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Health and Safety Authority

Significant increase in number of work-related deaths last year compared to 2022

43 people lost their lives in work-related incidents in 2023 compared to 28 the previous year.

THERE WAS A significant increase in work-related deaths in 2023 compared to the previous year, according to figures released by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

The HSA data shows that 43 people lost their lives in work-related incidents last year compared to 28 people in 2022. 

Of those, 39 were male and four were female.

The self-employed accounted for 53% of all work-related deaths, while agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for 20 fatalities overall.

The farming sector (16 fatalities) and the construction sector (11 fatalities) accounted for over two thirds of work-related deaths last year. 

The leading cause of work-related fatalities were being struck by a vehicle or vehicle collisions (13 fatalities) and falls from height (11 fatalities).

The HSA said that fatal incidents happened to victims from all age groups, but the highest number involved people aged 55 and over, with 22 fatalities last year compared to 10 in 2022.

Speaking to The Journal, HSA Assistant Chief Executive Mark Cullen said: “The authority is of the opinion that one fatality is one to many, and certainly that every fatality is preventable.”

Despite the year-on-year increase, HSA records show that in the last ten years (2014-2023), there has been an overall decrease in the rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers in Ireland, from the rate of 2.8 in 2014 to 1.6 in 2023.

“That gives you a bigger picture in terms of trends,” Cullen said, adding that while there has been a significant rise in the number from 2022 to 2023, “the overall trend is positive in that it’s gone downward over the last 10 years”. 

Fatalities in agriculture ‘stubbornly high’

Asked about potential factors behind the increase in fatalities last year, he said:

“There are a couple of dynamics that might be feeding into that in that now we have got full employment, the numbers of people employed has increased. But we’re seeing agriculture and construction, primarily in agriculture, year-on-year have been stubbornly and consistently high in terms of fatalities.

“There might be other contributing factors that might come in there in terms of the seasonal weather and the changes in terms of the weather that the farmers have to grapple with, and possibly the small windows of opportunity, depending on the weather,” he said.

“That might put pressure and stresses on the actual farm activity, but again, from the regulator’s perspective, we will always say that time out to plan your activity, to look at the work that you’re going to carry out, to do your risk assessment and put in the appropriate control measures, that that is time well spent.”

Bad weather last year caused significant difficulty for the agricultural sector, with July being the wettest on record and further rain in autumn leading to crops going unharvested and “major losses” for farmers. 

The agriculture and construction sectors often have the highest number of work-related fatalities. Cullen said that this comes down to the high-risk nature of the activities performed by the sector, along with the transitional nature of both positions. 

“It’s not like your workplace setting such as in manufacturing. Yes, there’s activities going on there, but it’s very much controlled and you know what’s happening in that space,” he said.

“Whereas if you take construction, because of the nature of the work, builds change. It’s continuously changing week-on-week and certainly, it’s a little bit more challenging to manage.

“Likewise with the farm, while farming activities are repetitive in nature, there are a few variables like the weather, you’re dealing with livestock which are unpredictable. If you take all that into account, there’s a bigger risk associated with it.

Cullen also said that farming has its own uniqueness in that it is often the home place.

“A lot of farmers are living at home and the farm is nearly outside their door, so they probably become very familiar with that setting and workspace and sometimes perhaps, they maybe get a little bit more comfortable in the space, like ‘I’ve been doing this for so long’,” he said.

“There might be some complacency that might creep into that. But we will say every day or every week, you should be planning your work activity and making sure that you have the proper controls in place.

It’s important to point out that just because agriculture and construction have a high level of fatalities doesn’t mean that those sectors aren’t engaged proactively and trying to manage health and safety.

They are, but unfortunately because of the numbers and because of activities, they often have higher fatalities.”

On the over 55 age group being the one with the highest number of fatalities, Cullen said:

“As we get older, we do get slower and the activities that we were able to do in our 20s and 30s might be a little bit more challenging in our 50s. You have to build that into how you plan your work, and you may need some help or additional support in respect of that. Take that into consideration.”

Safety ‘everybody’s business’

Cullen said the all-time low number of work-related deaths seen in 2022 can’t be attributed to one particular factor.

“You could say yes, over the last 10-15 years, everybody has become aware of safety. There are more professionals involved in safety and the message about health and safety is well and truly embedded across all sectors,” he said.

“We have a role to play in it, but there are stakeholders that proactively engage and work with the authority, down to and including the individuals themselves who are self employed. Collectively, that has fed into the decrease, which is welcome.

“But obviously, fatalities have gone up this year and we’re seeing that there’s a high percentage again, in this year’s figures, of self employed so it’s a cohort that we will be looking to try and influence and raise awareness with and make sure that they know what their responsibility is to themselves and if it’s employers, that they have responsibility to employees.”

Safety is everybody’s business and that’s something that we continue to promote.

The HSA has overall responsibility for the administration and enforcement of health and safety at work across the country. 

It recently published its Programme of Work for 2024, which focuses on particular work activities and workplaces through a range of proactive inspections and targeted campaigns, including in the agriculture and construction sectors.

“If we take agriculture, we will have three inspection campaigns that will go with the seasonal type of work. In early February-March, we’ll be looking at the calving season so we’ll have a campaign focus on that. Then we’ll have an intensified campaign focusing on the the harvest season,” Cullen said.

“Then towards the autumn, it’s on working at heights because we find that in the agricultural sector, that’s a period when farmers start to look at what maintenance needs to be done before the winter on buildings.”

Cullen also said the HSA will be working on promoting and raising awareness of safety through running seminars and attending events such as the Ploughing Championships.

Publishing the HSA’s Programme of Work 2024, HSA Chief Executive Conor O’Brien said the authority will continue to work with partners in high priority sectors such as agriculture and construction.

“The Authority is looking ahead to the future as we take account of changing work, workers and workplaces in Ireland,” he said.

“We have and will continue to develop supports and resources to address the evolving nature of the work environment including impacts related to psychosocial hazards, digitalisation, sustainability, and changing workforce demographics.”

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