How important are statistics to the waste industry

By Toni Gladding, The Open University, Chair CIWM Health and Safety SIG and WISH Forum &
Ceri Beynon, HM Inspector of Health & Safety – Waste & Recycling Team

If you’re working in the waste industry for the past few years, unless you’ve been living on Mars that is, you will have undoubtedly heard that we are one of the worst performers for health and safety out of all workplaces in various industry publications.  But what does that actually mean?

First let’s look at what the often-quoted statistics are for 17/18 (HSE 2018):

  • 12 fatal injuries to workers;
  • 5,000 non-fatal injuries to workers;
  • 5,000 workers suffering from work-related ill-health.

Obviously 12 fatal injuries is 12 too many, and it would be preferable if there were never any accidents or illnesses related to work – that is an obvious goal.  But to help understand these numbers more we have to put them into context.  So there are a number of questions to ask ourselves.

1) How many workers are there in the industry?

HSE (2018) report a 0.4% of ‘jobs in Great Britain’.  The Environmental Services Association (ESA) estimate over 100,000 people work in the industry in the UK (ESA 2018).  This is much smaller than other industries often compared to waste such as construction (2,230,000) or agriculture, forestry and fishing (411,000) (Statistica 2018).  Incidentally the reason we can’t show accurate numbers of jobs in the sector is because statistically they are collected as ‘water supply, sewage, waste & remediation activities’ which shows a total employment of 201,000 in 2018.  Unfortunately it’s not possible to accurately split these categories.  Another anomaly is the waste scrap sector is included in the retail figures and not this category.  

2) How does the waste industry compare to other industries?

If you are familiar with health and safety statistics you will know that the figures are often reported ‘per 100,000 workers’.  This is to allow for the varying relative sizes of the different industries compared.  This gives us an incidence rate – which is often derived from data from statutory notifications of workplace injuries under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrence Regulations (RIDDOR).  The incidence rate for fatalities in the waste sector in 2018 was 7.22 per 100,000 workers.  Construction was 1.77, agriculture 8.20, the ‘all industry’ rate (all jobs combined) was 0.45.  This means agriculture was ‘worse’ than waste in 2018, but we still have a fatality rate 16 times higher than the all industry rate.

3) What is statistically significant?

There are several requirements to proving significance.  First the sample size – in reality anything under 50 cannot be analysed statistically.  So although we have a variance of between 5-14 fatalities per annum in the waste sector over the past few years, these numbers are not able to be analysed for ‘significance’.  Once we look at injuries however we do have enough numbers (5,000) to investigate this issue – in 2018 around 3.9% of workers in waste sustained a workplace injury which is statistically significantly higher than the rate for workers across all industries (1.9%).  4.5% of workers in waste suffered from work-related ill health (new or long standing cases), which is statistically significantly higher than the rate for workers across all industries (3.1%).  In both these instances the numbers are sufficient to say with 95% confidence (in other words it is not due to chance alone) that these issues are the result of working in the industry.

So in conclusion – statistics are very important to us in the waste industry.  We can immediately see our fatality rate is elevated, and that our injury and illness rate puts us amongst the worst of all industries to work in.  These figures have led the HSE to flag our industry as one that needs targeted inspection – and the disappointing thing is that the results of the latest inspections do not give us much hope of improvement in the future.  In 2017 613 inspections resulted in 296 sites identified as having uncontrolled risks with notices of contraventions issued – a failure rate of 48%!  We have to do better as an industry – we are measured on our statistics and unfortunately we are falling short.


  1. ESA (2018) (accessed 25/1/19)
  2. HSE (2018) Waste statistics in Great Britain, 2018. (accessed 25/1/19)
  3. Statistica (2018) Number of workforce jobs in the United Kingdom (UK) from March 2016 to March 2018, by industry (in 1,000s). (accessed 25/1/19)