Building safer places to work

 

Fifty-seven people died in the workplace last year, with men representing more the 90 per cent of these fatalities, writes MICHAEL KELLY.

MORE THAN 370 people lost their lives in workplace accidents between 2002 and 2007, according to Health and Safety Authority (HSA) statistics.

Last year 57 people died in workplace accidents, with more than half of those fatalities coming from just two industry sectors – 21 in agriculture (which includes hunting and forestry) and 15 in construction. In 2007, 67 people died in total including 11 in agriculture, 12 in fishing and 18 in construction.

In addition to these fatalities, each year about 20,000 workers experience non-fatal injuries which cause more than four days’ absence, according to figures from the CSO’s Quarterly National Household Survey.

The total number of injuries in the workplace each year is thought to exceed 50,000 with some estimates placing the cost to the Exchequer at €2 billion per annum.

Men continue to bear the brunt of these workplace accidents, according to Martin O’Halloran, chief executive of the HSA. “Of the 21 people killed in the agriculture sector in 2008, for example, only two of them were women,” he says.

“So we are looking at a situation where men represent upwards of 90 per cent of fatalities and that trend is reflected in the non-fatal accidents.”

There are, of course, more men than women in the workplace in the first instance and typically the industries which experience the largest number of fatal accidents are the ones which employ the most men – construction, agriculture, fishing and manufacturing.

But that is not the whole picture, according to O’Halloran. “We believe that women are more observant and careful than men, and that they are more risk averse. It is very hard to produce hard proof of that, but certainly we would have anecdotal evidence to suggest that is the case.”

The CSO reports that manual handling triggers approximately one-third of all reported accidents with “slip, trip and fall” incidents the next most common. “Work-related upper limb disorders are very common in those key sectors like agriculture and construction,” says O’Halloran.

“For example, the level of back and orthopaedic injuries among farmers is huge and this has a major impact on their lifestyle. We also see similar problems in the health sector with staff who are transporting or lifting patients.”

A 2007 HSA case study analysis of 20 workplace accidents established that the long-term financial, psycho-social and health implications are considerable. The report found more than half the employees reported suffering anxiety and a quarter reported suffering depression following the accident. A range of psychological effects were also reported.

“When the man is the main earner, there can be a devastating impact on income particularly where he is self-employed and this has a knock-on effect on mental health,” says O’Halloran.

“In younger men there can also be an impact on their sporting and social lives. We see cases where a fairly trivial accident, or certainly one that is nowhere near fatal, can cause a very rapid downhill spiral.

“We had one case study of a worker with a hand injury who was unable to carry out their job and the situation deteriorated very quickly into one of depression, frequent absenteeism and, ultimately, early retirement.

“We have seen employees involved in accidents who have a sense of martyrdom almost – they feel they have given a lifetime of service to a company but when the chips were down, the company didn’t help them.”

The employer has a role to play in ensuring that this does not happen, according to the HSA. “This is not really our remit, but we would suggest that supporting the employee in these cases will help,” says O’Halloran.

“Get them back to work and give them the support they need. The advice from the insurance industry traditionally to employers would be – don’t engage, don’t talk – we would say the opposite should be the case. The manner of engagement from the employer in these cases can have a significant impact on the outcome for the employee.”

The HSA believes that a change of attitude among employees and employers in the construction industry is responsible for a decrease in accidents in that industry.

“It’s no longer considered ‘unmacho’ for guys to wear helmets, high-viz vests, gloves, eye protection and so on. It takes a long time to change these attitudes but it’s becoming the norm now,” O’Halloran says. “Some of the traditional health problems which we would have seen such as dermatitis from handling uncured cement are not showing up as much. Construction workers now know that they are entitled to go to a workplace where it’s safe – it’s a basic human right.”

Ironically, the downturn in the construction sector is likely to lead to a further fall in accidents in 2009. There are, however, health and safety implications arising from the dramatic decrease in employment in the sector – the workers being made redundant or leaving for other industries may be the ones with the health and safety expertise.

The number of fatalities in the agriculture sector doubled in 2008, a development which O’Halloran has called “shocking and unacceptable”.

He added: “We do have some evidence that the message is getting through to what we would call career farmers, between the ages of 18 and 55. The age groups that we see as more vulnerable are children and elderly farmers. In 2008 we saw two children die on farms and eight people over the age of 60.”

Given these tough economic times, is there pressure on employers to rein in spending on health and safety?

“There probably is,” says O’Halloran. “But while they might make a saving this year, there will be a cost to them next year.

“Where we see excellence in occupational health and safety, we see excellence across the board on a whole series of parameters which determine success – such as productivity and staff morale.”

mkelly@irishtimes.com

Case Study: Seán Grant

Eleven years ago, Seán Grant’s life was turned upside down by an accident in the workplace. The 55 year old farms 140 acres near the Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal and was in the middle of the harvest when the accident occurred. “We were nearly there with it,” he says, “but there was one field left to do which was quite steep and the brakes on the combine harvester were not quite up to scratch. I decided to take a day out to see if I could fix it.”

Grant had the eight-tonne machine up on an axle stand and was working on a wheel when the harvester came off the stand and fell on top of him. “My femur was smashed and my pelvis was fractured. I had my hand up in the air when it fell and it basically broke my hand off.”

His son and a workman managed to get him out from under the harvester and he was transferred to Beaumont Hospital where he was to spend the next six months recovering.

Although he ultimately recovered well, Grant continues to take daily medication and has had ongoing problems with circulation in his legs – tragically, as a result, three years ago he had to have his left leg amputated below the knee.

“I have had 24 or 25 operations since the accident and my health is deteriorating all the time. You are never really 100 per cent after it. I never have a morning where I jump out of bed thinking, ‘Christ I feel fantastic’ and bear in mind before the accident I had never been sick a day in my life. Having said all that, I consider myself very lucky to be alive.”

The accident had implications far beyond his broken body – there were, he tells me, psychological consequences as well as the inevitable financial impact. “In terms of the finance side of things, I was lucky at the time that my wife was working and that kept the home fires burning but, of course, there was a huge impact on our income. I basically wasn’t back to work for a year and it was two years before I was fully right. We were doing sheep and grain before the accident but I had to get rid of the sheep because the doctor advised me not to work with livestock.”

Not surprisingly given his experience, Grant advises farmers to be incredibly careful when going about their work.

“I think there is that sense with the harvest when you get a window with the weather and you go for it hell for leather. I probably could have been more careful at the time and looking back on it I wonder whether we had our homework done properly.

“My advice would be that they take a step back from it and look at the whole situation – ask themselves whether they have everything right at each stage and think about the long-term impact of what they are doing.”

  • The HSA provides a range of publications and advice on workplace health and safety – visit www.hsa.ie, or locall 1890-289389