​​​​​​​Why do people think health and safety has gone mad?

The Health and Safety Executive's Annual Fatality Statistics 2017/18

The Health and Safety Executive's Annual Fatality Statistics 2017/18

144 people died at work last year. So said the Health and Safety Executive’s annual fatality statistic report. So it must be true.

I mean, that’s not even 3 people a week. And, in a country with a population in excess of 66 million people, it would barely register as a bar on a graph, or a slither on a pie chart.  

Easy to see then why people:

  • think health and safety’s gone mad;

  • claim health and safety is a burden on business;

  • tout safety regulation as red tape; and

  • see safety rules and procedures as a tiresome impediment to getting a job done. 

Actually, as someone who has lost a brother in a work-related electrocution, I think all of these beliefs could not be further from the truth.

So, why do such attitudes persist?  In part, is it because the general public are not told The Whole Story?  And if they were, what difference would it make?

Making every work-related death count

When I’m invited in to speak, often there will be an intro by the client.  Very often this intro will include a line along the following lines:

“The UK has one of the best health and safety records in the world.  Despite that fact, still 144 people died at work last year.  That’s not good enough.”

And it certainly is not good enough.  It’s heartbreaking that 144 loved ones should leave for work and never make it home.

Michael Adamson's death did count in the collective consciousness of the public

Michael Adamson's death did count in the collective consciousness of the public

But if we’re to challenge the narrative that “health and safety’s gone mad”, then we need to ensure the lives of all those who die because of work are counted, as that’s how they will be made to count!

My wee brother’s death…it did count in the collective consciousness of the general public, because it was included in the HSE’s annual fatality statistics.  The year he died the public would have believed that “212 workers were killed at work”.

But while this annual “statistic” from the HSE is the one most often quoted, it doesn’t even begin to tell the Whole Story.

Who does the HSE NOT count in the annual work-related fatality statistics?

The HSE doesn’t count firefighter husband and father of two small boys, Lee Gaunt, who took his own life after a colleague died tackling a blaze, tormented by work pressures and thoughts of what he could have done to prevent the tragedy.    

Nor does it count, Dr Lauren Connelly who crashed when driving home exhausted from another “inhumane” junior doctor shift, or Erin McQuade and her grandparents, among 6 killed in the Glasgow Bin Lorry crash. 

Eilidh Cairns, she was crushed under the wheels of a lorry, but like her ghost bike, she’s invisible in the HSE’s figures. 

As are all those who’ve died in offshore Super Puma helicopter disasters; Peter Clunas who died when his helicopter ditched into a loch while working on a fish farm; and the two fishermen whose bodies were raised in their boat the Nancy Glen.  

That headline HSE figure also doesn’t capture those who die because of work.

Julie Roberts lost both her dad and her uncle within a matters of weeks of one another and is doing her damndest to ensure Mesothelioma Matters, but she needs our help!  

And who among you wants to tell newly engaged Kayla Boor’s partner and young son that you’re not counting her death?  She’d just finished the school run, when a pallet of bricks crashed down on top of her.   

Be you a safety professional, journalist, or member of the public, a disservice is done to all work-bereaved families when 144 is used as an annual work-related death toll!

We all need to tell the Whole Story of work-related deaths

Hazards Conference 2018

Hazards Conference 2018

When I spoke at Hazards Conference this past weekend, Professor Steve Tombs put it succinctly when relaying the many forms of harm caused by the appalling loss of life at Grenfell Tower:

Health and safety regulation is not red tape, it is a fundamental form of social protection. 

And that is what we need to get into the collective consciousness of the public.  

We need to tell the Whole Story as researched and written by the Hazards Campaign's Hilda Palmer, Rory O’Neill, Dave Whyte and Steve Tombs.

Work-related suicides

The Whole Story counts work-related suicides, be that:

  • an experienced head teacher who felt stressed by inspection regimes;

  • a newly promoted teacher who felt overloaded;

  • a lecturer whose wife described him as “carrying the burden of his work with him”; or

  • a police officer who wrote his own death tag out before taking his own life in the aftermath of having witnessed the murder of his colleagues.

Other countries do recognise work-related suicides: Japan, Australia and France, for example.  But in the UK, such deaths are not recognised.  The HSE does not investigate.  And therefore, work cannot be done to eliminate the causes and prevent future deaths!  

Road Traffic Deaths

The Whole Story also includes road traffic deaths.  These are most often victims who were not at work, but who were killed BY work:

  • mothers and their children killed because vehicles were unroadworthy, or their drivers were. 

They died because work equipment was unsafe, or training was inadequate, drivers lacked health and/or competence, or unrealistic deadlines had been set.  Again, if these were all recognised, trends identified, think of the preventative measures!   

Marine and Air Deaths

The Whole Story also includes deaths investigated by the marine and air accident investigation branches:

  • fishermen who go to work off our shores;
  • a sea cadet let down in the worst possible way by those who were meant to be looking after her;
  • those who were travelling along the A27 when a plane taking part in the Shoreham Air Show plummeted to the ground and whose families have so far endured a near 3 year wait for answers; and
  • those who died in the Clutha air crash…police officers and pilot…and 7 men who went to the pub that night not knowing it was going to be their last orders. These families are approaching 5 years without answers.

Rail Deaths

The Whole Story does currently include some, but not all deaths investigated by the Office of Rail and Road.  Scottish Hazards - the health and safety charity on whose board I sit - will be watching to see if the death of a worker recently at Bearsden Station will be counted.  

It just cannot be right that the general public does not have all of these deaths in its collective conscious when an annual work-related fatality statistic is apparently issued.

Deaths caused by work-related illness

It is also wrong in the extreme that the public is in some ways shielded from The Whole Story when it comes to deaths caused by work-related illness:

  • wives who have had prolonged exposure to asbestos from their husbands’ overalls when doing the family laundry;
  • the cash and carry worker exposed to asbestos when birds pecked at the crumbling roof of the building in which he worked;
  • the teachers and pupils who have died as a result of exposure in our schools; and
  • Simon Pickvance, a giant of the Hazards movement, who did SO much to ensure the lives of others counted, and who contracted mesothelioma from his time as a construction worker. 

These are people dying the most painful and heartbreaking of deaths, but singularly.  Ensuring these deaths are counted and recognised collectively is where their biggest preventative strength lies. 

Deaths of Members of the Public

Lastly, The Whole Story should most certainly capture all members of the public who die as a result of work-related health and safety failings:

  • the sister and daughter who’d been admitted to hospital for care in relation to her mental health, who after a number of attempts, and warnings from her family that not enough was being done to protect her, took her own life;
  • the little girls who had been taken for fun family days out when their lives were taken in the cruellest of fashions when bouncy castles either exploded or blew free from their tethers; and
  • it should absolutely include the 72 souls who perished at Grenfell.

The true work-related death toll

When all of these lost lives are made to count…144 is not an annual work-related death toll.  It is, in actual fact, a daily one!  

1500 loved ones who die in incidents, and a further 50,000 who die due to illness. 

That is loss of life equivalent to 2 Grenfell Towers each and every day.

That is 6 loved ones lost to work-related causes each and every hour.  


And let’s not forget, for every one of these 51,500 people, there is a ripple effect for family, friends and colleagues which must also be taken into account.    

If we say 20 people are affected by each death (and based on my family’s experience, this is a conservative estimate), then we are talking in the region of 1 million people affected annually by work-related deaths. 

If, from today, we all ensure the Whole Story is the one that is given the prominence it deserves, we’ll better see root causes identified, lessons learned, and preventative enforcement prioritised.  

We'll slay the red tape myth, and have it be fully understood that health and safety is not a burden on business, but rather, lack of good health and safety is a burden on us all. 

Examples of Sharing The Whole Story

So, I'm going to ask you to share The Whole Story. 

Be that this video of me delivering a shortened version of this blog post. 

Or the Hazards Campaign's summary of The Whole Story

I’d love for you to share with me examples of where The Whole Story has been told, or else where you have challenged the use of the HSE figure and educated people about The Whole Story. 

Please do so, either on the email address below, or through one of our social media channels, using #thewholestory .

And, together, we’ll help put a stop to so many chapters ending in tragedy, but instead be the authors of an altogether more uplifting story!

Louise is a popular health and safety workplace speaker who, through telling her brother Michael's story, helps organisations reinforce their safety message. To find out more, view this short video.  And should there be anything you want Louise to cover in future briefings, please drop her a message to louise@michaels-story.net or comment below.