The Health and Safety at Work Act, 40 years on – pt 1

As the current health and safety regime in Britain approaches its 40th anniversary, it is interesting to look at the origins of one of the most significant changes to occupational health and safety regulation of the 20th century. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act received royal assent on 31 July 1974 and came into operation that October. It wasn’t just a reshuffling of existing provisions, but a major rethink of how Britain approached occupational health and safety – and it has had an impact on everyone. Importantly, it didn’t just apply to workers but also to situations where the public might be exposed to dangers created by work. Given that this forms the basis of approaches to health and safety today, it is important to appreciate how it came about.


Britain’s health and safety legislation developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in a piecemeal fashion, with regulations being made and amended in a rather fragmented way – industry by industry, case by case. It was reactive, rather than proactive, and tried to play ‘catch-up’ with harmful developments after they happened. By the 1960s a confusing array of legal requirements, recommendations and inspection agencies meant that a unified approach to health and safety at work was lacking. And there were indications that the current situation was not as effective as it could be: deaths and injuries at work were rising.


As a result, the Committee on Safety and Health at Work was set up. It was chaired by Lord Alfred Robens, a former Labour MP and Chair of the National Coal Board, and sat between 1970 and 1972. It was given a wide remit: to examine not only existing occupational health and safety provisions, but to consider the whole ethos that underlay workplace safety – with particularly emphasis on the place of voluntary action – and to consider how best to protect the public from hazards produced by workplaces. The Committee held meetings, went on visits (in Britain and beyond) and considered written and oral evidence from government agencies, employers, unions, employees and accident prevention organisations, before producing its report.


The Report’s recommendations shaped the subsequent debates and eventually the 1974 Act. Some of the key aspects were to do with where responsibility for health and safety should lie. The Report concluded that the current approach to regulation ‘tends to encourage people to think and behave as if safety and health at work were primarily a matter of detailed regulation by external agencies.’ Instead it – and the Act – wanted to promote self-regulation, so that employers and employees played a greater role in health and safety. It wanted to involve all levels within a company, from senior management to shopfloor worker, but also seeing a place for a new, single government agency to oversee and if need be enforce the law.


The law was to be permissive – so, instead of specifying (in sometimes minute detail) what equipment was to be used in a particular case, it was to lay down a general duty of care, to be backed up by voluntary codes of practice and standards that could be worked out (and changed quickly, if need be) at a local level. The new legislation was also to apply to virtually all workplaces, whereas previous laws tend to apply to individually specified occupations. This broadened the application of health and safety law hugely, including to many self-employed people. And the new Act was to take into account the interests of public safety, particularly where large-scale hazards were posed (for example, from factories or chemical works situated near housing).


As might be expected, the Act had a mixed reception. The large scale nature of the changes were immediately obvious and attracted comment from those involved with occupational health and safety. Some welcomed the Act, seeing it as a ‘new philosophy’, particularly in the provisions ensuring workers should be consulted over health and safety matters. However, not all responses were enthusiastic. Some trades unions were concerned about the ways in which government power appeared to be being reduced – particularly when it had long been claimed that failure to enforce the regulations was a major problem. And at least as early as 1978 complaints were being levelled at the Act on the grounds that it created ‘red tape’ and a ‘paperwork burden’, or imposed extra costs on the economy. There were also underlying factors that were not addressed by the Act – as one commentator at the time noted, ‘the Government’s part will remain inadequate … unless they are willing to provide more money’. Clearly ideas about the legitimacy of health and safety were contested, and many of these debates for and against continue to this day – and the next post on this blog will have a think about the more recent years.