Ahead of his time – the superhero of safety
The pope and condoms, elephants in Parliament and wellbeing in the 80s – James Tye the leader in health and safety.
By Tim Marsh
In 1987, a man called James Tye from London was named ‘World Safety Person of the Year’ by the World Safety Organisation and, last year, he became one of the first Europeans included in the American ‘Safety and Health Hall of Fame International’.
It’s quite possible that you’re sitting there asking: “James who?!” As while his legacy certainly lives on, his name is being slowly forgotten.
It shouldn’t be though. If ever the overused expression ‘visionary leader’ should be used – it’s for this remarkable man.
Flammable nightwear, seat-belts and World War 2
James Tye formed the British Safety Council in 1957 at a time when creative and impactful campaigning around safety was most certainly needed as fatality rates were in the thousands – around 15 times the level they are now.
Perhaps his most famous stunt though was to lead an Elephant to the Houses of Parliament.
Early campaigns focused on seat belts for car passengers as well as flammable children’s nightwear, oil heaters, PPE and of inadequate life jackets and buoyancy aids. James served in the RAF in World War 2 so it’s likely that his experience of watching ditched comrades drown because of faulty lifejackets influenced his passion for safety.
His work in advertising after the war certainly shaped his approach to running safety campaigns as he knew how to generate a column inch or two.
He regularly involved celebrities like Barbara Windsor, Stirling Moss and Cliff Richard in his stunts with all of his campaigns aimed squarely at capturing headlines.
Painting white crosses on cars with lots of dents (i.e. evidence of careless driving) was pretty provocative. Painting a cross on the police car that turned up to investigate was most definitely pushing his luck!
By berating the Queen for not wearing a helmet while riding horses, as well as reprimanding Princess Anne and Prince Charles for having their children in cars without wearing seatbelts showed he was driven by risk rather than reputation and perhaps his most famous stunt though was to lead an Elephant to the Houses of Parliament, to make the point that we should never forget accidents.
You won’t be surprised to hear that he had little patience for slow moving, overly cautious bureaucrats – it took 25 years from his initial work to seat belts becoming mandatory. His 1995 campaign featuring the Pope and condoms is still high up the list of all time complained about campaigns.
Tye was often accused of being a ‘gimmicky attention seeker’ but would retort that you had to consider who it was that accused him ! Indeed, with who it was he was annoying in mind, it was actually a compliment. He added that when they stopped accusing him he’d know he wasn’t doing his job properly!
Triumphs and successes
Although he campaigned in any area of personal risk, perhaps his greatest success, came through legislation for industrial safety from simple persistence and – with huge irony given his creative efforts and controversies – a simple admin error.
Every year he’d telegram the PM with the number of workers killed the previous year and every year he’d get a simple dismissive reply from a protective civil servant confirming that his views ‘had been noted’.
To James this will of course have read, as no doubt intended, as an invitation to do go off and do something sexual… alone… that’s physically impossible.
He persisted however and in 1968 an admin mistake was made and his letter wasn’t intercepted by a pen pushing civil servant, but actually reached the relevant minister – Charles Sisson – who found that actually he agreed with Tye and that something should indeed be done.
What he did was to set up an inquiry that month (under Lord Robens) that led directly to the hugely influential Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) that is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of lives since.
He was ahead of his time when it came to wellbeing and stress too, setting up the British Wellness Council in the 1980s to produce messages on how to stay physically and mentally healthy.
With these themes in mind if he were with us today he’d be busy still. He’d be working with ‘Mates in Mind’ and other initiatives addressing the fact that we’re 35 times more likely to attend the funeral of a colleague that has committed suicide than that of someone who has been killed in a workplace accident.
He’d certainly have plenty to campaign about regarding the 13,000 people a year – minimum – killed by occupational health issues. These are ‘elephants in the room’ that need addressing for certain.
A couple of years ago there was actually talk of recreating the ‘elephant stunt’ to celebrate the anniversary of the HSWA to raise awareness of the figures above and the huge amount of work that needs doing now.
One senior figure from each major safety institution per elephant – but, for a variety of eminently sensible reasons, it didn’t happen.
I’d argue that it was a missed opportunity but then that’s easy for me to say as a psychologist with little involvement in the realities of politics!
If nothing else, we need a statue to this man – ideally outside a Museum of Occupational Safety – to celebrate past successes and events and to remind us of the huge amount of work that still needs doing.
We can all of us take inspiration from the sheer energy and chutzpah of the man as we address the need to pro-actively set the agenda and generate positive column inches about key matters.
Too often these columns are filled with neo-liberal sneering about ‘naïve bleeding hearts’ and exaggerated ‘elf and safety’ stories.
I don’t want to sound ‘all political’ – just pointing out that Tye was simply fighting fire with fire.
Myth busters is a great initiative but it’s easy to imagine James taking it one stage further and running around London dressed as a ‘myth buster’ ‘gooing’ police cars and chanting: “Who ya gonna call?!’
We certainly need to continue to challenge institutions and authority about their on-going complacency. The “Your concerns have been noted… (but we’re not going to do anything about it” quotient is still rather high is it not?
Actually, when you think about it – ***k it! We DO need some elephants!
James Tye was born in London on 21 December 1921. Educated at Upper Hornsey LCC School, he served in the RAF from 1940 to 1946, before becoming an advertising agent and contractor. He created the British Safety Council in 1957, was its Executive Director from 1962-1968 and Director-General from 1968-1996. He married Rosalie Hooker in 1950 and had one son and one daughter. He died in July 1996.
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