How safe do you feel at work? While many of us are lucky enough to be in low-risk jobs in which health and safety is considered of paramount importance, not everyone is so lucky.
Some recent studies have shown that workplace fatalities and injuries are on the rise in Ireland. Are employers doing enough to protect their staff?
According to data from Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, Ireland ranks above the EU average for fatal accidents at work. The figures, which were published in April, indicate that the rate of workplace deaths here was close to 4 per 100,000 people employed in 2012, as against an EU average of just more than 2.5. In terms of non-fatal accidents, Ireland recorded just under 1,000 incidents per 100,000 people compared with the EU average of about 1,750.
However, new data published by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) reveals that both workplace fatalities and injuries rose last year.
In 2014, there were 56 workplace fatalities in Ireland, compared with 47 for the previous year, with most of these occurring in the farming sector. The number of non-fatal injuries also increased – to 7,431 from 6,598 – with a third of cases occurring as a result of manual handling, particularly in the health, social work and manufacturing sectors.
Martin O’Halloran, chief executive of the authority, said he was disappointed to see a rise in numbers, but was hopeful that with just seven fatalities at the time of writing, that this year would see a decline in workplace-related deaths and injuries.
“If we look at manufacturing, construction and the general economy, we can show positive benchmarking against other EU member states both in terms of fatal accidents and injuries. However, if we add agriculture into the mix, then we’re looking at a very bleak situation with some 30 of the total fatalities in Ireland occurring in that sector,” he said.
“In terms of continuous improvement over the last 20 years, the fatality rate has more than halved, but we have seen a little bit of slippage both in terms of fatalities and injuries over the past couple of years,” Mr O’Halloran said.
A recent study carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) that was published in May shows that work-related injuries affected an average of 47,000 workers in Ireland between 2001 and 2012. The report shows an additional 48,000 people suffered from a work-related illness.
According to the figures, the risk of both injury and illness rose during the boom and then fell during the recession, a trend also recorded in the US and UK. The ESRI attributed the rise in workplace accidents during the Celtic Tiger years to an increase in the number of inexperienced people entering the workforce and to increases in hours worked and to pressure put on staff to do more. The ESRI also said that during a recession, workers can be more reluctant to report injuries or illness due to job insecurity.
, one of the report’s authors, said that as the economy gets back on track, there is concern that the number of workplace accidents could rise again.
“The business-cycle finding suggests that without additional efforts to prevent injuries and illness, from both employers and the State, the rates of work-related injury and illness are likely to increase with economic recovery,” she said.
The ESRI’s report indicates that younger workers have the highest risk of injury and that men experience more injuries than women, even when they are in the same industry sector and occupation group and work the same hours. In terms of workplace illnesses, the risk increases with age and while there was no gender difference recorded during the boom, women experienced a significantly higher risk of illness than men in the recession.
Mr O’Halloran said that given that there’s been a 20,000-strong increase in the number of people employed in construction – one of the most accident-prone sectors – over the past year, it is encouraging that the number of recorded injuries in this and other industries hasn’t risen significantly. The HSA has partnered with some industry bodies in the most accident-prone sectors, such as construction and agriculture, to help push home the message that safety comes first.
“There have been a lot of new entrants to the workforce and a lot of people re-entering it after a gap and so we’ve been pushing hard to remind everyone of the dangers when there’s a rise in employee numbers,” he said.
“As an economy picks up, there’s an increased risk of accidents as employees become familiar with their work environment and pick up safe practices. This is seen across all industry sectors,” he said.
Emer Gaffney, director at Carraig Safety, a Co Kildare-based company that provides training and consultancy services to the corporate sector, said she had witnessed a rise in the number of firms looking for guidance on health and safety-related matters.
“We have found that most companies that are proactive are located in large towns and cities and are usually larger commercial entities such as the multinationals. The further you travel out into rural areas, the less likely you are going to get companies that are compliant with health and safety legislation. We have seen a slight change in this of late, but it tends to be more of a reactive approach than a proactive one,” she said.
“The general attitude of smaller companies toward health and safety is that it is an unwanted expense. We are generally told, ‘Sure, that’s okay for the likes of the big firms, but I wouldn’t be able to afford that’. It would generally appear to be seen as an added extra, whereas the larger companies can see the overall benefits and the savings,” Ms Gaffney said.
One of the key findings of the ESRI research was that inspections can have an impact on health and safety figures. The HSA carried out 10,719 inspections and investigations last year with written advice given in 38 per cent of cases and enforcement action in 9 per cent.
Mr O’Halloran said that often sector-specific inspections occur are accompanied by information campaigns designed with the help of industry bodies to reinforce the message that health and safety is important.
Meanwhile, many of the country’s biggest employers are taking additional steps to try to ensure there’s fewer workplace accidents.
The ESB for example, has turned to behavioural science in an attempt to understand more about how incidents occur.
"While industry-specific skills and knowledge are certainly required, these need to work alongside a non-technical skillset, such as communication skills, risk perception and situation awareness," said Pat Naughton, ESB executive director, group people and sustainability.
“We are increasingly working with specialists in the fields of behavioural science and cognitive psychology to help us understand why we sometimes behave unsafely. There are limitations to our ability to pay attention and process information within our environment and our perception of risks can be skewed or biased.
“At ESB, we have invested in designing our own behavioural safety programme, which aims to enhance the health and safety culture of the organisation, and to support staff in the development of non-technical skills for safety,” he said.
Whether science, information campaigns or just plain old-fashioned common sense can help reduce workplace accidents, it’s in all our interests to work hard to keep them at a minimum.