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Recession has an accidental silver lining

30 June 2009

Recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that work deaths in Britain have fallen to a record low, perhaps indicating that the recession may have had a beneficial effect on safety. The figures reveal that 180 workers were killed at work in 2008/09 - a notable drop from last year’s 233 and a 22% decrease on the average for the previous five years. Provisional data for the period, 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2009, indicates a fatality rate of 0.59 per 100,000 workers.

HSE chair Judith Hackitt is looking at the impact of recession
HSE chair Judith Hackitt is looking at the impact of recession

HSE says this represents a ‘statistically significant decrease’ on the five-year average of 0.77. It is not clear whether this fall is simply the result of chance variation, which is expected when dealing with relatively small numbers, or whether the recession has also had an effect. HSE chair Judith Hackitt said the executive very much welcomed this year's ‘encouraging’ figures but added: “This statistical snapshot needs careful analysis to help us understand the underlying factors, including the impact of the recession.”

The evidence from previous downturns indicates that injury rates fall during a recession because fewer new, inexperienced workers are recruited and there is a lower work effort: the proportion of people working long hours falls as demand declines.

The executive says the new figures represent a continuation of the underlying downward trend established in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. This trend was disrupted by what HSE statisticians have described as an apparent levelling off in recent years, and in particular by a worrying jump in workplace fatalities in 2006/07, when 247 people were killed. That increase was attributable to a sharp a rise of 25% in building site deaths.

The newly released 2008/09 figures are provisional until June next year, when they will be adjusted to reflect any late reports of incidents; deaths that occur some time after the incident; and any new information arising from coroners' rulings and investigations, which can reveal whether or not an accident was work-related, for example.

RoSPA welcomed news
Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) commented: “The latest figures show a welcome reduction in fatalities, although we await the more statistically significant major injury figures.

“It is also important to remember that the figures do not include cases of work-related death on the roads or mortality and morbidity associated with work-related health damage, both of which account for substantially more lives lost than workplace accidents.

“Nevertheless, the reduction in notifiable fatalities is welcome and it means that fewer families have had to endure the heartache of a loved one not coming home from work," Bibbings said in a statement to the press.

“A particular challenge now is to make sure that these numbers stay down, particularly during the current recession. And it needs to be remembered that investing in health and safety management makes sense, not just for legal and moral reasons, but also because accidents cost businesses a great deal. In fact the ‘business case’ for avoiding such losses is actually stronger in recession than at other times,” he added.

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