Health and safety at work: is your business meeting its obligations?

The latest official figures for work-related ill health and accidents highlight the cost to UK businesses of injuries and absences. We look at how employers can ensure staff stay healthy and productive.

The latest annual workplace accident statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that UK businesses, and other organisations, are continuing to reduce the number of occupational injuries and work-related fatalities among their employees.

But the figures once again underline the significant impact that associated conditions - ranging from stress and anxiety to musculoskeletal disorders - are having on the British economy.

The HSE estimates that 30.7m working days were lost to work-related ill-health or injuries in 2017-18 at a combined cost to the public and private sectors of around £15bn. “Previously, the emphasis among health and safety authorities has been on the likes of physical accidents - and we have seen good progress on reducing accident rates and fatalities,” says Peter Nicholls, senior safety, health & environmental consultant at Mentor, the bank's business consultancy service.

“But the real cost today is related to issues such as depression and anxiety, or conditions related to worker health - from musculoskeletal disorders to occupational cancer. These have been the focus of the HSE in recent years.”

Room for improvement

He adds: “The UK consistently has one of the lowest standardised rates of fatal injury across the European Union, lower than other large economies and the EU average. However, the trend in self-reported work-related ill health and working days lost per worker in the UK is broadly flat. In short, we are not currently making significant improvements.”

Nicholls says that employers have more than a legal obligation to provide the right protections for their staff. “Companies that are able to recognise the health issues within their business and make improvements also have the potential to boost their bottom line by impacting on the health, morale and well-being of their collective workforce,” he says. “Happier, healthier staff are more productive and easier to retain.”

Stress and work-related anxiety are issues that may not always be straightforward for employers to recognise, Nicholls explains. “There have been improvements in businesses' ability to recognise the symptoms and talk about these matters with their staff. But one of the biggest problems is that employees are now getting work emails on their phones, which can create the feeling that they are always at work.

Duty of care

Under health and safety legislation, employers have a duty of care to their workers to protect them from harm. They are also obliged to carry out risk assessments, and this includes looking at potential causes of stress where appropriate.

“If stress is seen as being a significant issue in the company - which might be the case in certain sectors or industries such as education or call-centre operations - then there will be extra emphasis on the employer-to-risk-assess that shows they have done everything that is practical to reduce incidences of stress.”

“The real cost today is related to issues such as depression and anxiety, or conditions related to worker health - from musculoskeletal disorders to occupational cancer. These have been the focus of the HSE in recent years” -  Peter Nicholls, senior safety, health & environmental consultant at Mentor 

While it may not be as obvious how to carry out a risk assessment of this nature, Nicholls points out that the HSE's website provides a number of tools that can help smaller employers. These include questionnaires that employees can fill in to assess stress levels or problematic aspects of their work.

“The gains here are not just in terms of meeting your legal obligations: this can also have an impact on productivity. If you can reduce the number of people who are absent through stress, for example, that is going to have a positive impact on the company and its bottom line.”

Getting the focus 

Nicholls says that sometimes businesses devote a disproportionate amount of time and energy into preventing physical accidents and injuries. “While this is clearly important, some of this time may be better spent looking at the health issues within the business or industry as a whole.

“Companies need to monitor their accident records and staff absence rates - at least annually - to see if there are any trends. For example, there could be links to a certain type of process, or a spate of injuries due to specific heavy lifting. It could just be that the business hasn't updated its chairs and office furniture for a number of years.”

It is especially useful to benchmark these statistics against those at similar organisations. Again, the HSE publishes accident and injury figures on a sector-by-sector basis, which can help employers make a relevant comparison.

“Employers should also ask themselves whether their risk assessments take account of factors such as exposure to noise, vibration, dust, fumes, or chemicals,” Nicholls says. “Do your risk assessments take account of these factors? And do you think your current control measures are 'suitable and sufficient'? Finally, how would your current controls be perceived if you had a visit from an HSE or local authority inspector?”

Employers also need to think about whether they should consider seeking external support. “The management of health and safety at work regulations requires every business to identify competent people within the company to carry out risk assessments - which might mean you need to get them trained to do that.

“If you don't have in-house competence in a particular area, there is a requirement to get people in - a specialist consultant could help you, for example, to carry out risk assessments relating to stress or specific engineering operations.”

By Chris Torney

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