As the worldwide economy faces up to what is likely to be the sharpest economic downturn in living history, there are concerns regarding employee safety going forward. Whatever happens, it is thought that there will be a sharp increase in unemployment in the UK which will also be reflected in other countries. While there should be no softening of health and safety regulations it is perfectly feasible that companies will look to operate on reduced staff numbers and inward investment will be slashed. So, how might this affect personal injury compensation claims as a consequence of physical/mental injuries incurred in the workplace?
Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is just one of a number of regulatory acts on the statute books which cover health and safety in the workplace. Despite the onset of what looks likely to be a significant recession, this should have no bearing on the level of protection afforded to employees and customers in the workplace. There are various ways and means of mitigating the impact of reduced investment going forward and these are always best served by improving and enhancing communication between employees and employers. We will now take a look at a number of areas covered by health and safety which may potentially see reduced investment going forward.
While some businesses will have received grants from the UK government, and business loans on preferential rates, the likelihood is that they have also built up additional debts. If we also look at the consumer environment, the threat of job losses, property price falls and economic uncertainty this might see many consumers reining in their spending. The knock-on effect will be a likely reduction in staff numbers across many businesses with few sectors set to prosper in the short to medium-term. So how might a reduction in staff numbers impact health and safety?
Increased workload per person
As well as the physical well-being of their employees, employers are also responsible for the mental well-being of those in their employ. While there will be a reduction in work volume we will likely see many companies slashing their workforce to the bone. In the short-term, as further uncertainty rules, it is almost inevitable that we will see an increased workload per person. Whether these jobs are physically or mentally challenging this could result in an exhausted workforce where accidents are more likely.
Reduced investment in training
Historically, when businesses are struggling they tend to cut back on marketing expenses and in many cases training/human resource operations. The problem is that under various regulations all employers have an obligation to maintain the training of their employees on an ongoing basis. In light of the fact that COVID-19 is unlikely to “leave us” in the short-term there will probably be additional training requirements to address specific concerns. If reduced investment leads to fewer qualified training staff then this could be a major problem going forward – not the best foundations for the future.
Reduced investment in safety equipment
When in financial trouble there is always the temptation to make that expensive machine last an extra year, squeeze the last few days out of those safety boots, or reduce the quality and expense of personal protective equipment. Unfortunately, this is human nature and in many cases, this will be a calculated risk that some businesses will deem acceptable. If you can prove that substandard safety equipment resulted in an accident/injury then there is every chance that you can pursue a PPE personal injury claim from your employer. The fact that they have blatantly reduced investment in safety equipment, while still trying to maintain high levels of safety, can offer very firm foundations on which to fight your case.
Hiring inexperienced staff
While in many cases the experience of staff is often dictated by age, this is not always the case. We will likely see a number of employers looking to replace expensive/experienced staff with relatively young/inexperienced individuals who they can train going forward. The problem is that experience often comes with age and many may find themselves in situations for which they are blatantly under-experienced. This could be seen as a huge affront to health and safety in the workplace and not only place the individual in question in danger but also their colleagues (and even customers). In many cases, we take experience for granted, experience which it often takes decades to accumulate.
Working from home
A new trend has recently emerged in light of the coronavirus pandemic that of more and more employees working from home. While this can often lead to a reduction in direct business expenses there will be new costs incorporated in creating a safe environment in an employee’s home. This should not be seen as a means of slashing business office costs and “cutting employees adrift” to look after themselves. An employer will still have legal obligations regarding the health and safety of their employees even when working from home although they will likely be on a very different basis from the traditional workplace.
Reduced general investment
It is an unfortunate consequence of business life but regulations tend to expand as more legal aspects are taken into consideration and additional employee protections added. The impact can be significant if there is reduced general investment across-the-board, including equipment, training, and even IT expenditure, often impacting levels of health and safety in the workplace. While individual instances of a reduced investment may seem relatively minor, the cumulative impact can be telling especially on smaller businesses.
Gathering evidence for a personal injury compensation claim
Unfortunately, history shows us that during recessions it is relatively easy to find evidence of reduced investment in health and safety in the workplace. The key to securing a personal injury compensation claim is to find definitive evidence that shows that this reduced investment impacted health and safety thereby leading to the accident/injuries in question. Some of the traditional forms of evidence include: –
- Official changes in the workplace
- Employer/employee communications
- Machinery maintenance records
- Training program records
- Quality and availability of safety equipment
- Reduced staffing numbers
- Greater expectations for employee productivity
- Direct/indirect pressure placed on employees
- Inexperienced staff
- Substandard risk assessments
This list is by no means exclusive but it does give you an idea of how reduced investment in a business can impact a whole range of different areas.
Each of the above issues will add another piece to the jigsaw when looking to prove negligence caused by reduced investment in the business. In reality, businesses will need to cut their cloth according to their means but in legal terms, they must maintain health and safety first and foremost. In some cases this can lead to maintained investment in health and safety and training to the detriment of other business-related expenditures – it is a difficult if not impossible scenario for employers. As a consequence, it is not difficult to see why some businesses will look to cut corners during more difficult times while they get back on their financial feet.
There are numerous types of physical injuries that can occur in the workplace and lead to a personal injury claim. They include:-
- Slips, trips, and falls
- Muscle strains
- Hit by falling objects
- Repetitive strain injuries
- Crash, collision and impact injuries
- Lacerations, cuts, and abrasions
- Contact with toxic fumes
- Walking into objects on unsafe work floor
- Disputes and disagreements between employees
The issue of disputes between employees can be a serious challenge to business management, especially on reduced staffing numbers. This environment can often highlight the difference between work rates across colleagues and lead to friction, arguments, and in some cases physical altercations. This corrosive environment where everybody is pushed to the limit is not a healthy one in which to work.
The court of law will treat physical and mental injuries on a par therefore it is very important for employers to take into account mental/psychological injuries. Some of the main reasons for personal injury claims based on mental injuries include:-
- Job insecurity as a consequence of mismanagement
- Increased productivity requirements per employee
- Bullying and harassment at work by colleagues and management
- Placing inexperienced staff into specific/challenging roles such as customer relations
- Mental fatigue due to stress
It is very easy to look at mental health issues in the workplace and dismiss them as “just part of the job”. However, this opinion perfectly illustrates how some businesses have failed to appreciate both physical and mental injuries caused in the workplace as a consequence of negligence. The courts will treat each type of injury on a par with no preference given to physical injuries, something which may have been the case in the past.
Unfortunately, when businesses are struggling this can prompt deterioration in the relationship between the workforce and management. This is extremely dangerous because many of the potential reasons for claiming personal injury compensation can be addressed through communication. In many ways communication between staff and management should be enhanced to maximise investment and increase productivity. However, whether working to expand the business or literally save a business, management will often have little time for anything else.
There are ways and means of downsizing a business in the short, medium or long-term, without a detrimental impact on health and safety. When funds are tight and business is difficult this should be the scenario when all parties come together. Very often it is the exact opposite and when grievances begin to emerge amongst the workforce this can lead to even greater problems. It would be foolish to suggest that any business can simply downsize overnight without any consequences. However, regular enhanced communication amongst all parties can help to avoid misunderstandings which often lead to accidents/injuries in the workplace.