History of Health and Safety at Work Act
Jane White traces its origins, looks at its achievements and explains why it’s still relevant today.
The Health and Safety at Work Act is a pivotal piece of legislation, and try as politicians have to pull it apart, it has truly stood the test of time. Countless lives have been saved and many more workers have been protected from injury and illness because of it. As we look ahead to its 40th birthday, we see an oft-imitated system that is the envy of the world.
But this success story, one of triumph of morality over hard-nosed profiteering, cannot be told without mention of previous generations and the many millions of people whose experiences brought it about.
It begins in 1800. Imagine that you are six years old and working in a cotton mill. There is an outbreak of malignant fever, which leaves many around you dead or dying. Physician Thomas Percival studies this and sends his recommendations to parliament.
The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, sometimes known as the Factory Act 1802, places orders upon cotton mill owners with regard to the treatment of apprentices (mostly children) and sets requirements for mill cleanliness.
Although the act was ineffective in its implementation, it did pave the way for future factory acts, which would regulate the industry. The factory acts were a series of acts passed by parliament to limit the number of hours worked by women and children, first in the textile industry, then later in all industries. This sets the backdrop to the eventual Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Then, in the 1880s, we see the emergence of the production line. Imagine you are now a factory worker regarded by your well-heeled employer as little more than a component in a machine. It is consequently a monotonous and inhumane daily existence, which begins and ends just beyond the factory wall in a back-to-back terrace house without a garden, built cheaply and unsafely. The co-location of tasks in the process of production has arrived.
Next move forward three decades and across the Atlantic, from the Lancashire cotton mills to Henry Ford’s Detroit automobile plant. It is December 1913, and the eve of the first truly mechanised war. Your job at your work station is essentially one or two tasks on Ford’s rudimentary assembly line. Work is centred on repetition, fragmented experience and forensically monitored output. We begin to see an increasingly sophisticated division of labour. Perfection of this sequence resulted in the famous Model T Ford car.
Ford’s model of mass production was given its own name: Fordism. But the drive for increased production speeds resulted in a wide range of stress-related symptoms that became so familiar they also earned themselves a name: ‘Forditis’.
Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – the UK’s most important health and safety legislation
In the 1936 dark comedy Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin is the personification of the cog in a machine, a factory worker employed on an accelerating assembly line, where he screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery. He finally suffers a nervous breakdown and runs amok, throwing the factory into chaos. He is sent to a hospital.
Worldwide the continued search for increased production line efficiency, coupled with the war time eras, resulted in a shell-shocked workforce. Remember time-and-motion studies? They have been in and out of fashion for many years. The aim was to find out who was working hard and who was not. But importantly they eventually raised the question of why? Did some work better when given a single small task to repeat over and over, or was frequent change of task key to reducing errors? Could it be that workers responded differently and acted as individuals?
Moving on through the post-second world war years and the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, we arrive at 1974 and the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act. You are now a female worker liberated by the drive for equality and emboldened by trade union membership. Autonomy has raised its head. People now want more control over the work they do.
Enlightenment, how can we make work better? We are not just talking about efficiency related to profit. Let’s change this assembly line to process thought, human need and emotion. Why would anyone adopt a job role which might do them harm? Of course, we can each think of many reasons why. So who was responsible for the health and safety of workers, and why?
Posters old and new explaining the Health and Safety at Work Act
Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
The truth of it is that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was an enactment that consolidated a lot of existing and rather piecemeal legislation. It was no coincidence that it was enacted during a year when there had been a particularly large number of deaths from work-related accidents.
In 1970, an Employed Persons (Health and Safety) Bill had been introduced in the UK, and that same year the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed into US federal law.
This move by the US prompted Harold Wilson’s Labour government, in its last throes in 1970, to establish a committee of inquiry, chaired by Lord Robens. With an eye on the latest American initiative, the committee would consider this country’s legislation. It was a substantial task.
Edward Heath’s new Conservative government gave a proposed debate on the adopted US bill no parliamentary time, preferring to wait for the Robens Report.
Duly published in 1972, the report concluded, to put it simply, that there was too much law. Lord Robens noted: “One of the reasons why there is too much law is that every time a new technical situation arises an external agency imposes a new set of detailed rules. But one of the fundamental points in this document (the report) is that the primary responsibility for prevention lies with those who create the risk i.e. the management and the men.”
The report was instrumental. Following Labour’s return to power two years later, the recommendations were substantially enacted with the passage of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Looking back in 2008, Lord Grocott gave this glowing review of this pivotal legislation: “The record of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 act speaks for itself. Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent; the number of reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent.
“Between 1974 and 2007, the rate of injuries per 100,000 employees fell by a huge 76 per cent, and Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union in 2003, which is the most recent year for which figures are available. The EU average was 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers; the figure in the UK was 1.1.”
Of course, the shrewd among you might also accredit the change of our infrastructure landscape as a contributing factor.
The act’s success is beyond doubt; the figures speak for themselves. But moving on to the present day, surely serious health and safety issues are no longer an issue? Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Today, imagine you are a call centre worker with a failing voice and serious back problems. The workstations and repetitive tasks may have changed – but Fordism is still alive and well. We have a service industry now overtaking the manufacturing production line of the early 20th century. Time-and-motion studies and target-driven performance indicators are still stifling employee health, safety and wellbeing.
There is much work to be done, but behind this historic tale of ground-breaking legislation and vastly improved statistics, there is also a personal story about you and me. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 paved the way for a life in which we in this country can now hope and aspire. For example, my son wants to work for NASA, and why not?
Without such advancements in health and safety, we would not have the safe working environments that have paved the way for progress in technology, science and innovation. This system has protected and nurtured those innovators who have created a world of work with limitless opportunities.
Looking past law and regulation, putting aside employers’ duties and employees’ acts and omissions, the story is not only about saving lives but also of allowing kids to aspire to become an astronaut.
But there is a twist to this tale. If my son can aspire to fly to the moon, why do hundreds and thousands of parents continue to lose sons and daughters in factory fires and building collapses in the south Asian garment industry? And why are thousands in the UK still dying from occupational health exposures?
If we truly believe in creating a world of work that is safe, healthy and sustainable, there is still a great deal more to do.
We should be proud of this legislation. I am hard pressed to think of any other act that has been as effective as ours. We should not think twice about the ‘elf and safety press we get. Instead let’s focus our energies on what we have achieved, pool our knowledge and expertise on maintaining what we have, and help those who are not quite there yet. No one would argue with this message: everyone has the right to come home to their families healthy and safe at the end of the working day.
And everyone has the right to be an astronaut if they want to be.
Jane White is research and information services manager at IOSH