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August 7, 2014

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CPD – Health and safety during the First World War

The First World War offers many lessons for the modern world. Nigel Bryson explains how the global conflict sparked better working conditions for British workers. This article was first published in August 2014.

This month [August 2014] marks the 100th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany and the outbreak of the First World War. By the following year there were severe shortages of explosives, shells and ammunition, as demands accelerated in the killing zone.
The workers in the munition factories — many of them women to replace men departing to the front line — were working intensely, yet productivity and quality were still a major problem.
In 1915, the Ministry of Munitions established the Health of Munition Workers Committee, which was appointed: “To consider and advise on questions of industrial fatigue, hours of labour, and other matters affecting the physical health and physical efficiency of workers in munition factories and workshops.” [Memorandum No 1: Report on Sunday Labour]
The committee produced 10 reports on how the output and quality of munitions could be increased by improving working conditions for the workers. In this article the relevance of the work done nearly a century ago, is contrasted with conditions still prevailing today. While standards have improved significantly, there are still some basic lessons that need to be reviewed.

Industrial canteens

“Ill-paid labourers and others whose food amounts only to a bare minimum cannot either put forth the same energy of work at the same speed as a well-nourished man.” [Memorandum No 3: Report on Industrial Canteens]

Recognising that workers needed to have decent food to complete a shift, the committee pressed for industrial canteens to be provided for workers. Given the generally poor nutritional standards that would apply to many workers prior to the war, it is accepted that such canteens made a significant contribution to improving industrial productivity.

In the committee’s memoranda were plans and designs for building canteens to feed hundreds of workers. They even gave an example of an extensive menu, including “soup, Bovril and Oxo &c. (with bread)’ for ‘1d to 2d”. [Memorandum No 3: Report on Industrial Canteens]

While 100 years ago, the problem of workers getting poor quality food was quite a central issue, today the abundance of food creates quite different problems. However, the benefits of eating high-quality food at the right time of day has still to register in some sectors.

During the construction of the Olympic Park for the London 2012 games, it was found that many workers went straight to work without having breakfast. This was thought to be a cause of a number of incidents and some injuries.

In response the occupational health team convinced the main catering company to put a bowl of porridge on the menu for £1.00.

A promotional campaign — the Big Breakfast — was implemented across the site and was a huge success. After a period the occupational health team surveyed the workforce again:
“Subsequent surveys confirmed behavioural change across the population [workforce], and the reported incident[s] became more evenly distributed through the working day and showed an overall reduction.”1

In 1914 soup, Bovril and Oxo was the cheap option that sustained many workers through the initial part of the day: for the 21st century Olympic park workers, it was porridge. Yet, today many people still turn up for work without having breakfast.

Hours of work
In the 1919 annual report of the chief inspector of factories and workshops the section on hours of work begins:
“From an industrial point of view one of the most remarkable effects of the war is the general reduction in the hours of work, which now rarely exceed an aggregate of 48 a week.”
[Memorandum No 4: Employment of Women]

This issue was comprehensively studied during the Great War and covered in Memoranda No 1 Report on Sunday Labour, No 4 Employment of Women, No 7 Industrial Fatigue and Its Causes and No 5, which  specifically covered Hours of Work. What they found was that the long hours being worked in many factories — 12, 14, 16-hour shifts, longer in some cases — was inefficient.

Having considered the issue quite extensively the committee recommended that:

  • the most effective shift patterns in terms of output were three eight-hour shifts;
  • there should be dinner breaks of at least one hour and other breaks in the shifts;
  • ordinary factory holidays should be taken and ‘not interfered with’;
  • Sunday working should be stopped unless there was an emergency. Workers should have at least one day of rest;
  • the maximum shift should be limited to 12 hours, essentially banning 14, 16 and 18 hour shifts; and
  • overtime should only be worked in an emergency.

The committee recognised that both physical and mental fatigue are detrimental to worker’s health and productivity. It thought reducing working hours would help prevent both physical and mental fatigue.

Today the issue of working hours is still a contentious issue. Ever since the adoption of the Working Time Directive (2003), UK governments have consistently fought for — and kept — an opt-out for the UK. This gives UK workers the right to work more than 48 hours if they want to. It should really be called the ‘inefficiency opt-in’ because the longer people work, the less productive they become.

Despite all the evidence from the munitions factories through to today, many employers still see long hours as being the same as efficient output. Yet economic studies record the UK as having one of the longest average working weeks in Europe, yet the productivity of the UK ranks as the lowest of the G8 economies. Perhaps there is a connection between the two?

Worker health & welfare — wellbeing?
In the committee paper on sickness and injury it made the point that ‘prevention is better than cure’. They then went on to state:
“Bearing this in mind, the preliminary safeguard is to provide for the medical examination of all workers on their admission to the factory in order to secure as far as may be their initial physical fitness for employment.”
[Memorandum No 10: Sickness and Injury]

At the time, of course, many workers may have been malnourished or suffering ill-health due to the living conditions alone. However, with improvements in canteens and working conditions, the committee clearly saw the good health of the workforce as central to improving the output of the munitions factories.

The committee also proposed control measures to prevent exposure to known hazardous substances, particularly those used in the manufacture of explosives. It identified specific substances, proposed a hierarchy of control measures, and where the exposure couldn’t be eliminated personal respiratory protection was the last option. This is very similar to the approach taken today except in 1916 the controls specified were not restricted by the term ‘reasonably practicable’.

Despite several initiatives over recent years, occupational health is still not receiving the attention it deserves. While the general heath of the population has improved considerably, many employers do not provide an occupational health service. Evidence from the construction of the Olympic Park occupational health team highlighted the provision for the thousands of construction workers on site: “The data collected by the park/village health clinical team provides an indication of the scale of work undertaken, with a total of 113,666 clinical interventions delivered. This includes over 63,000 pre-employment checks, over 14,000 safety-critical medicals as well as a range of other functions.”1

The evaluation of the occupational health service provided at the park concluded that the costs were covered by the treatment given on site. Yet many workers in the UK today are not provided a targeted occupational health service from their employer or the National Health Service. Indeed, in the Government’s response to Martin Temple’s triennial review of HSE, reference is made to the confusion about general wellbeing and specific occupational health issues. While the HSE co-operates with other forums dealing with wellbeing issues, in the report it is stated that: “The Government has asked HSE to use these and other forums to encourage others to recognise the distinction between occupational ill-health conditions and more general public health issues.”2

HSE estimates that 12,000 people die each year from ill-health, mainly related to exposure to hazardous substances at work. The issue today is not so much learning the lessons that came out of the committee’s work on occupational health but actually applying them.

Taken as a whole, the memoranda provided a state of the art reflection of ‘best practice’ at the time. In addition to the specific subjects covered above, improvements in ventilation, temperature controls and lighting all contributed to a significant improvement in working conditions. There is little doubt that these improvements led directly to productivity improvements, as well as improving the health, safety and welfare of the munition workers more generally.

The work done in the munitions factories during the First World War was — in effect — the first national ergonomic study done in a specific group of workplaces. It must be emphasised that the committee was set up to help improve the productivity and product quality of munitions factories. The innovation was in recognising that by improving conditions for the workforce — reducing working hours, improving welfare, providing breaks, first-aid, days off and holidays, more comfortable working environment, etc — productivity would improve.

We live in a completely different world today. The conditions for workers applying 100 years ago cannot be compared to those today. However, there are some principles that were applied then that are still relevant. Indeed, the 10 memoranda from the Health of Munition Workers Committee could arguably be the first real evidence supporting the HSE’s ‘Good Health is Good Business’ campaign.

It is tragic that it took the First World War and the devastation of millions of people’s lives to discover — as a nation — that improving working conditions for workers, improves business performance for the employers.  This is a concept that too many politicians and employers still cannot grasp in the 21st century.

Today, health and safety practitioners need to be assisting in the creation of conditions that improve the health, safety and wellbeing of the workforce, so that workers can operate at their best, thereby improving the efficiency and productivity of the organisations they work for. This requires more than a ‘technical’ capability in applying health and safety law. In addition, it requires an understanding of the organisation, its management, its culture and how to motivate people to work at their best.

Instead of all the health and safety reviews since 2010, which have been based on an ‘elf n safety’ fallacy, perhaps what we should have done was establish one national review with a remit: To consider and advise on questions of fatigue, hours of work, and other matters affecting the physical health and efficiency of workers in the UK’s workplaces with a view to preventing injury and ill-health and improving the productivity and business efficiency of all organisations in the 21st Century.

I hope that another world war will not be required in order to get such a review.

1.The list of memoranda published by the Health of Munition Workers Committee, includes: 1. Report on Sunday Labour; 2. Welfare Supervision; 3. Report on Industrial Canteens; 4.Employment of Women; 5. Hours of Work; 6. Canteen Construction and Equipment (Appendix to Memorandum No 3); 7. Industrial Fatigue and Its Causes; 8. Special Industrial Diseases; 9. Ventilation and Lighting of Munition Factories and Workshops; 10. Sickness and Injury
2.  Occupational Health Provision on the Olympic Park and Athletes’ Village: HSE Research Report 921: 2012
3.  Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops For the Year 1919: HMSO — Cmd 941: 1920
4.  The Government Response to the Triennial Review of the Health and Safety Executive: Department for Work and Pensions: 2014

Nigel Bryson is director of Bryson Consulting

CPD+Spotlight+imageContinuing professional development is the process by which OSH practitioners maintain, develop and improve their skills and knowledge. IOSH CPD is very flexible in its approach to the ways in which CPD can be accrued, and one way is by reflecting on what you have learnt from the information you receive in your professional magazine. By answering the questions below, practitioners can award themselves credits. One, two or three credits can be awarded, depending on what has been learnt — exactly how many you award yourself is up to you, once you have reflected and taken part in the quiz.

There are ten questions in all, and the answers can be found at the end of this article. Learn more about CPD and the IOSH approach.

Please note: there may be more than one correct answer to a question, and further reading may be required to correctly answer the questions.

1. The Health of Munition Workers Committee was set up in 1915 to consider:
a.Pay rates for munition workers
b.Hours of work
c.Worker fatigue
d.Other matters affecting the health and efficiency of workers

2. The chief inspector of factories and workshops concluded in 1919 that the war had resulted in:
a.An increase in the hours worked
b.A decrease in the hours of work
c.Working hours remaining unchanged

3. The committee concluded that:
a.The most effective shift pattern was two twelve hour shifts
b.Factory holidays should be suspended
c.The maximum shift should be limited to 16 hours
d.There should be dinner breaks of at least one hour

4. In modern times, UK governments have, in relation to the Working Time Directive:
a.Fully implemented all parts of the directive
b.Not implemented any of the directive
c.Secured an opt-out from the restriction of weekly hours to 48
d.Insisted that all workers are restricted to 40 hours per week

5. Economic studies in recent times have shown that the UK:
a.Has the lowest average working week in Europe
b.Has one of the highest average working weeks in Europe
c.Has one of the highest productivity ratings in the G8 countries
d.Has productivity rated as the lowest in the G8 countries

6. In relation to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
a.They estimate that 12,000 people die each year from ill-health mainly related to hazardous substances at work
b.A review of the HSE found confusion between general wellbeing and specific occupational health issues
c.The HSE were the first body to propose measures for the control of exposure to hazardous substances
d.The HSE has been asked to use other forums dealing with wellbeing issues to encourage recognition of the distinction between occupational ill-health  and general public health

7. Memoranda issued by the Health of Munition Workers Committee during the First World War included:
a.Welfare supervision
b.Employment of Women
c.Employment of Children
d.Special Industrial Diseases

8. The ten memoranda issued by the Health of Munition Workers Committee could be considered:
a.Irrelevant to modern times
b.The first real evidence supporting the modern HSE’s good health campaign
c.Was effectively the first ergonomic study for a specific group of workplaces
d.To contradict modern thinking on the safety and wellbeing of the workforce

9. The Health of Munition Workers Committee was set up as a result of:
a.Workers working intensely with poor productivity but good quality
b.Workers working intensely with good productivity but poor quality
c.Workers working intensely but with poor productivity and poor quality
d.Workers not working intensely, with poor productivity but good quality

10. During the construction of the Olympic Park for the London 2012 games:
a.Workers not having breakfast was thought to be the cause of some accidents
b.Providing cheap breakfasts had no effect on accidents
c.Providing cheap breakfasts contributed to a reduction in accidents
d.Providing cheap breakfasts contributed to a more even distribution of accidents throughout the working day

1) b,c,d
2) b
3) d
4) c
5) b,d
6) a,b,d
7) a,b,d
8) b,c
9) c
10) a,c,d

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Stewart Gunn
Stewart Gunn
54 years ago

Very interesting article

54 years ago

Excellent article and questionnaire. I gave myself 2 CPD points in that I missed out a few on the multi answers.

This article and questionnaire initiative would be great if it happened monthly on different subject matters.



Michael McAuliffe
Michael McAuliffe
54 years ago

Sounds basic but good advice usually is

Greg Petrie
Greg Petrie
54 years ago

Valid article, highlights the fact that there is still real misunderstanding of improvements in work place arrangements to improve safety and out put.

Clive Wilmott
Clive Wilmott
54 years ago

Really enjoyed reading this article, I have seen a number of documentaries on TV over recent weeks about the role of young women in the munitions factories, in particular a very good one about the huge complex around Gretna. The dangers the mainly very young female workers faced were immense and was only matched by the role they played in providing munitions to their men folk on the front line.

Amanda Way
Amanda Way
54 years ago

Very interesting article and shows that a sound, common sense approach really does bring results. I also believe that efforts shown by an employer in demonstrating a concern for the workforces’ welfare adds to better staff moral which in turn adds to better productivity.

john Fleming
john Fleming
9 years ago

Very good article ,showing that health and safety is intwined in english history.