Workplace accidents happen in seconds – but they’re often the result of long-term lapses in health and safety standards. Inferior risk assessments, lack of training and a disregard for safe working practices have contributed to a recent string of life-altering injuries and fatalities. 

The media has highlighted increasingly punitive fines for employers – but 2019 indictments also reveal a staggering recurrence of safety issues, with the same preventable breaches occurring year in and year out.  

It’s time to break the cycle with a more responsible approach to risk and greater understanding of the five common safety failures that lead to H&S prosecutions. 

1. Machinery-related amputations and injuries 

Lost fingers and limbs. Spinal injuries. Life-limiting fractures. In recent months, workers across a range of sectors, from steel to farming to manufacturing, have suffered devastating health issues due to machinery crush incidents. 

Most often, accidents arise when published safety and maintenance guidance was sidestepped, allowing heavy or sharp machinery parts to become unstable or exposed. For example, an apprentice joiner’s finger was amputated when an insufficient guard caused his hand to come into contact with a planer’s blade. Another serious injury occurred when an unsecured freight container fell on a forklift truck operator as he removed it from heavy goods vehicle. 

Financial penalties have spiralled into seven figures, with Mid-UK Recycling Ltd being ordered to pay fines of £1.275 million and costs of more than £45,000 following a workplace accident that led to the loss of an employee’s arm. While removing a blocked piece of waste, a line operator’s glove was dragged under the powered roller of a conveyor belt, crushing his left arm. 

In all cases, prosecutions were entirely avoidable through proactive controls and ongoing health and safety support. 

2. Falls from height

Falls from height are among the most common causes of workplace injuries in the UK and companies continue to endanger employees and the public through poor working practices. 

The HSE is taking offending organisations to task, with negligent business execs firmly in the firing line. Throughout 2018/19, harsh fines were awarded to businesses putting workers at risk, and a company director received a 100-hour Community Service Order after a worker’s fall resulted in long-term brain damage and seizures. 

In another case, an Aberdeen building firm was hit with a £53,000 penalty after an employee fell to his death from the top of an inadequately secured ladder and scaffold tower. An HSE investigation later revealed that bosses were aware the structure had been erected by an individual who was not a qualified scaffolder. 

Roof falls are also putting workers at unnecessary risk – with unthinkable repercussions. Recent incidents have involved a builder falling through an unprotected skylight and a roofer sustaining severe head trauma after plunging five metres onto a concrete workshop floor. 

In both cases, pre-emptive safety planning, management and monitoring could have eliminated the hazards of working at height.

3. Asbestos exposure 

Asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma take the lives of around 5,000 people in the UK each year. While asbestos is harmless to humans when intact, disturbing fibres during construction work can release Class 1 carcinogens into the surrounding area. 

The safety buck stops with bosses and building owners, who are legally required to assess and manage asbestos risks across their site. Among other compliance measures, this involves carrying out a specialist asbestos survey before starting any construction work on premises built before 2000 and appointing a licensed contractor to remove any toxic fibres found. 

Despite a wealth of available asbestos guidance, companies continue to cut corners on compliance. A landlord was fined more than £10,000 after using a powered jet-wash to clean asbestos cement roof sheets, spreading deadly materials over the gardens of neighbouring homes. 

Other prosecutions show that superficial safety measures simply aren’t enough. An Essex restaurant carried out an asbestos survey only after toxic insulation board was removed and broken up, exposing workers to significant health risks. Similarly, a construction company and its director were heavily fined when, after a survey found asbestos containing materials onsite, they ignored correct safety procedures and licensed removal requirements to avoid project delays and increased costs.  

4. Workplace transport injuries and deaths 

According to early HSE data, of the 147 workers killed during 2018/19, thirty were struck by a moving vehicle. Forklift accidents account for a high number of incidents – and hundreds of thousands of pounds in financial penalties – while poor pedestrian segregation measures have cost the lives of numerous workers over recent years. 

Businesses who fail to provide the right information, training and safe systems of working are paying a high price. A recent prosecution saw a construction company fined £600,000 after an employee was run over when working in front of a lorry. The HSE investigation showed that the business had ‘failed to organise the construction site…to ensure that pedestrians were not carrying out work on or near traffic routes whilst vehicles were in operation’. 

Similarly, inadequate pedestrian/vehicle segregation cost the lives of a construction worker in Cambridgeshire and a Midlands road worker who was struck by a forklift truck while walking within a designated – yet unprotected – pedestrian walkway that ran down the centre of an active roadway.

5. Collapsing walls and falling objects 

Falling masonry, scaffolding and plastic recycling bales have recently been involved in serious workplace accidents – all preventable with proper risk assessments, control measures and duty of care to employees and the public. 

In a shocking near miss, a scaffolding company was fined £24,000 after a poorly-erected structure ‘inevitably’ collapsed onto the playground of a neighbouring primary school. Substandard safety practices also led to the death of a bricklayer in Lyme Regis when he was struck by falling masonry after a retaining wall failed. The company was subsequently slapped with a £900,000 penalty. 

In many cases, ongoing employee training – and a ‘no-stone-unturned’ approach to safety checks – can make a life-saving difference. Failure to identify a sensor fault on a roller shutter door led to the tragic entanglement death of a woman, despite an inspection being carried out only one month before the incident. And after a worker at a Warrington engineering fabrication company suffered severe crush injuries when a metal frame fell from a forklift truck, it was found that employees had not been adequately trained or instructed in methods of carrying out lifting operations safely.

A clear commitment to safety not only prevents workplace incidents, but also boosts morale, productivity and your corporate reputation. Every day, we help businesses meet and exceed their compliance obligations and do the right thing for their team.  

Talk to us about strengthening your current approach to H&S management or getting started with a regular programme of risk assessments, standard checks and staff training.