In its recent report “Fatal injuries arising from accidents at work in Great Britain 2017”, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released figures on the number of fatalities caused by accidents at work.

The report’s headline figures were that 137 workers were killed at work in 2016/17 and 92 members of the public were killed by work-related activities.

The report also considered localised trends. The industries in which the majority of fatalities occurred were construction, agriculture and manufacturing. Types of accident resulting in fatality included workers being struck by a moving vehicle, falls from a height, being trapped by something collapsing or overturning and contact with moving machinery. The majority (97%) of all worker fatalities were male.

It is clear from HSE’s headline figures that 2016/17 is part of a long term downward trend in the number of workers killed by work activities. Twenty years ago, HSE’s 1996/97 report concluded that there were 287 workplace fatalities and 495 in 1981. The figure of 137 fatalities is the second lowest on record after 2013/14 in which 136 fatalities were recorded. It is also a reduction of 10 fatalities from 2015/16.

For me, the question raised by the headline figures is whether the reported fatalities are part of a greater emphasis by employers on health and safety precautions for their workers.

By their own admission, the HSE accepts “it is possible that this change can be explained by natural variation in the figures”. Analysis of the numbers of fatalities in the more recent years has remained broadly level; the average number of workers killed at work over the last five years being 142.

By “natural variation”, the HSE notes that the number of fatalities would not be the same from year to year even if this was based on identical people doing identical work in identical conditions. The total is partly related to chance and randomness.

Likewise, the causal factors behind individual fatal accidents often involve an unfortunate set of chance events that happen in conjunction with a lack of workplace safety measures. Numbers from year to year can also be significantly affected by a single incident causing multiple fatalities.

The HSE prefer to look at the number of workplace fatalities in relation to overall employment levels. The 2016/17 figure of 137 fatalities produces a fatal injury rate of 0.43 deaths per 100,000 workers, being the lowest on record. The rate was as high as 2.1 in 1981. There is a clear long term downward trend. However, it is also apparent, as with the number of workplace fatalities overall, that the downward trend in the rate has levelled-off in recent years.

There is no obvious trend in the number of fatal injuries to members of the public as a result of a work-connected accident. For 2016/17 this is 92. The number of fatalities has varied erratically from year to year. Annual comparisons here are difficult as reporting requirements have changed; HSE have removed certain types of fatality from their records in recent years. For example suicides of members of the public on railways were no longer included in HSE records after 2013, and patient and service users’ deaths on premises registered with the Care Quality Commission have not been included since 2015.

The report does not cover fatalities which are not considered “reportable” by the HSE. Particular exclusions include fatal accidents from work-related road collisions, fatal accidents involving workers travelling by air or sea, fatalities to members of the armed forces on duty at the time of accident and fatal injuries at work due to ‘natural causes’, often heart attacks or strokes, unless brought on by trauma due to an accident. The most notable exclusion is those deaths from occupational diseases. These are difficult to count accurately but HSE noted that deaths from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma in the workplace were 2,542 in Great Britain in 2015.

Care must be taken in reaching any conclusion based upon this report. One death at work is one too many.

There are clear signs of a reduction in both the overall number of fatal accidents in the work and the rate. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK consistently has one of the lowest rates of fatal injuries. The UK has a lower rate than other large European countries, our rate is below that of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the UK now is to ensure a downward trend as the figures have notably levelled-off over the last five years. This coincides with what appears to be an appetite for reducing health and safety legislation. The Government have embarked upon several legislative reforms in recent years. Against a background of a perceived “compensation culture” and a desire to reduce red tape, legal rights for workers have been substantially eroded. Notable examples include the Deregulation Bill 2015 and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. The erosion of workers’ legal rights shows no sign of abating in the future.

It is questionable as to whether HSE’s 2016/17 report is the continuance of a downward, or perhaps the start of an upward, trend. Analysing “statistics” and “figures” can appear cold and removed here. We must remember that these are lives. This relates to the vast majority of our population who work as a necessary means of sustaining themselves and their dependents. No matter the trends, each and every worker deserves to come home at the end of the work day.