance our time in terms of where we think the greatest benefits are.’
ISSA and IOSH unite: Vision Zero training
‘We have the expertise, they have the intent,’ says IOSH’s Alan Stevens of the institution’s new agreement to support and accredit Vision Zero trainers. The Vision Zero programme has now grown ‘to a size where ISSA, as a social security association, isn’t geared up, as IOSH is, to administer a group of trainers in excess of 1000’, explains Alan, who also chairs the education and training section of ISSA’s prevention division.
To gain the new accreditation, all trainers must have a minimum of two years’ OSH experience – either training or as a practitioner – or a Level 3 OSH qualification. They must also be members of a recognised membership body such as IOSH. Those who have already been providing Vision Zero training can opt to submit their own course materials and have them evaluated and approved.
The other option, for existing and new trainers, is a six-hour Train the Trainer course and then the opportunity to use a complete training package developed by IOSH and ISSA, including training notes that are updated regularly on IOSH’s portal, digital workbooks and delegate certificates. Materials are available in English but IOSH will translate them into other languages if there is enough demand.
Accreditation is not compulsory, Alan says, but ‘it gives that extra layer of validity’ to the growing number of organisations signing up to the programme. ‘We are assuring companies of the quality of the work they will receive if they engage with an accredited Vision Zero trainer who we have vetted,’ he explains.
Alan says the tie-up supports all three pillars of IOSH’s WORK 2022 strategy: collaborate, influence and enhance. ‘Through collaboration with organisations such as ISSA we can influence the agenda, and through the work we do supporting this group we help enhance the profession and the people they serve, so it’s really in the sweet spot.’
Automatic for the people
The next development likely to prompt a step-change in the fatalities rate will be a structural one, John believes. ‘A lot of the fatal accidents we see are underpinned by decisions made at very short notice,’ he says. ‘As we move towards more automation, we are going to see the human [element] removed from a lot of those decisions. I think that will lead to another decrease in fatal injuries.’
Mechanisation is also the focus of a campaign to drive down work fatalities in the US, where the work death rate has risen slightly after falling by about two-thirds over the past 50 years. The National Safety Council’s Work to Zero programme, launched in early 2019 and steered by a 54-strong advisory council of OSH practitioners, academics and technology specialists, was tasked by its funders with ‘eliminating death in the workplace through the use of safety technology’.
As you approach zero fatalities, the amount of progress you get for the same level of investment gets less and less
‘We are doing research to understand what the most promising safety technologies are, what the best practices are for adopting those into the workplace, and education to help employers understand how to adopt them,’ explains Work to Zero’s director, Emily Whitcomb. ‘We want to do pilot studies with companies that are considering implementing technologies but need that little bit of extra help.’
The project’s emphasis on fatality prevention has led it to explore substitutive technologies for the most hazardous activities. ‘One example is drones for work at heights,’ Emily says. ‘That’s the number-one cause of non-roadway fatalities. If we can send a drone up and keep the worker’s feet on the ground, that eliminates the risk for them.’
Other initiatives include studying wearable monitoring equipment of factors that contribute to fatal accidents, such as fatigue. How the project measures the effectiveness of each new technology is under discussion – ‘One of our struggles is that fatality prevention is hard to measure,’ Emily notes – but it is likely to use leading indicators such as the number of times human operators were separated from potentially fatal hazardous situations, including confined-space entry.
Vision Zero: leading indicators
Gerard Zwetsloot, ISSA consultant, says: It is difficult to manage improvements without having a good understanding of the existing situation, but measuring health, safety and wellbeing is problematic.
Organisations measure the frequency or absence of their negative opposites: incidents, illnesses, cases of burnout, or dissatisfaction. But 1000 days without an accident does not imply no accident will happen today or tomorrow; a life without COVID does not imply you cannot be infected today.
We know lagging indicators are neither good measures for health, safety and wellbeing (HSW), nor help to manage improvement. They reflect the past and have little predictive value.
Understandably, then, there is a growing interest in ‘leading indicators’ that reflect key organisational prevention processes, have a greater predictive value, and can support HSW improvements.
So far, a generally accepted set of leading indicators has not been available. However, several companies participating in the global Vision Zero campaign suggested that ISSA develop such a set that could also facilitate mutual benchmarking. There is also a growing interest in proactive forms of prevention.
In the development project, we decided to focus on proactive leading indicators that are useful for all three HSW aspects. The set of 14 proactive leading indicators for HSW is now available (see
link to ISSA guide below).
There is good evidence available for the effectiveness of these proactive leading indicators, at least for safety, and they can be used to help to identify strengths and weaknesses in HSW practices. That means each one of them can help to identify opportunities for (further) improvement, whether the organisation in question is already committed to Vision Zero or not.
Read Gerard's full article here.
The International Social Security Association (ISSA) is three years into a programme that is believed to be the first global initiative to reduce workplace fatalities, accidents and ill health. ISSA represents national social security bodies in 158 countries. Its Vision Zero programme was launched at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in 2017. By early November 2020, more than 13,000 employers worldwide had signed up to the programme.
Vision Zero asks signatories to implement the seven ‘golden rules’ of a strong OSH management system, including identifying hazards, investing in staff and showing clear leadership (see page 30).
‘This is the beauty of the programme,’ says Bernd Treichel, senior prevention expert at ISSA, who oversees Vision Zero. ‘Because it is only seven rules, everybody can talk about it. I know that some companies have organised workshops with their personnel to discuss what they are doing that is right and wrong based on the seven rules – areas such as risk assessment and machine guarding.’
ISSA has backed up the golden rules with a set of leading indicators, issued in 2019, that model good ways to implement each rule. The latest development, launched at the World Congress Digital Meeting on COVID-19 and OSH in October 2020 – which was organised as a substitute for the global congress event in Toronto that was postponed until 2021 – is a project run in conjunction with IOSH that will see the institution offering a new Train the Trainer course and accreditation for Vision Zero workplace trainers (see Vision Zero training, above).
While Vision Zero’s name makes plain ISSA’s goal of vanishing levels of accidents and ill health, Bernd admits that ISSA’s performance metrics for the initiative are not aligned to fatality or injury totals.
‘We cannot measure success in terms of accident rates,’ he says. ‘We basically measure success by the number of supporters and participants.’
The association takes pride in those 13,000 signatory companies and the fact that more than 100 events worldwide have been organised under the Vision Zero umbrella. Also, between August 2019 and October 2020, the Vision Zero website clocked up almost 76,000 visitors. The programme, he says, is designed ‘for everyone – company leaders as well as workers. The more people participate, the better the chance of reducing occupational accidents and diseases and improving wellbeing.’
For employers, concentrating on reducing fatal accident risk through programmes such as so-called ‘life-saving rules’ for activities including work at height and electrical maintenance, have brought their fatality rates to zero, or at least close to it.
Ralf Franke, Siemens’ global head of environment health and safety, oversaw an eight-year campaign – Zero Harm Culture at Siemens – that cut work-related deaths among the German multinational’s 350,000 employees from 19 in fiscal year 2012 to just one in 2020. As Ralf explains, the campaign was intended to influence the ‘safety mindset’ and rested on three tenets: the vision of achieving zero incidents, the value of ‘taking care of each other’, and the commitment to not compromise on safety and health. ‘For example, right from the beginning of the COVID crisis all our CEOs and board members messaged “health and safety of our employees comes first”,’ Ralf says.
Zero Harm Culture teams were convened at each site to conduct workshops and oversee improvement plans while the health and safety functions in each business unit ensured best practice was shared between units. The aim was to encourage management and employees to jointly take ownership in shaping their work environment. Allowing freedom to adapt the programme to local needs and conditions was key to its success, says Ralf: ‘I give strategic direction and guidance – the guardrails – but leave the freedom for local amendment.’
The programme triggered a tide of initiatives and helped propel the organisation along the Bradley curve of cultural maturity from a rules-based dependent state to an interdependent, mature one, in which employees look after themselves and each other. Zero Harm Culture at Siemens contributed to cutting the lost-time injury rate from above 0.8 to 0.3 per 200,000 hours worked by 2020.
While major employers such as Siemens, which have extensive resources at their disposal and programmes targeted at controlling the most serious hazards, have achieved impressive results in reducing fatalities to almost zero, they make only the smallest difference to that ILO figure of more than 350,000 deaths a year – almost 1000 a day.
So is it meaningful to talk in terms of zero fatalities at all? ‘It’s actually a journey, not a destination,’ says Kevin Myers. ‘It isn’t about zero as a target. Having an aspiration that we can and should try to prevent every fatal accident is not the same as saying we can have a realistic expectation that there will be no fatal accidents at work.’
Bernd adds: ‘Statistically, it is probably not possible to reduce fatalities to zero because there is always a certain level of risk associated with economic activity. That’s why we say it is a process.’
Alan Stevens, head of strategic engagement at IOSH, says that what is needed is a ‘Kaizen continuous improvement mindset’. Zero fatalities, and even zero accidents, is already happening at site level in a time-bound sense, he notes. ‘You go into a factory and they are proud of having no accidents for a certain time. It’s about how we extend that. It’s a bit like a marriage – you have to keep working at it. It’s not a line you cross and win the race.’