Health: The silent partner in 'health & safety'?

With the HSE raising its game in relation to construction health issues, we look at some statistics that should serve to remind us not to forget about the ‘health’ in health & safety regulation.

This year, the cornerstone of Health & Safety Regulation in the UK celebrates its 40th birthday. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 revolutionised the face of health & safety regulation when it came into force. The Act introduced a new system based on less-prescriptive and more goal-based regulations than the existing laws. For the first time, provision was made for guidance and codes of practice which would help duty holders with interpretation.

However, despite the devastating impact that poor health has had on workers’ lives, 'health' has never really received the attention that is generally levelled at its more overt partner, 'safety'.

Take the latest statistics published by the HSE for example:

  • In 2013 – 2014, across all sectors, 133 workers sadly lost their lives - a figure which we are sure everyone agrees is far too high.
  • In 2012 there were 2535 deaths from mesothelioma - a cancer specifically related to exposure to asbestos.

In addition to the HSE figures, the Labour Force Survey stated that there were 629,000 work related injuries reported in 2013-14, but there were 1.2 million working people suffering from a work-related illness.

More to be done

These statistics should highlight to the industry that we need to do more to address the 'health' in 'health & safety' regulation. The issues have been creeping up on us for some time, but relatively little has been done to abate them. Whilst in 2014 exposures to asbestos may be greatly reduced (yes, they do still happen), we are not expecting to see the peak mortality rate until around 2016, and even then it will be unlikely to tail off quickly.

Poor health caused by failure to adequately manage risk is a huge burden on the UK economy, and the HSE is raising its game in response to Westminster’s growing concern. The HSE is targeting poor controls in relation to health risks. In fact, occupational health was the focus of its two most recent construction site safety initiatives. Inspectors were looking at welfare provision, control of noise and vibration and exposure to dust, be it wood, plaster, concrete or stone. The latter was in direct response to the rapidly rising numbers in reported cases of chronic ill health and fatalities from silicosis (a form of occupational lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust).

Unlike most 'safety' risks, such as an unprotected edge posing a risk of fall from height or an unguarded blade on a cutting machine, the risks associated with 'health' are more subtle. The damage is often hidden until it is too late, and employees seldom appreciate what the risks are. For example, we have all seen street works where a worker is cutting a paving slab amid a huge cloud of dust, seemingly unaware that the dust is not only working its way into his airways and lungs, but also into the lungs of his workmates and unsuspecting members of the public passing by.

Prevent and control

The law requires employers to take steps to prevent or adequately control health risks. Employers must not shy away from managing health risks, as controlling the risks to health is no different to controlling physical safety risks. We often see organisations confusing health risks with wellbeing issues. Helping workers to tackle lifestyle issues, like smoking or diet, may be beneficial but is not a substitute for health risk management. Employers must look at their processes and operations and identify what might pose a risk to health, decide who might be harmed, decide what controls are required to eliminate or reduce the risk to an adequate level, and implement them. Employers must also regularly review to ensure that the controls remain effective.

Author: Dominic Graham

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Steffan Groch

Partner and Head of Regulatory - Head of Sectors

I head up DWF's national Regulatory team as well as leading the firm’s ‘go to market’ sector expertise. I am also Chair of the UK Health and Safety Lawyers Association.