IOSH has urged employers to continually review their OSH measures and ensure they are ‘proportionate and fit for purpose’ after Great Britain's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published its annual figures for work-related ill-health, injury and enforcement, which highlight the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on British workers’ health.
In recent years, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the rate of self-reported work-related ill health had been broadly flat, according to the HSE’s Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2021. However, the latest figures reveal that the rate per 100,000 workers was higher than the 2018/19 pre-coronavirus levels.
Published in the run-up to Christmas 2021, the summary reveals that 1.7 million people sustained a work-related illness (new or long standing) in Great Britain for the 2020-21 period, around half of which were related to stress, depression and anxiety (822,000) workers. The estimates, based on self-reports from the Labour Force Survey, also show that 28% were musculoskeletal disorders (470,000 workers).
To better understand the contribution of the coronavirus pandemic to work-related illness, the HSE also developed two new measures and found that, during the same period, 93,000 people self-reported catching COVID-19, which they believe may have been from exposure to the virus at work. Of these, 52,000 worked in the human health and social work sector.
In addition, 645,000 workers reported that their work-related illness (new or long standing) was caused or made worse by the pandemic. Of these, 70% were cases of stress, depression or anxiety (451,000 workers).
The HSE notes that the 12-month period covered by the statistics coincided with the first national lockdown and the introduction of a furlough scheme. This, and other impacts on data collection, meant that the latest figures do not include new data on working days lost and the associated economic cost for this period.
Importantly, the HSE says that it has not been possible to determine whether some of the people who reported a coronavirus ill-health condition would have developed and reported an ill-health condition had pre-pandemic working practices continued. As a result, it is ‘not possible to assess the scale of work-related ill-health independent of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.’
'These statistics help to inform the measures, HSE, employers, policy-makers and workers themselves need to take to ensure everyone can go home from work safe and well’
Sarah Albon, the HSE’s chief executive, said the HSE had worked differently to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic, which included implementing a Covid Spot Check programme.
Despite coronavirus’ impact on the data collection, she noted: ‘These annual statistics are important to give us a clear picture of the health and safety risks faced by workers… and help to inform the measures, HSE, employers, policy-makers and workers themselves need to take to ensure everyone can go home from work safe and well.’
Sarah added that the latest figures on work-related stress reinforced the HSE’s concerns around the scale of the issue in the workplace.
Prior to the pandemic, the HSE notes that the ‘rate of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety had shown signs of increasing’. The latest figures reveal that the rate per 100,000 workers was higher than the 2018/19 pre-coronavirus levels.
While workload, lack of support, violence, threats or bullying and changes at work were cited as the main causes prior to the pandemic, the HSE found that the effects of the pandemic had been a major contributory factor in the latest stats.
The HSE recently launched its new ‘Working Minds’ campaign, which aims to ‘help businesses recognise the signs of work-related stress and make tackling issues routine.’
Although the campaign is specifically targeted at six million workers in small businesses, the HSE is calling for a culture change across workplaces, so that employers treat psychological risks the same as physical risks in their risk management.
The HSE stats also reveal that an estimated 13,000 people died in 2020/21 due to past exposure at work, primarily to chemicals or dust. Of these, 12,000 were lung disease deaths. During the same period, there were 2,369 mesothelioma deaths in 2019, with a similar number of lung cancer deaths linked to past exposure to asbestos.
Self-reports from the Labour Force Survey revealed that 441,000 people had sustained a non-fatal injury at work during the same period. The 2020/21 rate per 100,000 workers was lower than the 2018/19 pre-coronavirus levels and fell more sharply than previously seen, according to the HSE’s statistics summary.
Ryan Exley, content developer at IOSH, said that many of the instances of ill health, injuries and death were preventable.
‘We urge all businesses to constantly review how they manage health and safety risks to ensure their measures are proportionate and fit for purpose,’ he said. ‘This is, of course, particularly important with Covid-19 control measures given the current surge of cases, but they must not take their eye off the ball with other risks.’
IOSH magazine has been keeping readers informed throughout the pandemic. Check out our coverage here.
IOSH has published guidance for businesses to help them manage risks relating to coronavirus, including preventing places from risk of transmission. The resources are available here.