Tuesday 29 November 2022
Work-related ill-health and non-fatal injuries have risen, according to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) latest annual health and safety at work statistics for Great Britain, published last week.
The Labour Force Survey data, which covers up to March 2022, reveals that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for a little over half (51%) of the estimated 1.8 million self-reported work-related new or longstanding ill-health cases.
Although the total number of new cases has dropped from 451,000 to 372,000, the total number of workers reporting new and longstanding work-related stress, depression or anxiety has increased from 822,000 to 914,000, an 11.2% rise.
Over the same period, the number of workers who have sustained a non-fatal injury has increased from 441,000 to 565,000, a 28% rise.
The economic impact on the UK economy has been substantial, the HSE Cost Model reports. Work-related injuries and new cases of ill health (excluding long latency illness) totaled an estimated £18.8bn in 2019/20, with ill-health being the biggest contributor. Of the total figure, new ill-health cases accounted for £11.2bn.
Musculoskeletal disorders are the second largest contributor to new and longstanding cases of work-related ill health, accounting for 27%, the HSE has found, while other types of illness account for the remaining 22%.
The HSE notes that in recent years, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the rate of self-reported work-related ill health had reflected a broadly flat trend. However, the current rate is higher than 2018/19 pre-pandemic levels. The same trend has been recorded for working days lost per worker due to work-related illness.
The impact work-related ill health has had over the past year on absences in the workplace has been significant, with an estimated 36.8 million working days lost. Of this figure, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 17 million of all working days lost (55%).
Public administration/defence, human health/social work and education are the three leading industries with higher-than-average rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety when the average is taken for the period from 2019/20 to 2021/22.
The latest figures also reveal that when all workers are compared, females overall have statistically significantly higher rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety and males significantly lower, the HSE notes.
Although the rate of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety had shown signs of increasing in the years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the HSE notes that the disruption it has brought has been a major contributory factor to the upward trend.
In fact, of the 914,000 workers who have suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the latest statistics, an estimated 452,000 report that they believe it has been caused or made worse by the effects of the pandemic.
'These estimates of the number of workers who suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety as a result of the coronavirus pandemic should not be subtracted from the overall estimate of work-related stress, depression or anxiety,' the HSE cautioned.
'It cannot be assumed that those individuals would not have otherwise suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the absence of the coronavirus.'
Commenting on the latest figures, Nick Wilson, director of health and safety services at WorkNest, said that it was surprising to see a fall in the number of new cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety given the various stressors that people are facing at present, although he added that not all of these are work-related.
'Still, this doesn’t change the fact that, overall, cases have increased by 11.2% and we now know that 17 million working days were lost as a result – emphasising that this [work-related stress, depression or anxiety] should remain a key area of focus for employers, not only for their staff’s sake, but for the sake of business productivity too.'
Nick added that, although the number of injuries to workers was lower than pre-pandemic levels, it was disappointing that the decrease seen last year hasn’t been maintained.
'The fact that this year’s figure has shot back up also suggests that the perceived improvements noted in last year’s report may have simply been down to the pandemic and fewer people working rather than any real improvement in workplace health and safety,' he said.
'Some might say a rise in injuries was inevitable given the wider return to work, but it’s important that employers don’t become complacent. Covid-19 put health and safety firmly on the agenda, and it must continue to be a priority now that the immediate threat of the pandemic has subsided. To drive down the numbers further, employers should focus on the suitability of their risk assessments, particularly as many won’t have revisited them since reopening.'
Elsewhere, the HSE statistics underline the impact that occupational lung diseases continue to have across Great Britain’s industries, which account for around 12,000 of the total 13,000 total deaths estimated to be linked to past exposures at work. The figures reveal that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is the leading lung disease, accounting for 34% of cases, followed by mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer, which both account for 20%. Non-asbestos related lung cancer accounts for 23% of cases with other diseases are responsible for the remaining 3%.
According to the Labour Force Survey, there have been an estimated 19,000 new cases of breathing or lung problems caused or made worse by work each year on average over the last three years.
Tim Turney, global marketing manager at Casella, said the latest HSE statistics show that occupational lung disease continues to be an issue and urged businesses to put measures in place to protect employees from hazardous exposure.
'There are a wide range of substances in the workplace that have the potential to cause harm to health if ingested, inhaled, or in contact with skin, often leading to irreversible respiratory diseases, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,' he said.
'For example, dust in the workplace continues to receive national attention as a hidden killer. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations (COSHH), the levels of inhalable dust in the workplace should not exceed 10mg/m3 and the level of respirable dust must not exceed 4 mg/m3. Employers are advised to control levels constantly to ensure such maximums are never reached.'
Turney added that, from the thousands of substances that can be found within a working environment, around 500 are given specific limits, under Workplace Exposure Limits regulations.
Giving the examples of cobalt metal and silica and the risks posed by exposure to even small amounts, he said that if these substances are identified in the working environment, employers must be familiar with the relevant exposure limit figures.
In terms of new or longstanding work-related musculoskeletal disorders, data from the Labour Force Survey reveals 477,000 cases. Broken down, 202,000 cases relate to the back being affected (42%); 175,000 cases relate to the upper limbs or neck being affected (37%); and 99,000 cases relate to the lower limbs being affected (21%). The figures also show 139,000 new cases.
Interestingly, prior to the pandemic, the rate of self-reported work-related musculoskeletal disorders had reflected a generally downward trend, the HSE notes, and the current rate is similar to that reported in 2018/19.
Commenting on the HSE statistics, Jo Frape, OSH content developer at IOSH, said: 'No one should be harmed by the work they do so we are hugely concerned to see the rise in work-related ill health and workplace injuries.
'The fact that so many cases of ill health are preventable makes it even more poignant. We urge all businesses to constantly review how they manage the health and safety risks in their workplace to ensure their measures are proportionate and fit for purpose.'
'Too many people are pushed into a life of disability and worklessness by poor employment practices,' added Jo Yarker, director of Affinity Health at Work.
'Business leaders need to interrogate what they are doing to protect and support the mental and physical health of their employees, in the same way that they interrogate their financial performance. This starts with placing a focus on prevention through good jobs, where workload is manageable, where people have control over their work and where they work with support from their colleagues and line manager.'
Yarker added that risk assessments can help employers to understand the psychosocial and physical risks to health and enable targeted action.
'But employers need to go further,' she said. 'All staff need to be provided with the knowledge, skills and confidence to identify early the signs of ill-health, understand the work-related causes and know what to do to take early action to make changes that improve work and health outcomes. It is not only a moral imperative but it makes business sense.'