The Health & Safety Executive (HSE)'s annual statistics for 2015/16 were released this week and reveal that, in key areas health and safety performance continues to plateau.

In this article, we look at some of the key trends emerging from the figures and consider what businesses can expect in terms of health and safety enforcement, particularly in light of the new sentencing guidelines which continue to bite hard.

Vital statistics

  • Work related deaths: 144
  • Non-fatal injuries to workers: 600,000
  • RIDDOR reportable "7 day" injuries: 152,000
  • Cases of work related illness: 1.3 million
  • Working days lost due to injury and ill health: 30.4 million
  • Annual costs of workplace injury: £4.8 billion

What does this tell us?

Whilst there had been a long-term downward trend in the rate of fatal injury, this had shown signs of levelling off in recent years. Overall that stagnation continues.

The number of fatalities, though provisional, is up two cases on last year albeit the rate per 100,000 workers remains stable at 0.46. 67 of those who lost their lives were members of the public.

Geographically the picture varies hugely. The North West continues to be the most "dangerous" region with the highest number of fatalities, as well as the highest non-fatal injury rate. The area also accounted for almost 14% of all prosecution cases in England, higher than anywhere else.

Working at height continues to provide most cause for concern, accounting for more than a quarter of fatalities, with the bulk of these occurring in the construction sector. The serious risk posed by falls from height is brought into sharp focus by the non-fatal injury causes, which show just 6% were caused in this way.

Whilst the number of RIDDOR reportable non-fatal injuries has dropped slightly, the HSE issue a word of caution regarding those figures. "Non-fatal injuries to employees are substantially under-reported by employers, with current levels of reporting estimated at around a half; and the reporting of injuries to the self-employed a much lower proportion".

In terms of our most risky industries, all of the following are classified as having a "statistically significantly higher" workplace injury rate:-

  • Agriculuture
  • Construction
  • Transport/storage
  • Manufacturing
  • Wholesale/retail trade
  • Accommodation/food service activities

However, when set in the global context, the UK continues to perform well from a safety perspective. The fatal injury rate is comparatively low from a global perspective and we perform as well if not better than other major European economies. This is testament to the ongoing strength, expertise and commitment to health and safety that exists within UK industry.

Regulation by enforcement

There were 660 prosecutions (by the HSE and Procurator Fiscal in Scotland) which resulted in conviction, indicating a conviction rate of 95%. This is up slightly on last year's rate of 94%.

In contrast, the decline in the number of enforcement notices issued has continued (down from 12,430 to 11,403). This decrease coincides with cuts in the HSE budget, which resulted in proactive inspections being largely scrapped.

However, whilst there are fewer notices in circulation, the prospects of successfully appealing a notice once issued remain slim. Responding to our requests for information, the HSE data showed that there is a 1 in 7,682 chance of appealing an improvement notice successfully through the Employment Appeals Tribunal process.

The cost of getting it wrong

Those businesses currently under investigation by the HSE will no doubt be steeling themselves for significant financial implications in the event of conviction. The data shows that prosecutions in 2015/16 led to fines totalling to £38.3 million compared to £18.1 million in 2014/15, an increase of 111%! Bear in mind that this sum reflects only a few short months' operation of the new Definitive Guideline on health and safety sentencing, introduced in February 2016. Since its inception we have seen 13 fines exceeding £1m. That is as many as we had seen in the ten years previously. We therefore expect another large jump in fine revenues next year.

Whilst it is undoubtedly the large and very large organisations that will concern themselves with the prospect of headline grabbing multi-million pound fines, those in the SME category should perhaps be more concerned. Our analysis of sentencing trends to date under the new Guideline show that they are being deprived of a much larger slice of their turnover when fined than those bigger businesses.

Good health and safety management makes good business sense

Prevention is better than cure and this is true in all industries, where proper investment is key to the successful management of risk. Whilst health and safety has for many years featured prominently on Board Meeting agendas, time (and money) spent is now surely set to increase.

The HSE are rightly confident in their enforcement powers and continue to achieve very high conviction rates. That those convictions are now accompanied by turnover related fines only reinforces the fact that the commission of a health and safety offence has now become a potentially business critical issue.

To view the HSE's infographic summarising the 2015/16 annual statistics, please click here.