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Past, present and future: Health & safety at work


HealthThis month marks the 35th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act, so Karen Baxter looks back over this time to see how the law has transformed health and safety in the workplace, plus she offers her predictions for the future.

The introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK, replaced and swept away over 150 years of laws. Since this major change in the 1970s we have seen a 75% fall in fatal accidents at work, and a proportional drop in serious injuries.


The industrial revolution heralded a major change in the world of work. Machines became faster, more efficient but more dangerous, and little attention was paid to health and safety. The first legislation of relevance was the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 that limited working hours to 12 per day, provided for religious education and required the ventilation and liming of workrooms. This was later amended to reduce hours to 10 per day for women and children and prohibited employment of children younger than 10 years old.

“The debate generated a belief that it did not address fundamental issues of workplace safety.”

Little changed for 30 years until the 1833 Factories Act introduced factory inspectors and certification by a medical practitioner that a child was at least nine years old, the age below which employment in textile mills was prohibited. The Factories Act and its subsequent amendments set the legislative framework for the next 150 years – a piecemeal build-up of highly prescriptive and incredibly specific rules with no general view of the subject. This saw some workplaces tied up in knots through sheer complexity and others missed completely. The result was literally millions of workers excluded from any and all health and safety law.

Recognising the issue, the then Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Barbara Castle, introduced an Employed Persons (Health and Safety) Bill in 1970, but the debate around it generated a belief that it did not address fundamental issues of workplace safety. As a result, a committee of inquiry chaired by Lord Robens was established towards the end of Harold Wilson’s first government. Robens found that the existing legislation – 30 Acts and 500 sets of regulations – was defective in that there was too much law, it was over-elaborate and preoccupied with the physical circumstances in which work was done.


With the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, this changed and the law became much simpler. The detailed, prescriptive regulations, defining everything from machinery guarding to the whitewashing of walls, were in general replaced by a single act covering all people and places of work. In effect, if you were at work your employer (or you if self-employed) was placed under a general duty to ensure your health, safety and welfare. In other words, where people worked was a workplace covered by the law – only domestic servants were excluded.

The new Act was remarkable in a number of respects. Robens believed in a greater reliance on standards and codes of non-statutory origin. This led to an act containing clearly stated principles of safety responsibility, with regulations made under its enabling powers confined wherever possible to statements of broad requirements and objectives to be achieved. With the newly created Health and Safety Executive using the new enforcement powers and providing detailed guidance explaining best practice to employers of all types, the scene was set for the sea change in health and safety performance across UK plc.

In the years that followed, having tested the water in the 1980s with ‘across the board’ regulations such as COSHH (hazardous substances) and noise (with an eye on the requirements of the European framework directive), this goal-centered approach driven by risk assessment was extended to all workplace risks in the early 1990s through the introduction of the affectionately named ‘6-pack’ – regulations introduced largely to comply with EU Directives, but fleshing out what Robens had intended all along.

Today, if you control work that puts people at risk, whether they are employed by you or not, you have a responsibility for managing that risk through assessment, control and monitoring. We now have a regime that imposes clearly defined responsibilities on directors, managers, supervisors and every worker. So after 35 years, where are we now and what does the future hold?

The future

When health and safety law was detailed, technical and prescriptive it was possible, desirable even, to see compliance as an end in itself. But things have changed. Today, against a backdrop of a risk adverse public and an unstable economic outlook, efforts to manage health and safety risk must involve the weaving of ill health and accident prevention activities into day to day business processes. This is the only way to achieve the business benefits that are there for the taking. As the saying goes, if you think health and safety is expensive, try an accident.

“Today…efforts to manage health and safety risk must involve the weaving of ill health and accident prevention activities into day to day business processes.”

Modern health and safety, whether it draws its inspiration from CIPD guidance on stress or from the rules of the London Stock Exchange on risk, is about focusing on priorities and not getting bogged down in trivial issues. Stories about hanging baskets and ‘bonkers conkers’ are also stories about dysfunctional management or ill-advised teams who are making a poor job of running their organisations.

Good management starts with clear leadership, and that is what modern health and safety also requires. Leadership that makes clear what the organisation’s objectives are and how they are to be attained and measured. Typically, establishing this also entails close working with the entire workforce in a spirit of real engagement over commonly held values.

Years ago the risks at work were largely defined as physical – accidents (exposures to asbestos or noise), observable, measurable, tangible factors. Now we are seeking to get to grips with the psychosocial, with pressure turning into stress, with high levels of absence, disability and an ageing workforce – more people centered. Only a strategy that engages across the entire business can achieve success in managing these issues. That means moving health and safety into mainstream management – the original objective of those who drafted the 1974 Act.

Karen Baxter is managing director of Sypol

2 Responses

  1. Director leadership on health and safety at work
    As the article states, “Good management starts with clear leadership”. Leadership is a key theme being promoted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI). HSE and HSENI are the main regulators for health and safety at work in the UK.

    Directors and board members are, of course, responsible for overseeing all aspects of an organisation’s performance. That is one reason why HSE worked with the Institute of Directors (IoD) to issue Leading health and safety at work in October 2007. It was endorsed by HSENI. This 12-page A4 guidance is on leadership actions for directors and board members. It’s designed for all directors, governors, trustees, officers and their equivalents in the private, public and third sectors. Small enterprises may not have the formal routine of board meetings and procedures, so are also referred to HSE guidance on leadership for small businesses.

    The IoD/HSE guidance is freely available at and Both sites contain supporting material. HSE’s has over 40 case studies illustrating business benefits of health and safety leadership. Many of these are in the human resources realm. There are also some anonymised examples of leadership failure.

    Databuild Limited conducted a survey for HSE within the first year following publication of the guidance. A random representative sample of 1600 directors of organisations in Great Britain employing over four people was spoken to over the phone during the third quarter of 2008. Twenty five per cent said they were aware of the IoD/HSE guidance and 13% had read it. Almost half of those who’d read it said they’d acted on it: two per cent more planned to. So there were signs of some positive effect of the guidance, but still a need to go further.

    The Databuild survey findings are at

    Geraint Day
    Policy Adviser, Business Involvement Unit, HSE, Rose Court, London.

  2. The psychosocial will become increasingly important
    Karen is right to identify the future as being more about tackling mental wellbeing at work and the HSE has been expanding its focus on this area. Mental ill-health still carries a lot of stigma and is poorly understood by many employers. Initiatives like Mindful Employer are working to change this.

    Given that our future economic prosperity lies increasingly in harnessing the mental and creative capital of our workforce, HR departments will find themselves challenged with these issues more and more.

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