Occupational health in the UK

Any good employer will put their workers’ occupational health and safety as a top priority and follow regulations to avoid accidents and illness in the workplace. Health and safety are the two most important things companies should focus on since workers and employees are the main assets of a business, helping it to operate and succeed.

Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses do happen. The most that an employer can do is ensure they follow Health and Safety Executive regulations and put measures in place to assist in the reporting of accidents and illnesses and the treatment of their consequences.

The facts

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there were 693,000 non-fatal injuries among workers in 2019-2020. This figure has come from the LFS (Labour Force Survey) and is based on self-reports. In the same period, employers reported 65,427 non-fatal injuries.

Of the self-reported injuries, around three-quarters lead to an absence of up to seven days while one-quarter were serious enough to warrant an absence longer than this. Of the injuries reported by employers, 29% were attributed to a slip, trip or fall on the same level, 19% were due to carrying, handling, or lifting, 11% being struck by a moving object, 9% an act of violence and 8% falling from a height.

Added together, the HSE estimates that 28.2 million days are lost each year due to non-fatal injuries and illnesses combined. For each person missing time from the workplace for these reasons, there was an average of 15.1 days missed. While workplace injuries are, of course, important, we cannot overlook the fact that many missed days were due to ill mental health in the form of stress, depression or anxiety.

Common causes of workplace injuries

Trips, slips and falls

As we’ve seen from the statistics above, many accidents and injuries occur due to slips, trips and falls. These often occur when there are hazards on the floor due to a disorganised or untidy working environment. Similarly, they occur when floors have been cleaned and are wet or when there is a leak or spillage that hasn’t been dealt with.

Sometimes, these types of accidents just happen, other times there are things that businesses could and should have done to prevent them from occurring.

Handling, carrying and lifting

The next most common workplace injury occurs due to handling, carrying, or lifting. Without adequate training, workers will be more likely to suffer an injury or long-term medical issue if they handle heavy objects incorrectly. Handling objects can cause chronic back, spine and neck issues that gradually develop over time or come on suddenly. Of course, many of these issues can be prevented with proper formal instruction on how to lift so that the body undergoes minimal stress.

Being struck by a moving object

Being struck by a moving object is a wide-ranging category that incorporates lots of different scenarios. This could be a council worker being struck by a vehicle or an object coming loose from high above, for example.

An Act of Violence

While shocking, it’s true that a lot of workplace injuries happen because of acts of violence. Of course, this is much more likely to occur in some industries compared to others. An act of violence is highly unlikely to occur in offices compared to roles that require interaction with the public like security work or the retail industry.

Falls from a Height

Falls from height is a self-explanatory term. These are more likely to occur in the construction industry or factories where people are above ground level. Due to the nature of falls, there is huge potential for serious injury here if precautions are not put in place.

Considerations when thinking about workplace injuries and illnesses

An ageing workforce

As we age, we are at an increased risk of being injured or developing health problems. Of course, just because someone is younger, does not mean they are invisible and won’t get injured or ill. However, we do need to take into account things that are more likely to happen as we age.

Absenteeism is more common with older workers – whether this is due to illness, injury or other reasons. However, there are things that employers can do to mitigate this. Offering part-time or flexible working, for example, might support some older workers who are struggling to keep up with a pace they once found no problem.

For women, we mustn’t forget the impact that menopause can have. While some women can pass through this easily, for others it’s a time of irritability, fatigue, depression, anxiety, impaired memory, sleep disturbances and hot flushes. Menopause awareness is vital. Again, flexible working patterns should be a consideration of employers. For more information about the effects of ageing on the workforce, read this article.

Mental Health

We simply cannot ignore the impact work can have on mental health. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety are all things that employers need to consider. While things are heading in the right direction, there still remains a stigma towards ill mental health and this is reflected in the practices of some employers in some industries. Take a look at this article on mental health.

 HAVS – Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome

This preventable condition is a significant health risk for workers in certain industries. The syndrome is caused by using hand-held power tools and it causes disorders of the nerves, joints and blood vessels.

HAVS is serious; once the damage has occurred, it is permanent. The best thing to do with regards to Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Our article on HAVS contains more information on the work-related disabling condition.

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Work-related MSD (musculoskeletal disorders) incorporates many different conditions including back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.

CTS – carpal tunnel syndrome is a problem associated with the nervous system whereby the median nerve is compressed at the wrist. This results in tingling, numbness, muscle atrophy or weakness in the fingers or hand. This disorder is common with operators, labourers and factory workers.

Back pain and back injury are very common among fabricators, labourers, operators, and other manual workers. There are many things that employers can do to ease or reduce the occurrence of back pain including adjusting workloads and schedules and ergonomic redesigns of the workplaces, for example.

Arthritis is a term that describes over 100 rheumatic conditions and diseases affecting joints and connective tissues. Arthritis is a common concern in the workplace since it might require adaptations in the workplace.

The most common type of arthritis caused or exacerbated by the workplace is osteoarthritis and it is most often of the hip or knee. People working in construction, mining and agriculture are most often at risk of this condition. This is due to the fact that these industries and occupations include heavy tasks like lifting. They’re also very physically demanding in general.

You can read more about musculoskeletal disorders here.

Occupational Asthma

Between 10 and 25% of adults with existing asthma will experience occupational asthma. This type of asthma occurs when a person is exposed to airborne irritants at work. While this is often a condition that is reversible, it is possible for the condition to cause permanent damage if there is prolonged exposure to irritants. Common workplace irritants include:

  • Gases
  • Dusts
  • Vapours
  • Fumes

A person with occupational asthma will have the same symptoms as any asthmatic. The only difference is the cause of the asthma. These symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, nasal congestion, runny nose, chest tightness, and eye irritation.

For more information about occupational asthma, read here.

Occupational Dermatitis

This is a problem for people who come into contact with harsh chemicals in the workplace. It is one of the most common work-related diseases. In extreme cases, it can prevent people from being able to work.

There are two types of contact dermatitis – irritant and allergic. With contact irritant dermatitis, the irritant is the harsh chemical product that comes into contact with the skin. With occupational dermatitis, the majority of cases are caused by irritants.

Here are some common reasons behind the development of contact dermatitis:

  • The use of soap and detergents from excessive hand washing
  • Physical skin damage like fibre-glass cuts, grazes and friction
  • Chemicals like alkalis or acids

For allergic contact dermatitis, a worker will have become sensitised to develop an allergic reaction. People with existing allergies are more likely to develop allergic dermatitis, as are those who are exposed heavily to a particular product over time. You can read more on occupational dermatitis here.

Health and safety in the workplace

All workers in the UK are entitled to work in an environment where any health and safety risks are properly controlled. By law, it is the employer who has primary responsibility. Employers must consult with employees or representatives of their employees on any matter regarding health and safety.

In terms of workers’ responsibilities, they have a duty to look after their own safety and health as well as any others that could be affected by their actions in the workplace.

Employers, on the other hand, must do whatever is reasonably practicable to protect the welfare of their employees as well as anyone else who could be affected by their business. Employers must carry out risk assessments for any perceived risk in the workplace. All employees and workers need to be given information about the risks in the workplace and how they are protected. It’s also essential that employers instruct their employees and train them on how to deal with any risk they face in their line of work.

We mustn’t forget temporary workers and agency workers in this too – every worker is entitled to a safe work environment. The health and safety of temporary and agency workers is protected by law and it is up to the agencies to ensure the law is followed.

Employee rights for illnesses and injuries

Accidents in the workplace

As mentioned above, employers have a duty to protect employee rights and inform them of health and safety issues that affect them. In addition, they must also report incidents and accidents in certain cases, pay you sick pay, and allow time off following a work-related accident, if necessary.

Any serious accidents, incidents and diseases must be reported to the HSE by employers. Typical things that need reporting include:

  • Death
  • Dangerous incidents like someone overcome by fumes or scaffolding collapsing
  • Major injuries like broken bones
  • Injuries that stop employees from doing their usual work for over three days
  • Work-related disease.

All injuries that occur in the workplace, however minor, need to be recorded in an accident book. Employers are required to keep accident books by law.

If an injury is an employer’s fault, the employee might be entitled to claim compensation. This has to be claimed within three years from the accident and typically requires a lawyer.

Illnesses caused by work

The Health and Safety Executive requires both employers and those who are self-employed to report cases of specific diseases that are associated with exposure to hazards in the workplace. These include:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (when a person’s work means they regularly use vibrating or percussive tools)
  • Cramp of the forearm or hand (when a person’s work means lots of repetitive hand, finger, or arm movement)
  • Occupational dermatitis (when a person’s work involves regular or significant exposure to an irritant or skin sensitiser)
  • Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (when a person’s work means using vibrating or percussive tools or holding things that have percussive processes involved)
  • Occupational asthma (when the person at work is exposed regularly or significantly to a known sensitiser to the respiratory system)
  • Tenosynovitis or tendonitis of the forehand or arm (when the worker has to do repetitive movements that are frequent and/or physically demanding.

Guidance on RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013) can be found here: https://www.hse.gov.uk/riddor/