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Written by
on 02 October 2017

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Disturbing news from Northern Ireland as workplace deaths increase by 30% in one year.

Figures published by HSENI show that workplace deaths in Northern Ireland increased by 30% during 2016/17. The organisation responsible for monitoring, enforcing and promoting health and safety standards across Northern Ireland recorded a total of 16 workplace fatalities.

As with the rest of the UK, farming remains the most dangerous of all occupations, accounting for six deaths – twice the number of workers killed in construction accidents. Although agricultural deaths have been steadily declining, there have already been six fatalities during 2017/18 suggesting that trend is about to reverse.

A problem for the self-employed?

The HSENI report also reveals that those killed in the agricultural sector were self-employed farmers. For some commentators, this relatively large increase will confirm concerns about the government’s decision to exempt the self-employed from the Health and Safety Act.

Since 2015, self-employed workers are (in general) freed from the red tape associated with the Act in an attempt to simplify “doing business” for sole traders. But as many pundits pointed out, the move could have serious implications, with some going as far as calling the change “a licence to kill”.

Obviously, each incident reported by HSENI is different, but early indications suggest that relaxing regulations has had the opposite effect intended by politicians. Self-employed workers appear to be abusing their new found “freedom”, placing their lives in danger in the process.

A return to discipline

Health and safety red tape may have been intrusive, resource intensive and costly, but it is also incredibly good at protecting people at work. Workplace fatalities have been steadily declining for the past 40 years – and the Health and Safety Act 1974 has been instrumental in driving that trend.

Some self-employed workers are still bound by the Health and Safety Act, those working construction, or whose activities may affect members of the general public for instance. For everyone else, the lack of legal duty does not mean that they should ignore best practice to save time and money.

Indeed, self-employed workers should work hard to adhere to health and safety best practice if only to protect themselves and their families from the devastating consequences of workplace injuries.

A temporary blip. Hopefully.

The rise in Northern Irish workplace fatalities is the first in several years – so there remains a possibility that 2016/17 was simply an aberration, a statistical oddity not to be repeated. But the fact that last year’s agricultural death toll has already been equalled suggests that 2017/18 is likely to be as grim.

In the meantime, self-employed workers would benefit from undertaking health and safety awareness training. If you’d like to know more about assessing risks to better protect yourself at work, please get in touch.

David Cant is a Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME’s favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick. You can find him across social media on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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