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Robens will still matter over the next 50 years, says HSE Director

Lord Alfred Robens (pictured) was a prominent post-war industrialist. In 1969, three years after the Aberfan disaster, Robens was selected to chair a committee on workplace health and safety. The Robens Report of July 1972 led to the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, paving the way for the creation of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the following year. Fifty years ago this week the report was tabled and debated. Philip White, HSE’s director of regulation, believes Robens has not only stood the test of time, but remains relevant to HSE in a crucial new phase…

Lord Robens set to work with the aim of finding a way to reduce Britain’s work-related deaths, injuries and ill health. At that time there were around 1,000 work related deaths each year, half a million suffered injuries, and 23 million working days were lost annually through industrial injury and disease. Fifty years on, few would argue his report didn’t meet this aim.

We should all reflect on this achievement with pride. I believe that Lord Robens’ report, and the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, is a great British achievement. It demonstrates how government can work with the consent and agreement of those in positions of responsibility across society. It’s one of very few pieces of post-war legislation that has stood the test of time – and delivered what it set out to achieve.

Moreover, the spirit of Robens has carried through in several key pieces of legislation that HSE helped introduce to keep pace with changing world or work as well as ensuring the principal of those who create risk must take responsibility for controlling it: the Control of Major Accidents Hazards Regulations (1983), the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (1988), the Construction Design & Management Regulations (1994) and the Gas Safety Management Regulations (1996).

But we don’t just believe in regulating by legislating. Our strategy, Protecting People and Places makes clear our commitment to finding new ways to address the most significant risks. As well as an expanding remit that now includes the Building Safety Regulator, which will enable people to feel safe in their homes, and heightened responsibility to the wider environment in our role in chemicals regulations, the economy itself and the way people work is also transforming. The drive to Net Zero will create new challenges, and the revolution in online retail means the model of regulating the retail supply chain may need to be reviewed.

We are under no illusion that some of these challenges are more abstract than those facing the readers of the Robens Report in the 1970s.

Look carefully through the report, and the transcripts of the subsequent parliamentary debates it generated, and you’ll find reference to two other issues that needed to be considered – work-related stress and apathy towards health and safety.

Both challenges persist in Britain’s workplaces today.

In 2020/21, 822,000 workers reported experiencing work-related stress, depression or anxiety – but it’s fair to say that the true figure is greater if you include those suffering in silence.

The Covid-19 pandemic created a renewed focus on health and safety for all of us. While many have positively sought to capitalise and harness this, I am troubled by even casual references creeping back into public conversations that associate health and safety with barriers to fun or innovation, overlooking the true mission of protecting people and places – and getting every worker home safely at the end of their day. If we need to challenge examples of this, we will do so without hesitation, but remembering Robens’ principle for controls to be practical and proportionate to the risk.

Robens still matters. And will still matter over the next 50 years.

123 workers killed in work-related accidents in 2021/22 

A hundred and twenty-three workers were killed in work-related accidents in Great Britain in the last year, according to figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The annual data release covers the period from April 2021 to March 2022, during which time most pandemic restrictions were lifted and the economy began returning to normal.

The industries with the highest deaths were construction (30), agriculture, forestry, and fishing (22), and manufacturing (22); though agriculture, forestry and fishing has the highest rate of fatal injury per 100,000 workers.

The three most common causes of fatal injuries continue to be falling from height (29), being struck by a moving vehicle (23), and being struck by a moving object (18).

The 123 worker deaths in 2021/22 is lower than the previous year, though it is in line with pre-pandemic figures. There has been a long-term downward trend in the rate of fatal injuries to workers, though in the years prior to the coronavirus pandemic the rate was broadly flat.

A further 80 members of the public were killed following a work-related accident in 2021/22. This is an increase on the previous year but below the pre-pandemic level. This is likely to reflect the various COVID-19 restrictions in place.

The release of the annual figures coincides with the 50th anniversary this month of the publication of the Robens report. The landmark report led to the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, which ultimately led to the HSE being set up the following year.

Since then, Great Britain has become one of the safest places in the world to work with the number of workplace deaths and injuries falling significantly.

HSE’s Chief Executive Sarah Albon said: “While Great Britain is one of the safest countries in the world to work, today’s figures show we must continue to ensure safety remains a priority. Every loss of life is a tragedy, and we are committed to making workplaces safer and holding employers to account for their actions, as part of our mission to protect people and places.”

The figures relate to work-related accidents and do not include deaths arising from occupational diseases or diseases arising from certain occupational exposures (including Covid-19).

The HSE has also published the annual figures for Mesothelioma, which is a cancer that can be caused by past exposure to asbestos. The figures show that 2,544 people died from the disease in 2020. This is in line with the average of 2,523 deaths over the previous eight years. Current mesothelioma deaths reflect exposure to asbestos that mainly occurred before the 1980s and annual deaths are expected to decline during the next decade.

Carlsberg fined £3m following 2016 ammonia gas leak

Carlsberg has been fined £3 million after a contractor died and another was seriously injured following an ammonia gas leak at one of its breweries.

The incident happened at Carlsberg’s site in Northampton. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found Carlsberg hadn’t put proper controls in place.

Father-of-two David Chandler, 45, was killed and David Beak, now 57, was seriously injured.

David Chandler was a father of two, from Bridge North, Shropshire. His family today said they welcomed the end of the case against Carlsberg and hoped no other families would have to suffer as they have.

Birmingham Crown Court heard that at its Northampton brewery Carlsberg had failed to put in place appropriate isolation controls to prevent exposure to ammonia before work started to remove a compressor from a refrigeration system.

The Principal Contractor for the project was Crowley Carbon UK Ltd, which had appointed numerous contractors to assist in the works.

On 9 November 2016 while the compressor was being removed, there was a large, uncontrolled release of ammonia.

David Chandler and David Beak were both employees of sub-contractor Speedrite NE Ltd.

Twenty people needed hospital checks after showing symptoms of ammonia exposure. It was several days before the leak was contained and gas levels dropped to a safe level. David Beak, of Failsworth in Oldham, was seriously injured.

Carlsberg Supply Company UK Ltd, who were summonsed under their new company name of Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company, pleaded guilty to charges under Section 2(1) and Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, and Regulation 3(1) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The company was fined £3 million with costs of £90,000.

Mr Chandler’s family, in a statement, said: “We welcome the conclusion of the prosecution case against Carlsberg UK Supply Company Ltd following the death of David five and half years ago.

“As a family we will never fully accept the death of David in such tragic but preventable circumstances and the legal process involved has been emotionally exhausting as well as frustrating given the length of time which has lapsed since the accident.

“We are pleased that improvements have been made at Carlsberg’s site in Northampton which will hopefully ensure no other families suffer the anguish we have endured since November 2016 when the failings at the brewery resulted in the deadly release of ammonia gas which caused David’s death.

“David was a loving husband, adoring Daddy and much-loved brother and Uncle. We are devastated that his young family will not be able to share their lives with him as they grow. He was a larger-than-life character whose loss has left a massive void nothing can replace.

“There have already been so many special and precious moments which David has missed out on and the fact that there will continue to be some many more as his daughters grow into young ladies breaks all our hearts daily. He is missed every day, and our lives will not ever be the same without him.”

HSE principal inspector Samantha Wells said: “Industry guidance on safe isolation of plant should have been followed. This would have ensured that a higher level of isolation was in place, for prevention of exposure to this highly toxic and flammable substance.

“Both the client, Carlsberg, and the Principal Contractor should have worked together to ensure that the risk was adequately managed. Not only Carlsberg had a duty here. There was also a very clear duty on the Principal Contractor.

“This underlines the dangers of not following industry guidance when working with toxic and flammable substances – HSE will take action against all who fail to ensure the safety of employees and others who may be exposed to danger.

“Projects involving multiple contractors require effective management arrangements, so it’s clear who is responsible for every part of the work and that safety checks are carried out before allowing work to start.”

The Health and Safety Executive also brought a case against Crowley Carbon Ltd in relation to the incident which led to the death of Mr Chandler and the injuries to Mr Beak, which were also due to be tried but for the company being placed into compulsory administration by creditors.

Demolition company fined after fall from height fatality

A dismantling and demolition company has been fined after a worker fell 30 feet to his death when part of a pipe bridge platform gave way.

Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court heard that John Gary Robertson, known as Gary Robertson, employed by CBR02 Limited (formerly known as Brown and Mason) suffered multiple injuries following a fall from height at Longannet Power Station, Fife on 6 February 2019.

A joint investigation by the Health and Safety Executive and Police Scotland into the incident found that the section of metal grating on the pipe bridge which the deceased had been standing gave way under his weight, as it had been extremely corroded. By failing to record the extremely hazardous condition of the pipe bridge the Company failed to undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. In particular, the risk assessment, which formed part of the final, revised method statement, did not address the severely corroded nature of the pipe bridge, despite that being previously highlighted and requested by the client, Scottish Power. The Company failed to put necessary control measures in place, to inform employees of the hazardous condition of the pipe bridge, and to prevent access to it.

CBR02 Limited of Hertford Road, Middlesex pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company has been fined fined £5,000.

Speaking after the case HSE principal inspector, David Charnock, said: “Falls from height remain one of the most common causes of work-related fatalities in this country and the risks associated with working at height are well known.

“In this case, adequate communication of suitable information and instructions would have made employees aware of the unsafe condition of the pipe bridge platform.”

Former construction company directors sentenced for failing to prevent exposure to asbestos

Two former company directors have been sentenced and fined after a refurbishment project at a former department store was found to have disturbed asbestos containing materials (ACMs) while demolition work was still taking place.

Newcastle Crown Court heard that during October 2017, the former Joplings Department Store in Sunderland was undergoing refurbishment when workers disturbed large quantities of asbestos.

Following a reported concern regarding unsafe construction work at the site, an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that demolition and stripping work had been carried out inside the property. The age of the building and previous refurbishment work meant that there were vast quantities of ACMs inside the building.

During several months of demolition and refurbishment work the ACMs had been broken up using sledgehammers and brute force. Asbestos fibres were spread across five floors of the building as well as outside of the city centre property. At the time of HSE’s intervention, 1,315 square metres of contaminated waste was found across the shop floors and in the stairwell.

Former director of Keebar Construction, Alan Barraclough, of Hutton Lane, Guisborough was found guilty of breaching two counts of Section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 etc. He received a 14-month sentence, suspended for 2 years, and ordered to carry out 120 hours of unpaid community work within 12 months. He was suspended as a director for 10 years and ordered to pay costs of £44,774.21.

Former director of Keebar Construction, James Keegan, of Larkspur Road, Middlesbrough was also found guilty of breaching two counts of Section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 etc. He also received a 14-month sentence, suspended for 2 years, and ordered to carry out 120 hours of unpaid community work within 12 months. He was suspended as a director for 10 years and ordered to pay costs of £44,774.21.

Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Phil Chester, said: “Asbestos is responsible for the premature deaths of over 5,000 people each year. Younger people, if routinely exposed to asbestos fibres are, over time, at greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease than older workers. This is due to the time it takes for the body to develop symptoms after exposure to asbestos.

“Exposure to asbestos can cause four main diseases – Mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lungs), asbestos-related lung cancer, Asbestosis (a scarring of the lungs); and Diffuse pleural thickening (a thickening of the membrane surrounding the lungs, which can restrict lung expansion leading to breathlessness).

“It can take anywhere between 15-60 years for any symptoms to develop after exposure. Companies need to recognise the dangers of removing asbestos without appropriate safety measures, to their employees and members of the public.”

How can happy employees make for more productive workers?

The well-being of employees is crucial. Improper care for staff can impact their performance and can have harmful effects within a company. The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) conducted research in 2020 demonstrating that reduced labour activity can occur as a result of high stress. Case studies also showed that workplace wellness programmes can result in increased productivity.

So, producing strategies can benefit both the employees and businesses by ensuring that their needs are met. Here, we’ll explore some of the ways that businesses can safeguard their staff.

Implementing safety measures

There are many risks in workplaces, especially relating to physical safety. Between 2017-2018, it was reported by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that 1.4 million people suffered from work-related illnesses in the UK. As a result, the economy suffered a loss of £15 billion.

High quality working conditions are important to ensure the safety of employees, this includes regular monitoring of equipment. Damage to tools can reduce worker efficiency and could even risk injuring the employee. So it’s important that equipment checks are carried out on a routine basis.

Statistics from the HSE have revealed that between 2018-2021 the number of non-fatal injuries within the construction industry was an average of 61,000 each year. There were also 39 fatal injuries in 2020-2021. With the benefit of protecting staff, the business also can ensure that the site is allowing room for productivity so work is being completed with no issues.

Without physical safety checks there could be many dangerous situations – particularly in industries like construction. These circumstances can impact their health, so they may have to be absent from work. Not only would this affect the business, but it also could have harmful effects on the worker, causing stress from time off work. In 2020, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) discovered through case studies that 97% of construction industry professionals had reported high levels of stress. When the employee is eventually fit to work again an injury might have a lasting effect on work and lead to reduced productivity levels.

Recognising essential amenities

Several physical needs can have an impact on our mental state, which is why onsite toilet hire for e.g. construction workers is necessary. Providing employees with this reduces the likelihood of distraction and ensures that staff are comfortable and completing work to a high standard.

Water supply can be insufficient at times. Whether this be for hydration or cleanliness, this is essential to ensure that workers’ well-being is maintained. Especially in summer, dehydration among workers can lead to reduced productivity or illness. Making sure that employees are being cared for with suitable amenities ensures that they stay healthy in the workplace.

Acknowledging mental health issues

The physical well-being of workers is not the only area to consider, it is important to maintain their mental well-being too.

Monitoring workload can be a simple way to ensure that your employees’ mental well-being is not being negatively affected. Concerns over disciplinary action may cause individuals to hide their issues with work, which could lead to mental health issues. Working whilst ill and absent workers are two issues that annually cost the UK £73 billion. Improving staff well-being can reduce this by creating a comfortable working environment for employees to devote themselves to the company.

Simply encouraging workers to openly discuss their mental health can improve well-being significantly. Although some employees may feel anxious at the thought of revealing their issues, promoting awareness in the workplace can create a safer environment. This transparency can lead to open discussions to provide solutions and improved well-being.

Research by Forbes shows that employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. Feeling the benefits of a caring employer has a clear positive impact on productivity levels. The construction industry is known for lack of support for the workers, so applying support strategies may set an important example.

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the need to improve the well-being of workers. However, there is always room for improvement, which in turn can positively impact both employees and the business. By implementing simple strategies to care for staff, companies could see an improvement in their business’ productivity.

1.7 million workers suffering from a work-related illness, says HSE

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published statistics that cover work-related ill health, non-fatal workplace injuries and enforcement action taken by HSE, in the 2020/21 period.

In total, 1.7 million workers are suffering from a work-related illness, around half of which were stress, depression or anxiety.

In addition, two new estimates have been developed to measure the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic;

  • 93,000 workers self-reported catching COVID-19 at work; 52,000 of these worked in the human health and social work sector
  • 645,000 workers reported that their work-related illness was caused or made worse by the coronavirus pandemic; 70 per cent of these were cases of stress, depression or anxiety.

The HSE says the pandemic has affected certain data collection and impacted on assessment of trends, therefore there is no new data on working days lost and the associated economic cost for 2021.

It is not known whether some of the people reporting a coronavirus-related ill health condition would have developed and reported an ill health condition if pre-pandemic working practices had continued. The HSE says it is therefore not possible to assess the scale of work-related ill health independent of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

HSE’s Chief Executive, Sarah Albon, said: “These annual statistics are important to give us a clear picture of the health and safety risks faced by workers in the Great Britain and help to inform the measures HSE, employers, policy-makers and workers themselves need to take to ensure everyone can go home from work safe and well.

“The 12-month period in question coincides with the first national lockdown and the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. There have been significant impacts on the labour market, which is reflected in our reporting.

“We worked differently too in responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic, advising across Government, helping to shape guidance for businesses and implementing our Covid Spot Check programme to ensure workplaces were kept as safe as possible.”

Of the 1.7 million workers who suffered from a work-related illness (new or long standing) in 2020/21, 800,000 were stress, depression or anxiety, and 28% were musculoskeletal disorders (500,000 workers).

Albon added: “The latest figures on work-related stress reinforce our previous concerns around the scale of this issue in workplaces. Just last month we announced our new Working Minds campaign, in partnership with a number of key organisations, to help employers make recognising the signs of work-related stress routine.

“HSE continues to act as a proportionate and enabling regulator taking the most appropriate actions to achieve the best and quickest result. However, where employers fall short of expected standards, HSE will not hesitate to hold those responsible to account.”

HSE publishes 6th annual science review

This year the theme is COVID-19: Collaboration in a time of crisis and has a particular focus on the pandemic and the role that HSE science has played.

The review looks at HSE’s contribution to the evolving global evidence base and the routes it has used to share that knowledge as quickly as possible.

The extensive document provides case studies from the range of science and engineering work the HSE have delivered and illustrates how it uses science and evidence to help keep people and work environments healthy and safe.

The review is introduced by HSE’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Director of Research, Professor Andrew Curran. As well as highlighting scientific achievements, awards and publications, it also focuses on the roles of some of our specialist staff.

You can read the full document here.

HSE releases workplace deaths data

Provisional data released by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) shows that a total of 142 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2020/21, an increase of 29 from the previous year – though the number of deaths in 2019/20 (113) was low compared to other recent years. 

In statistical terms the number of fatalities has remained broadly level in recent years – the average annual number of workers killed at work over the five years 2016/17-2020/21 is 136.

Over the past 20 years there has been a long-term reduction in the number of workplace fatalities, demonstrating that Great Britain is one of the safest places to work in the world.

The figures released by the HSE relate to workplace incidents. They do not include deaths arising from occupational exposure to disease, including Covid-19. 

HSE’s Chief Executive, Sarah Albon, said: “Whilst the working world in which we now live has created new health challenges for workers and for those who have a duty towards them, safety must also remain a priority. Whilst the picture has improved considerably over the longer term and Great Britain is one of the safest places to work in the world, every loss of life is a tragedy, we are committed to ensuring that workplaces are as safe as they can be and that employers are held to account and take their obligations seriously.”

The three most common causes of fatal injuries continue to be workers falling from height (35), being struck by a moving vehicle (25) and being struck by a moving object (17), accounting for more than half of fatalities in 2020/21.

These figures also continue to highlight the risks to older workers with around 30 per cent of fatal injuries in 2020/21 involving workers aged 60 or over, even though such workers only make up around 11 per cent of the workforce.

In addition, members of the public continue to be killed in connection with work-related incidents. In 2020/21, 60 members of the public were killed as a result of a work-related incident.

The figures for Mesothelioma, which is a cancer contracted through past exposure to asbestos and is one of the few work-related diseases where deaths can be counted directly, show 2,369 people died in Great Britain in 2019. This is seven per cent lower than the average of 2,540 deaths over the previous seven years. 

Current mesothelioma deaths largely reflect occupational asbestos exposures that occurred before the 1980s. The figure for 2019 is consistent with projections that a reduction in total annual deaths would start to become apparent at this point. However, it is still not certain how quickly annual deaths will decline. 

A fuller assessment of work-related ill-health and injuries, drawing on HSE’s full range of data sources, will be provided as part of the annual Health and Safety Statistics release on 16 December 2021.

HSE steps up COVID spot checks as lockdown eases

As we continue the roadmap out of lock down and more businesses re-open, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says it’s working with local authorities to carry out spot checks and inspections on local businesses.

The reopening of the economy means that the opportunity for COVID to spread is increased substantially, so the HSE says it’s critical that businesses shouldn’t become complacent, i.e., they still need to have COVID-secure measures in place.

The HSE is calling and visiting all types of businesses, in all areas, to check the measures they’ve put in place to manage the risk from coronavirus, are in line with the current guidance. This includes businesses that have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, those that have recently reopened and those due to open in the coming weeks.

The body is continuing to work closely with local authorities, assisting them in their targeting of premises in the sectors they regulate such as hospitality and retail.

During spot checks and inspections, the HSE provides guidance and advice where required, but where businesses aren’t managing the risk, action will be taken. This can range from the provision of specific advice, issuing enforcement notices and stopping certain work practices until they are made safe. Where businesses fail to comply, this could lead to prosecution.

The COVID-secure measures businesses should have in place include:

  • Risk assessment: every workplace should have a COVID risk assessment. Update it to reflect any changes in legislation or guidance that may impact your work activity.
  • Social distancing: where possible you should keep people two metres apart. If this is not viable, keeping one metre apart with risk mitigation, such as screens, is acceptable.
  • Cleaning, hygiene and handwashing: keeping your workplace clean reduces the potential for coronavirus to spread. It is a critical part of making and keeping your business COVID-secure.
  • Ventilation and air conditioning: can help reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.
  • Talk to workers: provide information about providing support and maintaining control measures.
  • Working from home: provide the equipment they need, keep in regular contact and discuss their wellbeing.
  • Vulnerable workers: talk to staff, provide information and consider the risk to workers who are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus – putting controls in place to reduce that risk.

Angela Storey, Director of Transformation and Operational Services at HSE, said: “As we come out of lockdown, we are continuing to work with local authorities to check businesses are COVID-secure and providing guidance and advice where needed.

“Our spot checks and inspections support the cross-government work in helping employers and employees that have worked throughout the pandemic and those returning as lockdown measures ease. All workplaces are in scope for spot checks which means businesses of any size, in any sector can receive an unannounced check from HSE or an inspection from the local authority, to check they are COVID-secure.

“If you are contacted by the HSE or your local authority, please engage with us. By checking businesses have measures in place to manage the risks, we can benefit the health of local communities as well as support the local and national UK economy.”

Further information on spot checks and inspections is available on the HSE website.

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