A year like no other: What do the HSE’s annual statistics tell us about health and safety during the pandemic?

Wednesday January 12, 2022

Last month, the HSE published its annual statistics for 2020/21. Unsurprisingly, the report is dominated by the impact of COVID-19. The data covers a period of intense disruption, encompassing both a national lockdown and the widespread adoption of remote working. While this makes it hard to draw comparisons with previous years, it does present an interesting snapshot of health and safety in the time of COVID.  

The HSE was unable to collect data on the number of working days lost to ill health, so the report tells us little about the economic impact of the virus. Instead, it focuses on its physical effect on the workforce. The HSE has added two COVID-specific estimates, giving us a clear picture of pandemic-related ill health: 

  • 93,000 people reported catching COVID-19 at work. 
  • 645,000 reported a work-related illness that had been caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. 70% of these were mental health complaints.   

A mental health epidemic? 

The second of these estimates is especially worrying. It seems that the UK workforce is in the midst of a mental health epidemic. Of the 1.7 million work-related illnesses reported in 2020/21, 822,000 were cases of anxiety, stress or depression. This is a slight reduction on last year’s figure (828,000), but it is still high. In the year before the pandemic it was 602,000. Over half of this year’s cases (451,000) were new, suggesting that the pandemic has been a major contributing factor in poor mental health at work.  

Whether your employees are returning to the office or continuing to work remotely, prioritising their mental health will be vital in 2022. If you haven’t done (or recently updated) a risk assessment for this, now’s the time. A big part of the solution for most will be creating a supportive environment. Check in with your workers regularly, and make it clear that they can always talk to you if they are struggling. Be open about your own difficulties, too, as this may encourage others to be honest about theirs.      

Guarding against physical risk 

Physical risks remain present too. For many years, office workers have been plagued by musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. These remain the most common cause of physical ill health in the workplace. A total of 470,000 workers reported a musculoskeletal disorder in 2020/21, and 162,000 of these were new cases.  

This latest batch of injuries could be the result of employees working remotely for the first time. Musculoskeletal disorders are commonly caused by problems with the workspace, such as inadequate seating or incorrect keyboard position. With many employees setting up makeshift offices at home, the risk of such injuries has grown considerably. 

While the law does not require employers to inspect home offices, you still have a responsibility to keep remote workers safe. If you haven’t already done so, update your risk assessment to include home working employees. This should take into account any risks associated with their workspace. Consider sending out a DSE H&S questionnaire to those working from home. Provide them with guidance on the optimal way to set up a home office and, if necessary, consider supplying ergonomic equipment. 

Accidental risk 

Although lower than previous years (probably on account of fewer people in the workplace due to furlough and home working), accidental injuries also remain a significant risk. 441,000 workers suffered a non-fatal injury in 2020-21, and over 100,000 of these were serious enough to warrant more than a week off work. By far the most common cause of injuries were slips, trips and falls, accounting for a third of all non-fatal accidents. 

As always, you should be vigilant about spotting and removing slipping and tripping hazards in the workplace. Look out for trailing wires from electrical equipment, and always put down a wet floor sign after cleaning. During the winter, you should also ensure that outdoor areas are well-lit and paths are gritted regularly.  

Here to help 

These latest figures suggest that employers are in for another challenging year. New risks have emerged, while old risks still remain. If you have any questions about caring for the mental and physical health of your employees, at home or in the office, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

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