The recent wall collapse at a recycling yard leading to the tragic deaths of five workers in Birmingham is an unfortunate reminder to all employers about the constant risk of work-related injuries and industrial accidents.
The men were working when blocks of the 15ft concrete wall fell on them. All five were pronounced dead at the scene – a sixth man escaped with a broken leg. Sadly it is not unheard of for multiple fatalities and injuries to occur in a single work incident and the numbers being killed in such situations has again started to increase.
Provisional Health and Safety Executive figures indicate that 144 people were killed while at work in 2015/16, slightly up from the 142 killed in the preceding year. This is a fraction of the numbers killed on the road each year, and the UK still has the second lowest rate of recorded workplace deaths of any country in Europe. In 20 years the number of UK workplace fatalities has halved but still we see someone die every three days in a work-related accident.
In the North West region alone last year, 104 prosecutions were brought following accidents in the workplace and work-related injuries. Penalties vary but will almost definitely include a substantial fine (sometimes in the six or seven-figure bracket) or even prison for those found to have been negligent. Employers should be aware that an incident on their premises may be subjected to a criminal, as well as a civil, investigation.
Deaths in the workplace can occur in any sector, and while not all accidents are preventable, there are always steps employers can take to keep the chance of incidents occurring to a minimum. Figure suggests that for every pound a business may spend on direct costs after an accident, at least £36 is spent on indirect costs relating to the aftermath. Enshrined safety management systems are associated with well managed and successful businesses. Prevention is demonstrably better than cure in the workplace and the costs of getting it wrong have just rocketed under new sentencing guidelines.
Company boards should lead the way on safety, getting involved visibly to encourage compliance and ensuring there are mechanisms to check how work is being done day-to-day. They need to lead by example on safety initiatives and drive through the compliance culture in their organisations, stressing that the rules are there to be followed to the letter (and monitored) to ensure safety throughout the business.
Employers can check prevailing industry guidelines and standards across their sector. They need to carry out regular inspections and maintain a continuous programme of training and support for staff. They should not assume that employees are undertaking tasks in the way they were instructed, and that safe systems of work are actually being followed – and they should never rely on ‘good old common sense’ ensuring that workers will operate safely.
Every accident is harrowing. Employees who may have witnessed the incident will require sensitive management. They may be close to the deceased or do similar work, and sometimes may even have inadvertently contributed to the accident, and will need to provide details about what happened at what is understandably a very stressful time for them.
Directors who have probably never been near a criminal court may face a long and complicated journey through the criminal justice system. They may find they are expected to explain to a coroner’s inquest jury about any measures they took to prevent accidents from occurring, such as regular equipment safety checks, staff training and close supervision of work activities in areas of particular risk.
Employers will need to begin an investigation into the incident immediately after an accident, followed by an analysis of the findings. They will be expected to implement changes to working practices to try to prevent future deaths, whether that involves the introduction of new machinery, additional safety barriers, or enhanced operator training. If there are any more things that can feasibly be done, organisations will need to consider why they were not undertaken (or sometimes, perhaps, not even considered) before the tragic accident took place.
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