This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (28.04.20).

Covid-19 has claimed the lives of thousands of people in the UK, including many key workers. After calls to acknowledge these deaths there was a minute’s silence at 11am 28 April, which is International Workers’ Memorial Day.

This Insight looks at Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on reporting coronavirus incidents at work. It places HSE statistics on ill health and fatalities at work in a longer-term context. 

A coronavirus commemoration

The Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the public sector trade union UNISON led calls to commemorate workers who have died. This was marked by parliaments and assemblies across the UK and is being led in the House of Commons by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has proposed coronavirus as the theme for 2020 and suggests lighting a candle in the evening.

Workers’ Memorial Day

International Workers’ Memorial Day is held on 28 April each year to remember workers who have died due to hazards at work. It was formally recognised by the Labour Government led by Gordon Brown in 2010 following a consultation in 2009. The Conservative Government led by Theresa May confirmed continued recognition of Workers’ Memorial Day in October 2017. 

The HSE works with recognised unions and other organisations to mark this day.

The Health and Safety Executive

The HSE was established following the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. Its mission is to prevent work-related death, injury and ill health. It publishes statistics from several sources.  The Labour Force Survey covers self-reported incidents (such as calling in to report sickness absence).

RIDDOR, the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 covers statutory reporting of incidents obligatory to employers.

The Labour Force Survey and RIDDOR provide a comprehensive account of workplace accidents and occupational illness. They are designated as official “national statistics” according to the UK Statistics Authority.

RIDDOR guidance on reporting of Covid-19

The HSE has published guidance on RIDDOR reporting of Covid-19. There are three circumstances which must be reported:

  • A dangerous occurrence – when an unintended incident at work has led to someone’s possible or actual exposure to coronavirus
  • A case of disease – where a worker has been diagnosed as having Covid-19 and there is reasonable evidence that it was caused by exposure at work
  • A fatality – where a worker dies as a result of occupational exposure to coronavirus

When a registered medical practitioner confirms that the likely cause of a worker’s death is exposure to coronavirus from their work the regulations stipulate that it must be reported to HSE without delay and within 10 days.

Statistics publication

The HSE publishes its statistics annually. Its reporting year runs from April to March. Fatal injuries are updated quarterly. The next publication date for fatalities is 1 July 2020. This report will cover the period up to 31 March 2020. The full health and safety compendium will be released on 4 November 2020. This will include figures for ill health. 

During the current crisis Ministers have been providing updates on numbers of workers’ deaths. These Government updates are based on provisional figures.

Fatalities at work before coronavirus

Fatalities in work in 2018/19:

  • 147 workers were fatally injured at work, a rate of 0.45 fatalities per 100,000 workers
  • 95% of all worker fatalities were to male workers, a similar proportion to earlier years
  • The self-employed were more than twice as likely to suffer fatal injury as an employee
  • 25% of fatal injuries were to workers aged 60 and over
  • Over 40% were either in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector or the construction industry
  • Around three quarters were accounted for by just five different accident kinds

In statistical terms the number of fatalities has remained broadly level in recent years. The average annual number of workers killed at work over the five years 2014/15-2018/19 is 142.

Over the past 30 years there has been a steady fall in the rate of fatal injury. In 1996/97 there were a total of 287 fatalities at work; roughly double that of 2018/19. This fall reflects changes in occupations and safety practices. The industry in which someone works is a major factor in their health and safety risk.

The UK three-year average rate for 2013-2015 (0.52 per 100,000 employees) was the lowest of all EU member states.  The 2016 UK standardised rate of 0.53 per 100,000 employees was lower than that of Germany (0.63), Italy (0.91), Spain (1.53) and France (3.32).

Work-related ill health before coronavirus

In 2018/19 1.4 million workers were suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work. This includes musculoskeletal disorders and lung disease from past exposures at work, for example to asbestos. However, stress, depression or anxiety was the most common type of work-related illness, accounting for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost.

Work-related stress, depression or anxiety:

  • Is defined as a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work
  • Has shown some signs of increasing in recent years
  • Is more prevalent in public service industries, such as health and social care, education, public administration and defence

Women are particularly highly affected by this ill health type. The Institute for Fiscal Studies notes that 60% of all key workers are women, rising to nearly 80% of health key workers.

Nurses, midwives and public service workers: already a cause for concern in 2019

We can see then that even prior to the current crisis, people working in the health and public services sectors were already recognised as being at higher risk for health and safety at work.

You can read more about health and safety statistics in our briefing paper Health and Safety statistics, number 7458. We will update it as soon as the official statistics on which it is based are released.

Note: Offshore industries and particularly dangerous work environments have their own dedicated sources of health and safety statistics that are not covered in this Insight.

Further reading

Health and Safety Statistics, House of Commons Library.

About the author: Gloria Tyler is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in economic policy and statistics.