Health and Safety. I know, I know, I can already hear your groans. But bear with me please. We all know what dismal reputations those “killjoys” and “jobsworths” have in health and safety. In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is often forced to dispel “myths” about rigid rules it is said to have enforced, such as banning cast members throwing sweets into the audience during pantomimes.
But if we conduct a safety analysis of the workplace using the statisticians’ trusty tool of the micromort, defined as a one-in-a-million chance of sudden death, we can begin to appreciate what various initiatives have actually achieved.
For instance, these initiatives appear to get little popular credit for the reduction in industrial accidents over the decades. In 1974, when the UK’s HSE was formed, there were 651 employees killed at work, an average risk of 29 micromorts per year for an employee. By 2010 this figure had fallen to 120, which is 5 micromorts per year, an impressive 82% decrease in risk. (So you know, 5 micromorts is roughly equivalent to the risk of travelling 30 miles (48 kilometres) on a motorbike, or a single scuba-dive.) People who are self-employed carry more risk, and 51 were killed in 2010, which bumps up the overall UK average to 6 micromorts per year.
Britain comes out well in comparison with its European Union counterparts. The statistical office of the EU, Eurostat, reports that in 2007 British workers were on average exposed to 10 micromorts per year (excluding road transport deaths), compared with 17 in France, 19 in Germany, 26 in Spain, 35 in Poland and 84 in Romania. Of course the low UK figures could be because nobody in modern Britain does anything but stand in shops or sit behind computers.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US Bureau for Labour Statistics provides some extraordinary statistics on the fate of 130 million workers in 2010. A total of 4,547 workers were killed, a rate of 35 micromorts per worker per year. The most common cause was highway accidents, which are excluded from the European figures: without these the rate falls to around 28 micromorts per year, around that of Spain.
But, believe it or not, the second most common cause of death, larger than falls or being hit by things, is “assault and violent acts”. This comprises 18% of all work-place fatalities, and includes 506 homicides (this was down from 860 homicides in 1997). So this means that each year US workers have on average around 4 micromorts risk of being murdered at work – not much less than the total risk to UK workers.
Comparing these figures with the wider world is tricky, as reliable statistics are hard to come by. For example, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said that India reported 222 fatal accidents at work in 2005, while the ILO reckoned the true number was nearer 40,000.
Out of 2 billion workers worldwide in 2008, the ILO estimated that there were 317 million injuries requiring more than four days absence, and 320,000 people killed while at work, although they only heard about 22,000 of these deaths through official channels and so had to guesstimate the rest. This makes it an average of 160 micromorts per year per worker.
But it is important to bear in mind that all these figures are averages. This includes vast armies of workers toiling over computers, which although causing stress, repetitive strain and back injury, rarely actually kill you on the spot.
Some occupations, though, are a different matter.
Apart from niche jobs such as providing security in unstable regions of the world, the highest-risk occupation in the UK today is, believe it or not, commercial fishing. A recent study found 160 deaths in commercial fishing in the UK between 1996 to 2005, which works out as 1,020 micromorts per year per fisherman. This is staggeringly high – about the same as the risk British coal-miners faced in 1911. Commercial fishing is also the most dangerous job in the US, with a risk of 1,160 micromorts per worker in 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, being a police officer was only the 10th most risky job in the US, at 180 micromorts a year.