Forty years on from the HSWA’s introduction, Lord Robens, the man whose report laid the foundations for this ground-breaking legislation, is hailed as a hero. But, as Tim Marsh argues, his conduct at the Aberfan disaster inquiry paints a far less flattering picture.
The CEO of a large client braced himself when, at the funeral of an employee, he was approached by the widow. He said later that he anticipated a mouthful of abuse or perhaps worse. What he got instead was some heartfelt thanks that he had shown her husband the respect of attending. Deeply moved, he vowed there and then to transform the organisation’s safety performance. Within five years or so they were indeed industry leaders.
Nearly all readers will know of similar stories of how a tragedy can deliver the resolve to achieve significant and genuine improvement.
As we celebrate the on-going success that is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and its 40th anniversary it’s worth remembering the leading figure behind the legislation and the events that will without doubt have shaped his view of safety.
The Robens Report in 1972 was the cornerstone of this pivotal legislation and suggested an approach to safety that stressed among other things, that:
- the risk creators be the risk owners;
- that a risk-based rather than prescriptive approach be taken; and
- that workers and managers collaborate.
I really don’t have the knowledge to accurately summarise the impact of the report but do know that it sowed the seeds for the UK to develop a safety culture and record that is admired and envied by much of the world.
It’s common consensus that Lord Alfred Robens’ report was excellent and hugely influential. It was written by a major establishment figure who several felt could have gone on to be Prime Minister had he not switched to working in industry when faced with a (probably temporary) stalling of his political career.
His ten-year tenure as National Coal Board chairman hugely influenced his thinking on safety of course.
However, while in charge, he presided over an event that I believe will forever blight his legacy – Aberfan in South Wales where an enormous waste tip from Merthyr Vale Colliery became slurry after heavy rain, and slid down the mountain burying Pantglas Junior School and several houses.
In the ensuing tragedy, some 144 people died, 116 of them children aged just seven to ten.
As my mother dropped me at my nursery in South Wales on the morning of 21st of October 1966, Lord Robens would have been as oblivious as we were to the events about to take place some 15 miles from my school.
In 1966, the collapse of a colliery spoil tip in Aberfan killed 116 children and 28 adults
In those days Andrew Hopkins’ mindful safety concept and James Reason’s Swiss Cheese model were decades in the future and it was totally acceptable to think that no news was indeed good news. It would be wrong to retrospectively blame the National Coal Board’s chairman for not presiding over a culture that proactively sought out risk as Hopkins suggests with questions such as “what’s the worst that could happen?”. It was another time.
It might be more just to blame the engineers who sited a tip on top of a spring (making it inherently unstable from the outset) but even they were breaking no rules at that time. Nor would it even be fair to blame the tip workers who knew well that the stream from the spring might cause the tip to slip dangerously.
The tip workers rationalised that although some sort of slide was somewhere between possible and likely it would stop some way short of the village. They were also well aware that if they followed up reports (that were ignored), the cost of removing the tip might very well mean the pit wasn’t viable and it would most probably be shut down.
The bare fact is that when the heavy rains indeed caused the waste tip to catastrophically slide, it did not stop short of the village but instead buried homes and a school full of children who had just finished singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in the morning assembly.
It was an industrial tragedy on a scale that is almost incomprehensible and of course (as with nearly every such tragedy) it was utterly avoidable in several ways.
Though blaming Lord Robens for the event itself is unjust, his behaviour and conduct after the event is something that I’d like to remind readers of here.
Delay and denial
As Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford University, points out in an edition of the Times Higher Education Supplement, Lord Robens didn’t rush straight to South Wales but delayed setting off to Aberfan for 24 hours so that he could be installed as chancellor of the University of Surrey. Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the world’s media got there before him and National Coal Board employees dealt with enquiries in his absence.
On arrival at the scene of utter devastation and trauma, he announced that he could say with certainty that this event had nothing to do with the National Coal Board – of that he could assure people. At this point, however, he hadn’t been briefed and therefore had absolutely no idea what had caused the tragedy.
As McLean points out, Lord Robens announced the following evening that it was impossible to have known that there was a spring in the heart of the tip that was turning the centre of the mountain into sludge. This remained the National Coal Board’s official view throughout the subsequent 76-day tribunal of inquiry, even though everybody in the neighbourhood knew that the board had been tipping over two springs – a fact confirmed on the Ordnance Survey map.
In my view, it was just the first act of an abdication of responsibility, a mind-set that was to be continued.
On day 70, Lord Robens was finally sworn in to give evidence and admitted under questioning that ‘yes’ he had to concede that the event was ‘reasonably foreseeable’ and the National Coal Board was culpable. It’s quite possible that this was the first time he’d heard the phrase – certainly in relation to safety.
Why this late acceptance of culpability was so shameful is that the legal team representing the National Coal Board had been robust and challenging about absolutely everything from the outset.
Jonathan Jones’ gripping BBC 2 documentary Aberfan – The Untold Story, provides a harrowing account of the disaster and reveals just how obstructive the National Coal Board and Lord Robens were during the tribunal of inquiry.
The process was of course utterly traumatic for the bereaved parents and this huge expense and unimaginable upset could have been avoided had Lord Robens presented himself humbly and conceded culpability from the outset.
His demeanour under questioning was considered disgraceful by many. Plumped up by a sense of pompous self-importance and utterly affronted to be challenged at an inquiry (into, to reiterate, the death of 116 children aged between seven and ten and 28 adults) he was described by the prosecuting QC Desmond Ackner as being an incompetent, unhelpful and contradictory witness.
The report of the tribunal of inquiry into the disaster, published in August 1967, savaged the National Coal Board for its lack of a tipping policy and was critical of its chairman, dismissing his evidence as ‘inconsistent’.
Although he formally offered to resign (many politicians expected him to be dismissed), nobody was prosecuted, dismissed or demoted as a consequence of the disaster.
Disaster fund pays towards tip removal
But an even worse act was to come, in my opinion. Prime Minster Wilson, while walking around the devastated village (as Robens was accepting honours at the University of Surrey) had looked up at the remaining ominous looking waste tips and promised, ‘Those must go’.
When the village asked for the remaining tips to be removed, the government ‘stonewalled’ and who exactly should pay for it became the centre of great argument and debate. As Jonathan Jones’ documentary reveals, when the government’s offer to landscape the remaining tips was turned down, some of the villagers set up a tip removal committee and took it upon themselves to challenge the government.
The final promise to remove them was only secured from a shocked and upset Welsh Secretary George Thomas when a raging and incensed delegation tipped slag waste all over the floor of the Welsh Office.
Social historians consider the refusal of the villagers to be cowed as a major event of social history. Deference to authority was crumbling globally and the times were indeed ‘a changing’ to quote the Bob Dylan song released a few years earlier. It was, initially, Welsh miners and gay activists who combined to force through progressive changes in the law in the 1980s that featured in the wonderful film Pride.
In 1968, Wilson’s government announced that it needed a contribution from the disaster fund that had been set up, to pay for the removal of the other tips that still hung over Aberfan. As McLean points out, the fund was forced to pay £150,000 to the National Coal Board as a contribution to the cost of removing the tips.
In another affront to the villagers, McLean says that when the Charity Commission came to release compensation for the bereaved parents, it had wanted to insist that before any payment was made each case should be reviewed to ascertain if the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally.
A little later in Lord Robens’ career and no doubt drawing on all his experiences as a unionist, politician and industrialist, he wrote an excellent report; although improved workplace safety was an element of the general shift in attitude discussed above who knows how many lives were saved or not ruined as a direct consequence?
In time, Tony Blair’s government repaid the money, but only the original amount of £150,000. The money Blair authorised is used to maintain the memorial garden on the site where the school stood and where the most beautiful flowers grow.
I’d like to argue that, with heart-breaking irony, it is the precise site where many of the seeds of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 were sown.
McLean, I (February 1999). ‘How close were you to your dead child?’. Times Higher Education Supplement: http://bit.ly/1xYaKTk
McLean I and Johnes, M (2000). Aberfan: Government and Disasters. Welsh Academic Press.
Aberfan – The Untold Story. (First broadcast on BBC 2, 2006) Produced and directed by Jonathan Jones, Juniper Productions. To view this, visit: http://bit.ly/1Fu5r1q
This article was originally published in SHP magazine in February 2015.
The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!
The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.
Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today!