Regulatory and compliance

Covid-19 and mental health figure large in latest health and safety statistics

Published on 5th Jan 2022

The Health and Safety Executive has published its injury and ill-health statistics for 2021: what's changed?

The Health and Safety at Work: Summary Statistics for Great Britain 2021 report, which was recently published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), indicates that rates of work-related ill health have increased, with Covid-19 posing a new threat to employers' liability, over the last reporting year. Although total prosecutions are down, the average fine imposed by HSE has increased.

Covid-19 statistics

The HSE reports that 93,000 cases of Covid-19 are believed to have resulted from occupational exposure in 2020/2021 with half of those employees working in the health and social care sectors.

Covid-19 spot checks continue to be conducted by the HSE and enforcement notices issued. Breach of a notice is grounds for prosecution.
Although very few prosecutions for Covid-19 infections have been brought against employers, the inclusion of this statistic is further indication that the HSE is not closed to the possibility of prosecutions increasing.

Employers need to continue to be aware of their duties in following guidance and legislation, which are often subject to change, in order to protect employees from exposure to Covid-19. These steps should include conducting a suitable and sufficient assessment of Covid-19 risks in the workplace and implementing control measures to eliminate or reduce the risks identified. Such assessment should be reviewed regularly in light of changing government, industry and medical guidance.

Stress, depression and anxiety

A total of 822,000 employees were reported to be suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/21. 

Although this figure is slightly down on the 2019/2020 figure of 828,000, new cases have risen from 374,000 to 451,000. 

The HSE reports that in 2020/21 the effects of the coronavirus pandemic were found to be a major contributory factor to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. In fact, stress, depression and anxiety make up 53% of all new cases of work-related ill health in 2020/21.

The HSE continues to promote its "Working Minds" campaign. Employers should remain mindful of their duties to their employees' mental health, consider how enforced home working might affect their workforce's wellbeing and make sure employees are aware of any well-being assistance schemes. 

Musculoskeletal disorders

There has been a slight increase in new cases of musculoskeletal disorders from 152,000 to 162,000 this year. 

Manual handling, awkward or tiring positions and keyboard work or repetitive action were thought to be the main causes of work-related musculoskeletal disorders prior to the pandemic. In 2020/21, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic were also found to be a contributory factor to work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

Employers should consider employees' working from home arrangements, and conduct assessments of the suitability of individual home working set ups. Where possible, suitable work equipment and adaptations should be provided. 

Although prosecutions were down, the average fines have increased. The HSE issued 2,929 enforcement notices in 2020/21 compared to 7,075 last year. There were 185 successful prosecutions in 2020/21, compared to 325 in 2019/20. However, the conviction rate remains high at 93%. 

The number of notices and prosecutions instigated by the HSE has been affected by the pandemic, however, the continued drop in prosecutions follows a trend that stretches back to 2015/16.

The total value of all fines has decreased from 2019/20, however, the average fine per case has increased from £107,000 to £145,000 potentially indicating a stricter interpretation of the health and safety sentencing guidelines. 

OC comment

The HSE 2021 Summary Statistics report indicate that there was an increased prevalence in a number of work-related health issues over the course of the last year with the coronavirus pandemic having an understandable impact. 

Businesses should review the themes highlighted in the report and follow guidance and legislation wherever possible to mitigate risks to their employees. Consideration should be given to both physical and mental health, as well as the emerging liability risks posed by Covid-19.

If the HSE does issue an enforcement notice, businesses should be aware that the breach of such a notice is a separate offence and grounds for prosecution. If served with an enforcement notice, seek advice immediately and consider whether an appeal is appropriate.

Osborne Clarke's Health and Safety team is well-placed to advise on any of the themes that have arisen in the HSE's report and on any enforcement or appeal action.

Alice Babington co-authored this article with Matthew Vernon.

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* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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