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Cath Everett

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Work-related illnesses cost UK economy £36bn

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Although the number of staff who were fatally injured at work fell significantly last year, non-terminal illnesses caused by poor working practices cost the UK economy nearly £36bn.

 
According to provisional figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), some 151 workers died in fiscal year 2009-2010, which equates to about 0.5% per 100,000 employees, one of the lowest rates in Europe. The figure is also 31% lower than the average 0.7% per 10,000 staff recorded over the last five years.
 
HSE chair Judith Hackett said: "It’s really very encouraging to see a further reduction in workplace fatalities in the past year. This is performance which owes much to good practice, leadership and employee engagement."
 
But the fact that the recession had led to lower levels of activity in some sectors and a drop in the numbers of new, inexperienced recruits also contributed to the fall, she added.
 
Working in agriculture remains the UK’s most dangerous job, however, with 8.2 fatalities recorded per 100,000 (or 38 in total), although again the figure fell from an average of 8.7 over the previous five years.
 
But Unison disputed the figures, claiming that, in reality, the number of workplace deaths was 10 times higher than official estimates. Hope Daley, the union’s head of health and safety, said that their findings indicated there were 1,600 deaths caused by work-related incidents each year, plus 50,000 more from work-related illnesses, including cancer, respiratory issues and heart disease.
 
The statistics also did not include deaths to members of the public, work-related suicide and road traffic accidents while driving for work, she added.
 
"The death toll at work is truly horrific and now is not the time for the government to relax health and safety laws. We need to clamp down on employers who do not follow regulations or report non-fatal accidents," Daley said.
 
The prime minister David Cameron ordered a government-wide review of health and safety laws last month. He appointed Lord Young, a former trade and industry secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government, as new health and safety advisor to tackle what he described as the UK’s "compensation culture".
 
The Tory party had criticised health and safety regulations as overly restrictive when in opposition and recommendations are expected to include changes to the Health and Safety at Work Act and compensation legislation.
 
But research undertaken among 2,628 UK workers by union the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) revealed that poor practices were putting staff health at risk. One in four people regularly work all day without taking a break, just over a third work through their lunch break and 23% take no lunch break at all. Almost a third said the reason for such behaviour was that there were too few other staff to cover their workload.

But the CSP warned that failure to take adequate breaks increased the risk of chronic musculoskeletal disorders such as ongoing back pain, obesity, cancer, depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and strokes.
 
Musculoskeletal disorders are already one of the biggest causes of staff sickness, with an estimated 9.3 million full-time equivalent working days being lost to the condition during fiscal year 2008-2009. The situation costs employers about £7.4bn each year, according to the Work Foundation.
 
Stress, depression and anxiety, meanwhile, led to an estimated 11.4 million sick days in fiscal year 2008-2009, costing the country £28.3bn – a quarter of the UK’s sick bill from absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover costs – according to NICE.
 
The CSP survey revealed, however, that 54% of workers ‘always or usually’ go to work when they feel stressed or physically unwell, with 31% experiencing pain and 42% feeling stressed at least once a week.
 
Some 46% of respondents attributed their pain to working in the same position for a long time, while the same number said their stress was caused by inadequate staffing levels.
 
Ben Willmott, senior public policy advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "Employers should ensure their line managers have the people management skills to prevent pressure becoming stress and to identify the early warnings signs if people are struggling to cope at work."
 
Organisations that supported employee wellbeing through providing flexible working and encouraging and supporting staff to make healthier choices over diet and exercise would also benefit from a more resilient and productive workforce, he added.

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