A brief history of the introduction and evolution of health and safety regulation at work.
Peering back into the murky history of workplace safety is a genuinely useful and enlightening exercise, so we decided to put together a short blog consider the industry’s past and how it has shaped the world we live in today. Occupational health and safety, a relatively recent and modern area of interest, arose from many labour movements a mere two hundred years ago, when the average day’s work was a very different affair. Because the bulk of the changes in the law first came about in England, for the sake of brevity we’ll limit the scope of our historical crash course to the changes in the UK.
Earliest efforts to improve working conditions
When anyone mentions health and safety through history, the first image that springs to mind is that of the early 19th century, an era populated by infant chimney-sweeps and factory workers employed by nightmarish textile tycoons. Although the reality was less dramatic, it is true that there was a complete disinterest in the working conditions of workers and a deep rooted ignorance concerning the identification of hazards and harm and the assessment and evaluation of risk.
The only reason these condition are a thing of the past is a landmark piece of legislation called the Factory Act, which was the first effort by Parliament to protect the welfare and wellbeing of workers. A response to the boom and upheaval caused by the Industrial revolution and the urging of some forward-thinking employers, the Bill was introduced in 1802 by mill owner Sir Robert Peel. Though the changes to the appalling working conditions brought forth by the Act, were, by our standards, pretty slight (essentially limited to a bi-annual cleaning of the premises, and the use of windows to admit fresh air) it was still a significant turning point and the beginning of a shift towards regulation and change.
Health and safety reform would flourish and continue throughout the century, in 1833 slavery was abolished and that same year, it was made illegal for factory owners to hire anyone (child, pauper, orphaned hero of a Charles Dickens novel) under the age of 9. By 1850 the Ten Hour Act reduced the length of the working day, progressively, inquiries were made by Factory Inspectors into the grim outbreak of industrial diseases and in 1891, measures were introduced to protect those working with dangerous and hazardous chemicals, at long last being given protective clothing and washing facilities.
The next step in the chain was the Agriculture (Safety, Health and Welfare Provisions) Act of 1956, which brought with it health protection and safeguards for workers in agriculture. It stipulated simple requirements for first aid, made provisions for basic hygiene, and prohibiting the lifting of excessive weight.
However, it was the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 which made the most comprehensive and thorough changes. This act was a revolutionary piece of legislation implicating employee and employer and placing duties on both. The act lead to the creation of what is now the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which was put in place to fulfil the act’s objectives and propose regulations. This legislation -in combination with the Executive NDPB- function together in regulating health and safety in various industrial sectors, from agriculture and mining, to construction and education, to engineering, recycling and textiles. The changes in the workplace brought about by these new laws meant between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees in the UK fell by an incredible 73%, and number of non-fatal injuries fell by 70%. It might not be the most scintillating of historical events, but these figures are indicative of the success of the Act and its efforts at improving the standards of health and safety at work.
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