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Ultimate Cost Of Work Misrepresented By HSE Headline Figures

December 08 edition cover of SHPHazards Campaign's Hilda Palmer has highlighted this year at many conferences, the lack of accuracy in reporting of deaths at work due to accidents at work. Writing for the December edition of IOSH magazine SHP, Hilda argues that the official figures don't add up. Here is her original article as submitted to the magazine:

The Hazards Campaign is often disappointed by the misleading reporting of health and safety statistics in the mainstream press and media. We are especially concerned that specialist health and safety journalists have been seduced by the ‘health and safety myth of the year’ that only '200 odd ' people are killed by work each year.

Every year on Workers Memorial Day (28th April) we make the case that the evidence supports a figure of up to seven times as many deaths caused by work incidents. The HSE’s headline figure is limited to those deaths reported to HSE and local authorities, not to other enforcement agencies such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, excludes members of the public and also those killed by occupational illness.  A more realistic estimate, that includes work-related road traffic deaths and suicides attributed to work-related stress, is 1,500-1,600 per year. But the iceberg of work-related harm is the many thousands who die due to illnesses caused by their working conditions and this we estimate may be up to 50,000 per year.  

The Hazards Campaign challenges occupational health professionals to use the evidence based estimates of work-related harm provided by Hazards Magazine and other researchers. This would ensure the appropriate policy development and allocation of resources. Failing to expose the extent of the cost of employers’ non-compliance and criminal negligence, on our health and our lives, serves to support the treasury in capping and cutting funding to the enforcement agencies. It also adds fuel to the deregulators at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform who view H&S as an unnecessary burden on employers, and gives support to the press/media 'conkers bonkers' hype about health and safety law and enforcement being excessive. It underestimates the actual risk workers face and wrongly suggests we can safely rely solely on employers, when the reality is that far more workers suffer appalling working conditions that put them at risk of injury, death or illness, at huge cost to themselves, their families, and the economy.  Far from being complacent about the H&S record in this country, we need to be honest, open and examine what is really going on. We therefore expect a more critical appraisal of the official figures by specialist health and safety journalists.

Over recent years we have been joined by the TUC, trade unions, the CCA, RoSPA, and IOSH, especially over work-related road traffic deaths which, for over ten years, the Hazards Campaign has demanded are reported under RIDDOR, added to the official death at work statistics and brought under the work-related death protocol for investigation.

In June, the HSE press released the provisional injury figures for 2007/08: ‘228 workers lost their lives as a result of accidents/incidents at work in 2007/08 compared to 247 in 2006/07.’   ‘Small reduction in fatal injuries at work no reason for complacency says HSE - Every week 4 people die at work in GB.’  This implies the figure is a total for all those killed in work-related incidents but this is nearer to 4 people killed per day. The press release does not mention that some workers killed in a range of workplaces are not included here, nor that those dying from work-related illness are not included, but notes to editors No 7 does state ‘Figures do not include incidences of road traffic accidents related to work which resulted in deaths, or to deaths from industrial diseases’ which is an improvement on last year (1).

The 229 final figure for 2007/08 just published by the HSE, does not include non-workers killed by work activities (2). The Hazards Campaign argues that the figures should include members of the public killed by a work activity such as: a scaffold collapse, train crashes and work-related road traffic accidents.  We believe that cases such as the tragic incident that killed 6 year old Samuel Adams, crushed by a heavy railing negligently left unsecured at the newly opened Trafford Centre, should be included, as part of measuring the overall state of H&S and the risk work activities pose to the general public. 

Hilda's article as it appears in this month's SHPIn 2007/08, the HSE records 358 deaths of members of the public. The HSE says that over two thirds, 263, were due to suicide or trespass onto railways, which, if excluded, would leave 95 deaths to be added to the 228 worker deaths, giving a sub total of 324. To this should be added the numbers killed in road traffic accidents involving ‘at work’ vehicles recorded by the police which the HSE, Department of Transport, and RoSPA estimate as 1,000 per year (3). This brings the running total to 1,324. To that should be added deaths in coastal waters investigated by the Marine Accident Investigation Board– such as in fishing, tug work - and those reported to the Civil Aviation Authority such as the Morecambe Bay gas field helicopter crash in December 2006, which killed seven workers, which from press reports we estimate roughly as about 30 per year.  A number of deaths by suicide each year, including some of those on the railways, are due to workers driven to despair by work-related stress. There are approximately 5,000 suicides of working age people in the UK each year.  In Japan where work-related suicides are officially recognised and compensated, they estimate 5% of suicides are work-related which if applied to the UK would be about 250, and a 2002 Australia analysis of suicide causes over the decade to 2000 would suggest a UK work-related toll in excess of 100 work-related suicides per year (4). Adding 100-250- to the running total gives 1,454 -1,604.

Rounding up gives the Hazards Campaign estimate of 1,500 to 1,600 deaths due to work-related incidents per year, which is 6-7 times the HSE headline figure and more than the number of murders (5).

Prospect HSE Branch Chair, Neil; Hope-Collins comments: 'Until the government and society acknowledge the true impact of failing to manage and regulate occupational health and safety our members working in the enforcing authorities will struggle for the recognition,  funding and support need to help save workers’ lives.'

Turning to deaths due to occupational illness.  The HSE does not report a figure for the total killed by occupational disease but page 8 of the latest Health and Safety statistics 2007/08 states that ’every year thousands of people die from work-related diseases’ and itemizes these as work-related cancer deaths in excess of 6,000, of which about 4,000 are due to asbestos cancers, plus 111 deaths from asbestosis, 182 from pneumoconiosis, and around 15% of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) may be work-related, which would give about  4,000 deaths (6). Adding this up gives an HSE estimate of deaths due to work-related diseases of 10,293.  

For many years the HSE has claimed that a 1981 paper ‘Causes of cancer’ by Richard Doll and Richard Peto, is the ‘best available estimate’ of work –related cancer at 4% of the total cancer deaths which gives them the figure of 6,000 deaths per year (range from 3,000 to 12,000 deaths) in GB (7). Prolonged campaigning by Hazards magazine and Campaign, and trade unions based on research by some of the worlds leading epidemiology experts that a much higher proportion of cancers are work-related, has resulted in the HSE commissioning epidemiologist Dr. Lesley Rushton to carry out a review of the burden of occupational cancer, which though incomplete already shows that 4% is a significant underestimate (8).

Evidence suggest that the annual death rate could be more than twice even the larger of the HSE‘s figures. Dr. Richard Clapp, the author of a 2005 review of the causes of occupational and environmental cancer, estimates that the probable range of occupational cancer deaths is from 8-16% (9).  Applying the mid range of 12% of all cancer deaths to GB figures gives our estimate of 18,000 work-related cancer deaths per year.  A 2005 paper in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests that 15-20% of COPD deaths could be work-related (10) which would be about 6,000 deaths. Hazards magazine estimates up to 20% of all heart disease deaths have a work-related due to for example, stress, long hours, shift work, which is about 20,000 per year (11).  For all those diseases with a work-related contribution but unacknowledged by the HSE, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, MND, RA, chemical neurotoxicity, auto-immune conditions, plus restrictive lung diseases, we make a conservative estimate of about 6,000 deaths per year.  These add up to an overall Hazards estimate of deaths from work-related illness of up to 50,000 per year, or over four times the HSE figure.

It could be argued that the occupational disease deaths are based on the working conditions of up to 40 years ago as cancers such as Mesothelioma have up to 40 year latency periods, but many cancers and most other occupational illnesses have a much shorter latency. Our contention is that the HSE figures grossly underestimate the number of workers whose current working conditions expose them to both the well known and the newer risk factors which will produce the worker deaths of the future. For example, for Great Britain, the European Union’s CAREX database of occupational exposures to carcinogens estimated that in the early 1990s there were about 5 million workers (22 per cent of the employed) exposed to carcinogens.(12)   An ever increasing number of workers are subject to long hours, bullying and harassment and shift work, and about 20% of workers are in precarious work, which is known to cause stress, heart and circulatory diseases; and far too many workers are still routinely exposed to dusts and chemicals that cause respiratory illnesses and contribute to heart disease.

It is essential that we are use the best evidence-based picture of the real state of work and its effects on workers lives and health in order to target resources and political will on tackling the causes of injury and ill-health. The lessons learnt in the financial sector about acknowledging the scale of the problem and the inadequacy of 'light touch' and 'limited' regulation need to be applied in the places where people die.


1.Health and Safety statistics 2007/08
3.  RoSPA Occupational Safety,
4. ‘Crying Shame?’  Hazards 101 Jan/March 2007 pages 8-9.
5. ‘A crisis of enforcement: the decriminalization of death and injury at work’ by Prof Steve Tombs and Dr David Whyte, Centre for Criminal Justice Briefing 6 June 2008 ‘
6. .Health and Safety statistics 2007/08 page 8
7. Doll R. and Peto R. The causes of cancer: Quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol 66, No 6, pages 1191-1308
8. Lesley Rushton, Imperial College London, The Burden of Occupational Cancer in GB,
9.  Dr. Richard Clapp et al Environmental and occupational causes of cancer: A review of recent scientific literature, UMASS Lowell September 2005,; ‘Burying the evidence’ Hazards 92   Oct/Dec 2005 pages 4-5,
10. M Meldrum and others. The role of occupation in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) Occupational and Environmental Medicine, vol 62, pages 212-214)
11. ‘Job to Die for?’ Hazards 92   Oct/Dec 2005 pages 18-19.
12. Kauppinen T and others. Occupational exposure to carcinogens in the European Union. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 57, pages 10-18, 2000.

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