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       Hazards, number 163, 2023
HSE action on suicide could save lives; it just doesn’t want to do it
People are driven to suicide by their jobs. We know it, the Health and Safety Executive knows it. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill eviscerates the regulator’s four feeble excuses for doing absolutely nothing to end the heartache.


Jobs can drive you to suicide. Whether it is low pay or high targets, harassment or unsurvivable workloads, it can be these pressures that push you over the edge.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), though, has been resolute in its determination to leave the most desperate manifestation of Britain’s workplace epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression, off its books.

Facing sustained pressure from Hazards, which has won backing for its ‘Don’t despair’ campaign from major public health, occupational medicine, academic and union bodies, the safety regulator is scrabbling for new reasons not to act.

On 21 June 2023, Prof Sarah Waters and Hilda Palmer, who between them have written several academic papers concluding there is a clear case for HSE to act on workplace suicides, held the latest in a series of meetings with the regulator’s chief executive, Sarah Albon, and Richard Brunt, director of its engagement and policy division.

Albon told them HSE had in response to concerns about its suicide stance undertaken a ‘qualitative study’ of “HSE contacts with regulators in other countries”.

The study, based on responses from regulators in France, Japan, New Zealand and two unidentified Australian states, confirmed under their reporting requirements “these regulators would receive reports of any death, including suicides, of a worker or an occurrence connected to work or a workplace.”

But HSE said its study provided “nothing persuasive to indicate that we would benefit from adopting a similar approach to the other jurisdictions that include suicide within their workplace or work related reporting and recording.”

Hazards has obtained a copy of HSE’s four-page report. The single conclusion you can draw is that HSE just doesn’t get it.

We examine the lessons HSE says it has drawn from the study and explain why none of them make any sense.

1. It’s complicated

HSE said the responses identified in difficulties in establishing ‘work connectivity’, which could be at the discretion of the employer, adding: “There are clear indications that such reporting could be intermittent and may, for example, be dependent on the employer deciding whether the suicide ‘arises from work’ rather than other factors before deciding whether to report to the workplace regulator.”

This is undeniably true. But it is a factor common across all reportable injuries and diseases. The entire RIDDOR reporting system is employer dependent – they make the reports – and HSE’s own studies have shown widespread under-reporting of everything from injuries to asthma and cancer.  It is not an argument against reporting. It is an argument for improving the system.

A paper by Waters and Palmer, published online ahead of print on 3 August 2023 in the Journal of Public Mental Health (JOPMH), noted: “While recognising that the reasons behind suicide can be complex, this does not mean that causal factors are not present and that those causal factors should not be fully investigated in the interests of preventing further deaths.”

Cardiff University saw the recent deaths of two lecturers by suicide, both related to unsustainable workloads. Entomologist Dr Mark Jervis cut his wrists at his desk in 2014. Dr Malcolm Anderson leapt to his death from a Business School window in 2018.

Dr Anderson’s suicide led to more than 600 hundred staff members signing an open letter to the university's vice-chancellor, executive board and council, urging them to safeguard others from pressures of excessive workloads.

Had HSE intervened in 2014, the university could have been compelled to take action then to reduce work pressures. Instead, Dr Anderson died and the university installed window locks.

There suicides were foreseeable and preventable. Studies have established clearly the easily identified workplace stressors, including a lack of job control and work overload, that can lead to suicides. They are also eminently identifiable in workplace risk assessments.

A 2018 study, which reviewed 22 independent studies and was published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found: “Across this broad range of studies, results of this review suggest that exposure to various psychosocial job stressors was associated with elevated risk of suicide ideation, attempts and death. Job insecurity was associated with higher odds of suicide ideation, while job control appeared to be more of a risk for suicide attempt and death” (Hazards 146).

2.  Coroners can do it

HSE said its study indicated that information from coroners “may be more reliable”, adding Great Britain’s coronial system “presents an opportunity to explore each case of unexpected death via an inquest and provides a route for the Coroners to raise specific cases with HSE where there is evidence of work-related factors that may need addressing.”

It concluded: “HSE will consider these next steps with the Coroners’ Society to explore the levels of consistency that could be established via existing routes.”

Hazards tested HSE’s theory.

In all, Coroners have released 453 Preventing Future Death Reports (FDRs) mentioning ‘suicide’ since 2015.

Only about 1 per cent of inquests result in an FDR – the tools used by Coroners to direct regulators, employers and others to action they can take to prevent future deaths.

Hazards reviewed all 453 entries, searching these for the terms ‘HSE’, ‘work’ or identified by the tag: ‘Accident at work and health and safety related deaths’.

Since 2015, these terms identified just three suicides resulting in an FDR. Only one, the suicide of student Hannah Bharaj with no apparent work causation, resulted in a report to HSE. While some have been missed – the suicide of firefighter Jaden Francois-Esprit was clearly work-related and did result in an FDR to London Fire Brigade, but didn’t have a ‘work’ tag – this appears to be highly unusual.

In a further  test, Hazards reviewed all 34 inquests with an ‘HSE’ tag, relating to all causes of death, and established none led to a Future Deaths Report to HSE in relation to work-related suicides.

Hazards' analysis strongly suggests HSE’s faith in a coronial route to better intelligence on work-related suicides is misplaced. HSE is the nation’s health and safety investigator and regulator.

There is no obvious reason why it should expect coroners to be an adequate substitute, other than a reluctance to do the job itself.

3. Leave it to the families

If HSE doesn’t step up, then the job is left to bereaved families. With bereavement by suicide a risk factor for suicide in itself, could it ever be appropriate to depend on these relatives to step in where HSE refused to tread?

Waters and Palmer, writing in the JOPMH, warn: “The absence of any legal framework for monitoring or regulating work-related suicides in the UK means that it frequently falls on the shoulders of family members to take on the responsibility of leading a campaign at a time when they are experiencing immense personal grief.

“Yet, in countries such as France, the legal framework is designed partly to protect bereaved families from the burden of undertaking litigation in a similar situation.”

HSE had investigative powers and resources; relatives have neither.

4. It doesn’t work

From its small study, HSE concludes that “it is not clear” expanding its regulatory role to include suicides “would enable us to gather consistent or reliable data.” It adds “the information received did not provide a compelling view that we could use a similar approach to drive an overall benefit to health and safety outcomes, either though driving direct improvements or generating new information to improve standards or performance.”

It sounds convincing. But this type of evidence is hard to obtain, and its absence isn’t proof it isn’t working or sufficient reason for inaction. Based on HSE’s own logic it should abandon all its current preventive activities on work-related stress, anxiety and depression, because rates are at a record high and now account for half of all work-related sick leave – ostensibly evidence of an abject failure by HSE. Instead, it is evidence the preventive activities need more resources and wider scope.

What is self-evident, is that if HSE doesn’t investigate suicide reports and risks at work, it will inevitably miss intervention opportunities. And with that, HSE will sacrifice opportunities to deliver both prevention and justice for the dead and bereaved.

The French system led to the culpability of France Telecom’s top directors being exposed in 19 workers suicides and 12 attempted suicides after a restructuring project intended to drive workers out. Didier Lombard, the former president and chief executive of the telecommunications giant, rebranded Orange in 2013, was jailed on 20 December 2019 for a year. Two other top executives also received jail terms. The company was fined €75,000 (Hazards 148).

According to the JOPMH paper: “A legal framework that is more protective of the mental health of employees” has been successful with “legal action against large companies including France Telecom, La Poste and Renault, and this, in turn, has led to significant improvements in workplace safety in France.”

In Japan, advertising giant Dentsu Inc has been under close scrutiny by labour inspectors since a 2015 suicide linked to excessive overtime. A labour inspectorate investigation saw the ad agency fined in 2017 and prompted the resignation of Tadashi Ishii, Dentsu’s then president and chief executive. Dentsu announced a reform plan in July 2017, pledging to cut overall working hours per person by 20 per cent.

In December 2019, Dentsu was targeted again by labour inspectors over illegal overtime practices, pledging in response to “continue our reforms of our working environment.”

In a June 2022 report, HSEs’ own Workplace Health Expert Committee (WHEC) called on the regulator “to obtain reliable information about the number of suicides each year where the contribution made by work may have been material.”

Over a year later, HSE hadn’t budged. And Prof Waters thinks HSE’s intransigence may be both deadly and illegal. She told Hazards HSE’s inaction “may constitute a threat to life under the terms of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act and in particular its failure to take ‘steps to protect you if your life is at risk’.”




Job trigger  A June 2023 South Australian Employment Tribunal ruled a worker with serious pre-existing mental health problems should still be compensated for injuries sustained in a suicide attempt which it linked to an earlier serious workplace injury.  Excavator driver Andrew Bartemucci had been left partially blind after a piece of metal pierced his eye while changing a tooth on the excavator bucket.  Some weeks later he deliberately drove his car over a cliff and broke his back, leaving him paraplegic. The court found that the workplace injury led to an adjustment disorder and that this disorder was a significant contributing factor in the suicide attempt.

Suicide strike  More than 100,000 teachers took strike action on 4 September 2023 to demand better protection at work. They said they're frequently harassed by overbearing parents, who call them all hours of the day and weekends, incessantly and unfairly complaining.  The strike action came amid rising anger after a primary school teacher was driven to suicide. On 3 July 2023, the 23-year-old, whose name has not been released, wrote that she had become so overwhelmed by the craziness of work she “wanted to let go.” Two weeks later she was found dead in her classroom store cupboard by her colleagues. She had taken her own life.

Indecent haste  The school run by a headteacher who took her own life after a critical Ofsted report has been rated as good after a new inspection. Ruth Perry died in January 2023 after being told Caversham Primary School in Berkshire was being downgraded from outstanding to inadequate. Ruth’s sister Prof Julia Waters said: “The reversal of the previous judgement in a matter of a few months illustrates why schools should be given the opportunity to correct any technical weaknesses before the final report is published. An inspection should be about helping schools with independent scrutiny, not catching them out and publicly shaming them.”

Mum’s anger  The mother of an army officer cadet who took her own life has criticised a "toxic culture" at her training base. Olivia Perks, 21, was found hanged in her room at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Berkshire in February 2019. Her mother, Louise Townsend, said an alcohol culture and a lack of welfare support led to her daughter's death. Her daughter was subsequently “disciplined for being drunk and effectively self-harming.” She added her daughter “felt under the cosh... No support was offered to her whatsoever.” The base commandant, Maj Gen Zac Stenning, apologised for the army's "systemic and individual failings". Ms Perks took her own life after army commanders failed to address her vulnerability to stress, a coroner ruled.

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People are driven to suicide by their jobs. We know it, the Health and Safety Executive knows it. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill eviscerates the regulator’s four feeble excuses for doing absolutely nothing to end the heartache.


HSE's Four feeble excuses
1 It’s complicated
2 Coroners can do it
3 Leave it to the families
4 It doesn’t work

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