Was the Economic Boom Bad for Workers Safety and Health?

A new ESRI report being launched today, 14 May 2015, by Minister Ged Nash TD examines trends in work related injury and illness in Ireland. 

Trends and Patterns in Occupational Health and Safety in Ireland , by Helen Russell, Bertrand Maître and Dorothy Watson (ESRI), brings together for the first time twelve years of data collected by the Central Statistics Office on injury and illness, with data from the Health and Safety Authority on fatalities to analyse whether these outcomes changed over the recent period of labour market turbulence.

From Boom to Recession: Work-related Injury and Illness and the Business Cycle
Work-related injuries affected an average of 47,000 workers in Ireland each year between 2001 and 2012 while an average of 48,000 suffered from a work-related illness. These injuries and illnesses impose a significant burden on workers, families, employers, and the wider economy and society.

The risk of both injury and illness rose in the boom period (2001-07) and fell during the recession (2008-12). This result has also been found in UK and US studies and has been attributed to the rise in the proportion of inexperienced new recruits during periods of economic growth, and to increases in work intensity and hours of work. The literature also suggests that during a period of recession workers may be more reluctant to report injuries or to take time off work for illness when they are insecure about their jobs.

Who is Most at Risk?
Younger workers have the highest risk of injury as the likelihood of injury declines with age. Men experience a much higher risk of work-related injury than women even when they are in the same sector and occupational group, and work the same hours.
The risk of work-related illness rises with age but levels off at the oldest age groups, as less healthy workers exit the workforce sooner. There is no gender difference in work-related illness over the economic growth period, but in the recession period (2008-12), women experienced a significantly higher risk of illness than men.

What Factors Increase the Risk?
Work-related injury and illness vary substantially across different groups of workers. Those working in the construction, agriculture, health and industry sectors had the highest risk of injury. Work-related illness risks were highest in the agriculture, construction, transport and health sectors.
Shift workers and those working at night had a significantly higher risk of work-related injury and illness, even compared to others working in the same sector and broad occupation.
Those working longer hours were more prone to injury and to work-related illness. However, adjusting for exposure, those working less than 20 hours per week had the highest risk per hour worked. Highly variable working hours were also linked to higher injury and illness risks.
Those who were in their job for less than a year were four times more likely to have experienced a work injury than workers who have been more than 5 years in their current job.

Fatal Injuries
An average of 47 individuals lost their lives while at work in each of the years between 2004 and 2013. Over this period the risk of fatal injury was dramatically higher - 24 times - for those in the agricultural sector (farming, fishing and forestry) compared to workers in the services sector. Workers in industry and construction also had much higher risks of fatal injury than service sector workers - 8 times higher for those in the construction sector and 3 times higher for industry. Over the period there was a significant decline in fatalities among those working in the services sector but fatalities in the agricultural sector increased over the period. EU figures for 2011 show that Ireland had the seventh highest worker fatality rate in the EU15 and the highest agricultural fatality rate across the nine EU countries where data were available.

Policy Implications

  • Given the link between job tenure and injury, investment in the training and monitoring of new recruits is likely to contribute to a reduction in workplace injuries.
  • Shift workers and night workers are also more vulnerable to injury and may benefit from targeted prevention strategies and information on the risks involved.
  • The injury and health risks associated with highly variable work hours are of concern given the emergence of zero hours and minimum hours contracts
  • Annual inspection rates were found to be positively associated with lower levels of injury and ill health, suggesting that state regulation is an important element of ensuring healthy and safe working environments. 

Helen Russell, one of the report authors noted,

“The business-cycle finding suggests that without additional efforts to prevent injuries and illness, from both employers and the state, the rates of work-related injury and illness are likely to increase with economic recovery”.

Responding to the report findings at the launch Martin O’Halloran, CEO of the Health and Safety Authority, said:

“As the economy continues to emerge from the recession and companies grow, it’s vital that employers are mindful of the increased risk to new recruits and inexperienced workers. The data in this ESRI report indicate that younger employees and those starting in a new job are at greater risk. Effective induction and training programmes for new staff will help minimise that risk and benefit both workers and their employers”.

For further Information please contact:

Helen Russell, Associate Research Professor, The Economic and Social Research Institute 

Email: helen.russell@esri.ie

Bertrand Maître, Senior Research Officer, The Economic and Social Research Institute 

Email: bertrand.maitre@esri.ie
Notes for Editors

  1. The study was undertaken as part of the ESRI/Health and Safety Authority Research Programme on Health, Safety and Wellbeing at Work. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and are not attributable to either the Health and Safety Authority or the ESRI.
  2. The CSO data used is the annual module on Occupational Injury and Illness collected once a year as part of the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS).  The Health and Safety Authority data on fatal and non-fatal injuries is collected from employers’ reports to the HSA.
  3. In the case of work-related injury respondents  were asked if they had incurred any injuries at work (excluding commuting) over the previous year.  For illness, respondents were asked whether over the previous year they had  suffered from any physical or mental health problems that were  caused or made worse by their work.  All injuries and accidents including those involving no absence from work are included in the analyses.
  4. The risk of injury was 27% lower in the recession (2008-12) compared to the boom period (2001-07), while the risk of illness was 18% lower.