[ 31 May 2018 ]

Workplace safety
Britain is the safest place in the world to work

The stats

The UK consistently ranks as the best country for safety at work, with workplace fatalities around 0.4 per 100,000 employees. This is consistently better than any other European country and far better than the US.


Fig 1 Standardised incidence rates of fatal injury at work, excluding road traffic accidents and on board transport, Eurostat, ESAW, 2014

How does Britain compare?

Eurostat consistently ranks the UK as the safest place for workplace fatalities, and says the UK’s rate of 0.55 per 100,000 in 2015 (it has since fallen) compares favourably with other large economies such as Germany at 0.81, Italy at 1.15, Spain at 1.47 and France at 3.14.


Non-EU countries tend to be even worse

The US is at 3.6 per 100,000.

Japan has a word for working to death: Karōshi. A fifth of Japanese workers are thought to be at risk from overwork – from strokes and heart attacks to suicide.

And the rest of the world…

Death-at-work rates can top 20 per 100,000 in many developing countries.

Britain – beneath the figures

The fatality rate is continuing to decline albeit the rate of decline is slowing.


In 2017, 137 workers were killed in Britain, the second lowest year on record after 2013-2014.

Most at risk in Britain

The vast majority – around 95% – of employees who die at work, are men (although you wouldn’t know it from the look of this dutifully ‘diverse’ government report.)

Falls from height and moving vehicles are the major culprits of death at work.


Farmers are most at risk, but being a dustman is not far off.

What’s the Brexit effect?

The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act is the core piece of legislation that governs our workplace safety in the UK and therefore predates EU involvement.

The EU’s other major countries, notably France, Spain and also Germany, have significantly higher workplace fatalities.

So why is Britain so safe?

The UK regulator, the Health & Safety Executive, should take much credit. It has a ‘very modern’ approach, and follows principles set down by Malcolm Sparrow in his seminal book ‘The Regulatory Craft’ (2000). It’s simple central concept: ‘choose important problems and fix them’, has proven highly effective.

Britain also has several safety focused charities, such as Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, founded over 100 years ago, which also follows this evidence-based approach.


Britain has been working at protecting workers for a long time. The Factory Act of 1802 was probably the world’s first work-welfare legislation. Other milestones include the Coal Mines Act (1842), the appointment of the first women factory inspectors (1893), and the Modern Slavery Act (2016). Here is a good timeline of UK occupational health rules.


Work with EU-OSHA

Given its leadership, Britain is a leading contributor to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, whose 2018 campaign is focused on dangerous substances at work.

Bitter, anyone?

It was Scottish scientists working for British company Johnson Matthey who discovered Bitrex, the most bitter substance known to man. It is now used in many household and industrial products to prevent accidental ingestion. A teaspoon of Bitrex can be tasted in an olympic swimming pool.

British Safety Council in India

The British Safety Council recently opened an office in Mumbai to help prevent workplace deaths. India’s death-at-work rate is 20 times higher than the UK’s and around 80% of the workforce is not protected by the existing health and safety legislation.

It's 'elf and safety gone mad!

The popular British complaint that something is ‘health and safety gone mad’ is, according to the Health and Safety Executive, mainly based on myth.


Typical British children wear goggles and safety gear in order to play ‘conkers’.

Bad stuff still happens

There is still a job to do and the UK’s health and safety community are never satisfied. British companies are fined on an almost daily basis for ‘old’ breaches that we otherwise know how to prevent and are legislated against. Here is the latest catalogue of disaster, amputations and tragedy.

Where next?
Countries are on a continuum from safety to occupational health and Britain is increasingly focused on the latter. In Scotland, there is great emphasis on ‘health’ in the context of an ageing population, and how to keep people fulfilled and in employment for longer.

Britain’s record on health and safety is a well kept secret. But scratch the surface and you uncover a vibrant community of charities, member organisations and committees all working together with an approachable and pragmatic regulator, towards a common goal. It is a community that tackles a complex problem with simple principles. As Dr Karen McDonnell, RoSPA Policy Adviser told WCB, “it’s about looking at the data and focusing accordingly: going to the right places, doing the right thing, and finishing what you’ve started. It sounds simple but it’s so important.”

Health and safety expertise is a British export that should be known to every citizen and every ambassador.

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