Opinion Articles

The Health and Safety at Work Act, 40 years on

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In April 2014 Conversativehome characterised Britain's health and safety culture as ‘nanny state restriction on individual liberty’ and called for the abolition of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This organisation was established by the Health and Safety at Work etc Act, which was passed 40 years ago this week. History shows that hackneyed rhetoric about 'health and safety gone mad’ fails to understand the benefits of the 1974 Act and the vital role of the state in improving worker safety, protecting the public and curbing the excesses of those businesses that profit by ignoring employees’ safety. It also reveals that concerns about the burden of regulation are not new.

From a laissez-faire attitude at the start of the nineteenth century, by 1900 it was accepted that ‘the general rule established by the Legislature is that when a trade is pronounced to be dangerous, it is placed more or less under State regulation’. Government inspectors were appointed in key industries, including factories (1833), mining (1842), and railways (1894), though they ended up focusing more on persuading employers to improve health and safety than punishing lapses. Employers opposed what they saw as state ‘interference’, sometimes by derailing legislation or claiming that regulation was unnecessary because they would introduce measures voluntarily.  

However, the rise of trades unions and public concern about accidents - such as the 1913 Senghenydd mining disaster in Wales, which killed 440 men and boys - forced the state to extend regulation. Despite improvements in some industries, tens of thousands were killed and injured at work annually well into the twentieth century. The situation remained much the same until 1974. Left to their own devices, employers took limited steps to improve health and safety, often implementing only the cheaper fixes. State regulations, such as the use of machine guards in factories, and inspection, did have some impact. But while the most dangerous industries were regulated to a degree, many other industries were not covered.

This voluntarist approach was reflected in the rise of safety education after 1913, which focused on workers avoiding alleged ‘carelessness’, for example, by keeping loose clothing or long hair out of machines. It ignored factors over which employees had little control, such as the factory floor or work processes. This approach was beneficial to the state and employers: safety at work was seen to be addressed but without the need for extensive legislation or money. Safety education increased after 1945, with the Central Office of Information and nationalised industries producing educational films and posters.

The shortcomings of this approach became apparent in the 1960s when deaths and injuries at work rose – from 450,000 in 1961 to 513,000 in 1969. Regulation had been implemented on an ad-hoc basis, with no over-arching framework. A confusing mass of legislation imposed specific standards on particular processes, but as technologies and practices changed, these were quickly outdated. There were too few inspectors to cover all workplaces. By 1970 around five million people were not protected by any regulation.

The Robens Committee was appointed in 1970 to investigate the system and propose changes. Its radical 1972 report formed the basis of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc Act. The multiple inspectorates for different industries were abolished and the Health and Safety Executive established to inspect workplaces, enforce the law, provide advice and conduct research to improve safety and health. Although a state regulatory body, the HSE does not come under the purview of a particular government department.

Previous laws that specified detailed requirements, such as the sizes of guards on particular machines, were replaced with general duties to reduce risks ‘so far as reasonably practicable’. The intention was to make regulation much more responsive to individual situations and changing technologies. The Act covered the majority of workers, including those who worked from home and most people who were self-employed – particularly important for the construction industry, in which around 200,000 people were self-employed in the early 1970s. It also gave worker representatives a formal role in a tripartite system of regulation, together with the state and employers.

In some ways the 1974 Act was more expansive than previous legislation, covering not only workers but the public from workplace hazards, such as gas leaks and explosions. In other ways the legislation reduced the role of the state by promoting self-regulation. It echoed the conclusion of the Robens Report, which said: ‘Our present system encourages rather too much reliance on state regulation, and rather too little on personal responsibility and voluntary, self-generating effort.’ This emphasis has permeated the 40 years since: less stress was placed on regulation, and more on the role of employers and employees in preventing accidents and ill-health, which harked back to nineteenth century ideas about a limited role for the state.

Those on the right supported the Act for its minimal state role. Some unions and Labour Party members cautiously welcomed the legislation, but others rejected the idea of common interests between employers, workers and regulators. They believed health and safety at work required strong state regulation. The Labour peer Lady Summerskill argued that the Robens Report ‘would bring rejoicing to the hearts of every irresponsible employer of labour who used the voluntary approach as an escape from his obligations.’ Nevertheless, the self-regulatory approach prevailed and so did concern about ‘the burden of regulation’. In 1985, The Times quoted John Cullen, Chair of the Health and Safety Commission: 'We don’t tell people how to run their show. We are not seeking to be over-protective.’

Yet political rhetoric and popular attitudes have done state regulation a disservice. HSE figures show that since 1974 occupational deaths and injuries have decreased by over 75%. Taking into account economic and occupational changes, fatalities at work have declined from 2.9 per 100,000 workers in 1974 to 0.4 per 100,000 workers in 2012-13. Nevertheless, 148 people were killed and over 78,000 injured at work in 2012-13.

Health and safety has been invoked erroneously or as convenient justification for decisions taken on other grounds (including high insurance costs for public events). The HSE introduced its Myth Busters Challenge Panel to allow people to check the truth when health and safety is invoked.

This valiant effort deserves assistance: we should remind politicians and the public of the successes of health and safety legislation – without which many workers and members of the public would have been killed or injured over the last 40 years. History shows that reliance on the goodwill of employers to improve workplace health and safety is insufficient: a strong state role and the HSE are needed.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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