Burying the Dead? Lies, Damned Lies and HSE Statistics

Professor Steve Tombs of The Open University uncovers the hidden scale of work-related deaths in the UK and challenges the Health and Safety Executive to present the problem accurately in its own statistics.

By: 
Professor Steve Tombs
Date: 
Monday, 04 November, 2013

On 30th October, as every late October, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the regulatory agency with primary responsibility for enforcing health and safety law across British workplaces, press released its latest Annual Statistics, these for the year 2012-2013. According to that press release, 2012/13 saw '148 workers fatally injured – down from 171 the previous year'.

On the face of it, a decline in the numbers of people who go to work never to return appears to be good news. But, as always, and whether or not there actually is a year-on-year fall – the figure is always revised upwards one year later – this claim of 148 deaths is a classic case of the state being rather economical with the truth. And in so doing, it is keeping hidden, buried, tens of thousands of fatalities caused by working for a living.

Following the link from the press release takes us to the HSE’s full document, Health and Safety Statistics 2012/13. This informs the reader that 'There are currently around 13,000 deaths each year from work-related diseases' (page 5). This immediately makes the press released figure, of 148 work-related fatal injuries, look like rather an under-estimation of the scale of death as a result of working in contemporary Britain.

But the underestimation and, frankly, misrepresentation, does not stop there. Also reportable to HSE are deaths to members of the public which arise out of work activity. Data on these deaths are nowhere to be seen in the press release or the glossy documents to which it links. But a little digging around HSE’s own website reveals some information on the number of such deaths.

First, a visit to the HSE’s Fatal Injury Statistics page reveals, for 2012/13, that 'There were 113 members of the public fatally injured in accidents connected to work in 2012/13 (excluding railways-related incidents)' – a figure that significantly augments the 148 fatal injuries to workers. But anyone really determined might then further trawl the site and chance upon a much fuller document, the snappily titled Statistics on fatal injuries in the workplace in Great Britain 2013. Full-year details and technical notes. And, according to this, 'There were 423 members of the public fatally injured in accidents connected to work in 2012/13. Of these deaths, 310 (73%) related to incidents occurring on railways' (page 4).

Let us be clear about what is happening here. We have a press release spun to all and sundry to trumpet a headline figure of 148 deaths. Then, it is possible to find a further 423 fatal injuries recorded by HSE but which do not make it into its own press-released headline; in addition, we can chance across an estimation, in HSE’s own terms, of 13,000 deaths in the same year from fatal occupational illness. The end result of this trawl through official, albeit buried, data takes us from 148 deaths to almost 14,000 deaths in 2012/1013.

But the under-estimate does not stop there. As the HSE now openly acknowledges, there are significant categories of deaths – at sea, or associated with the airline industry, for example – which are occupational but recorded by other agencies. But by far the biggest omission are the deaths of those who die whilst driving as a normal part of their work. This omits some 800 – 1,000 deaths per annum – from those who deliver ‘meals on wheels’ to district nurses, postal workers and lorry drivers – because such deaths are recorded as road traffic rather than occupational fatalities.

Still, these additions do not capture the full scale of the problem of work-related deaths. For while the HSE’s data on fatal occupational illness is an estimation, as it acknowledges, it is in fact a gross under-estimation.

For example, researchers from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work calculated, in 2009, 21,000 deaths per annum in the UK from work-related fatal diseases, while accepting both that such data 'might still be an under-estimation' and that deaths from work-related diseases are 'increasing'. A UK study has estimated up to 40,000 annual deaths in Great Britain caused by work-related cancers alone. And long-term research by the Hazards movement, drawing upon a range of estimates derived from studies (some commissioned by HSE) of occupational and environmental cancers, the percentages of heart-disease deaths which have a work-related cause, as well as percentage estimates of other diseases to which work can be a contributory cause, produces a lower end estimate of up to 50,000 deaths from work-related illness in the UK each year, or more than four times the HSE estimate. This annual total ranks highly in comparison with virtually all other recorded causes of premature death in the UK.

Workplace deaths are not, of course, reducible to numbers. Every death creates ever-widening ripples of emotional, psychological and financial harms through families, friends and communities. But the injustices experienced by those so bereaved are surely compounded when an agency of the state glibly under-states and under-estimates the scale of the killing. And, if the HSE cannot present this problem accurately, what hope that it might actually do its job and seek to prevent and respond to such deaths adequately?


Professor Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.