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Every one counts

Every year, usually towards the end of October, HSE publishes a comprehensive set of statistics about health and safety in British workplaces.

The most recent figures for 2011-12 revealed reductions in many areas of work-related injury and ill health but some of the numbers appear to have flattened out. So overall there was some encouraging news but still plenty of room for further improvement in performance.

One of the challenges of publishing the annual statistics is to get the media and other commentators to look beyond the fatal injury numbers. It is entirely understandable that there is an immediate focus on the number of people who have lost their lives in work related incidents - every one represents a shocking event which will have brought trauma and tragedy to the families, workmates and friends of those who have died.

But we also need to think about the much larger number who die prematurely every year as a result of work related ill health. Industrial diseases account for thousands of premature deaths each year, though the precise number is always going to be hard to count because of the difficulties associated with tracking factors outside work which can and do contribute to these conditions.

Latest estimates indicate that there are around 8,000 occupational cancer deaths in Great Britain annually. Some 4,500 deaths are due to past exposure to asbestos.

Estimates suggest that approximately 15 per cent of all cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including bronchitis and emphysema) are work related. This means that as many as 4,000 COPD deaths occur every year due to past exposure to fumes, chemicals and dusts.

No-one who has ever been involved in any way with a work related fatal injury will ever forget the trauma and distress that is caused. But it's a sobering thought that around 50 times as many families experience the loss of a loved one due to work related cancer as the number who lose someone because of fatal injuries.

With all the talk of numbers, we should never forget that we do what we do to protect people and save lives, not improve statistics. The fact that many of the illnesses we are talking about have a long latency period means that changing what we do today will take several years before the improvement appears in the statistics. But what we are really talking about is working to ensure that 8000 more people every year live long enough and experience good health to enjoy not only their own children but their grandchildren.

My grandfather worked in a coal mine for 51 years, but he retired at 65 and lived well into his 80s. I now know how extraordinarily lucky I was to have him around when I was growing up.

2014-02-10