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Concern expressed over rise in work-related ill health

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The number of people who say they have a work-related illness has risen for the first time in three years, up by around 15% since 2011/12, prompting calls for tougher regulation and enforcement.


Over 1.2 million people who have been employed in the past year – not the retired or people off on long-term sick – have an illness caused or made worse by work, according to figures from the Labour Force Survey. When former workers are included, the figure rises to 2 million.

The main cause of ill health continues to be musculoskeletal disorders, which affect 526,000 people. The number of people suffering an MSD rose by 87,000 since the ill-health survey was last carried out in 2011/12.

However, the number of people suffering from work-related mental ill health is rapidly gaining ground on MSDs, with 487,000 people saying they had suffered from stress, depression or anxiety caused by or made worse by their employment in the course of the year. This figure represents an increase of 59,000 on 2011/12.

It is not clear to what extent the rise in the number of people in work over the last couple of years has contributed to the increase.

The TUC said the statistics should be a wake-up call for stronger regulation and enforcement.

Meanwhile, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) said the rise in the number of people suffering from an MSD show the need for a renewed focus on employee health.

Natalie Beswetherick, the CSP’s director of practice and development, said: “The increase in the number of people with a work-related musculoskeletal disorder bucks the long-term trend and demands a renewed focus on employee health.”

The injury and ill-health statistics, released by HSE on 29 October, show that an estimated 28.2m working days were lost due to work-related ill health or injury in 2013/14. The cost to society is estimated to be £14.2bn – a figure that excludes work-related cancer.

Around 80% of the 535,000 new work-related conditions were either musculoskeletal disorders or stress, depression or anxiety. New cases of ill health across the board have generally fallen since 2001/02, reaching a low of 452,000 in 2011/12.

HSE revealed earlier in the year that the number of people that died in 2013/14 in the course of their work fell to 133, the lowest on record. It compares to a five-year average of 164. Despite the drop in fatal injuries, the number of people dying from the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma rose by over 10% to 2,535 in 2012.

The number of self-reported injuries dipped slightly on previous years. Labour Force Survey estimates put the number of employees suffering an injury at work at 629,000. A little over 200,000 of these resulted in an absence of over three days. Around three quarters of these are over-seven-day absences.

Employer reported injuries fell, but it has become difficult to make a direct comparison with previous years due to the change to RIDDOR reporting requirements in October 2013.

HSE received just under 19,000 reports concerning specified injuries and 59,000 reports of injuries that led to an absence of over seven days.

The industries in which workers are most likely to be have not changed significantly – with construction (1900 major/specified injuries), agriculture (292 major/specified injuries), manufacturing (3159 major/specified injuries) and waste and recycling (486 major/specified injuries) among the higher-risk sectors.

Across Great Britain, provisional figures show that 674 cases were prosecuted for health and safety breaches in 2013/14, including cases where multiple offences were brought. These cases led to 636 convictions for at least one offence, a rate of 94%, and total fines received of £18m.

Of these 674 cases, HSE brought 551 of them across England and Wales – a decrease of 5% from the previous year – and secured 517 convictions. Local authorities prosecuted 88 cases in England and Wales, a decrease of 16% from the previous year, and secured 85 convictions.

In Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), which brings cases to court on behalf of HSE and local authorities, instigated 35 cases in Scotland, a rise of 25% on the previous year, and secured 34 convictions.

There was an overall rise in the number of enforcement notices issued in 2013/14 compared to 2012/13. Provisional figures show that just under 14,000 notices were issued by HSE and local authorities in 2013/14, an increase of 2% from the previous year, but down from 10,750 in 2011/12. The decrease is mainly accounted for by a fall in local authority issued enforcement notices, which have fallen by 48% since 2011/12. In 2013/14, 10,119 enforcement notices were issued by HSE, a rise of 15% from the previous year.

The TUC said the rise paints a worrying picture. Its general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “The rise in illness and injury should be a wake-up call demanding stronger regulation and enforcement for rogue bosses who put their staff at risk.

“Illness or injury caused by work not only leads to absence, it also leaves people suffering pain, disability and financial loss. Yet workplace illness and injury is preventable. The main responsibility lies with employers, but the government has the duty for enforcement to bring rogue bosses back into line.

“The Health and Safety Executive does an excellent job with its resources, but the government’s decision to reduce the number of inspections is allowing more rogue bosses to get away with it. It’s both a human tragedy and a false economy to continue with two million people living with an illness caused by work, and 600,000 new workplace injuries a year.”

But Judith Hackitt, the chair if HSE, said the figures show Britain has one of the best health and safety systems in the world “We should remind ourselves what these numbers actually mean – the number of times in the last year someone went out to work and either did not return home to their loved ones or came home with life changing injuries.

“The health numbers also demonstrate the scale of harm being done to people’s health while at work, too often leading to premature death.

“Jobsworths using ‘elf n safety as a convenient excuse for all manner of things, and those claiming health and safety is a burden, need to reflect on this. Britain has one of the best health and safety systems in the world, but that is cold comfort to those who have suffered loss or suffering that is so easily avoided with sensible and proportionate risk management.

“We all need to commit to focussing on what really matters – ensuring more people return home from work every day and enjoy long and healthy working lives.”

 

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