Communicating safety (through film)

One interesting theme which emerged from our time at the British Safety Council archives in October was the various ways in which safety messages are communicated to workers through promotional material – one popular method being the medium of the safety film. Our search unearthed a safety film catalogue from Federation Films, a production company formed jointly between the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and the Construction Industry Training Board.

Films in the catalogue included Where’s Danny?, No Questions Asked and Eyes Down. These productions (made between 1987 and 1990) use brutal scenes and emotive subjects to communicate their safety messages and to raise questions about worker and employer responsibility.

Where’s Danny? was produced for the painting industry, and follows a painting contractor working in an engineering factory. The film takes place 35 feet above ground, where Danny unclips his safety harness in order to clip it to a ladder (the correct procedure) but falls to his death due to the movement of the platform, which was badly set up. The film, described in the promotional material as ‘highly emotive’, highlights neglect on the part of management, in terms of their failure to order the correct equipment and cutting of corners to meet a deadline.

No Questions Asked is described as a dramatic, step by step portrayal of how an accident really does happen on a building site, and follows a series of incidents, all interlinked, which culminate in eventual disaster involving an unsafe trench. The procedure followed when investigating an accident is also shown, and all persons involved are found guilty – the foreman, general foreman, site agent and ganger. The message here is clear: everyone on the site bears a responsibility for safety.


no questions

Still from No Questions Asked


Eyes Down stresses the importance of hand, eye and foot protection in the construction industry. The promotional material sums up the crux of the film:

“Frank Waller was doing a routine sort of job – using a breaker on a kerbstone. So simple that maybe he wasn’t paying it much heed. The breaker slipped…they had to amputate what was left of Frank’s foot.”


eyes down1           eyes down1

Stills from Eyes Down


These films are relatively short (between 10-20 minutes) and tend to deliver their points concisely, and although they are instructional they draw more upon shock tactics and brutal imagery to gain the attention of employees and managers. Promotional materials like these aim at hammering home the cost of accidents and the issue of employee-employer responsibility, and such materials are extremely interesting to study in terms of the ways in which they attempt to engage with workers and communicate safety messages.

Government Report on Risk Released

Last week, the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor launched the first of his annual themed reports, entitled ‘Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It’. It is significant that Sir Mark Walport has chosen to focus the report on risk, recognising the significance of the topic for contemporary British society.


Mike has contributed a short case study to the report, using an historical example – the introduction of driverless trains on the Docklands Light Railway in London in the 1980s – as a means of thinking about the ways in which risks and perceptions of risks have been managed in the past, and what this might suggest for the introduction of new technologies in the future.


Writing the case study presented Mike with some challenges. Usually historians have the luxury of several thousand words in which to develop an extended argument, going into the nuances and complexities in some detail. In this case, though, the word limit was significantly tighter – only 500 words. It meant focusing in on the absolute essentials, as well as identifying what might be of most benefit for the contemporary user – important, given the report will be read by government staff and policy-makers in Britain and beyond in order to shape their decisions and frame debates in the future.


Mike’s case study identified a number of factors that influenced perceptions of safety and risk in relation to the DLR’s driverless trains, including proactive communication, public testing and the role of state regulation. He has suggested that these areas might all usefully be considered when introducing new technologies that might be perceived as in some way risky – but also that far from a knee-jerk reaction that feared driverless technologies, the public’s risk perception was more sophisticated, including a more open-minded approach to new technologies.


You can find the report and the associated evidence and case studies here.

Talking About the Past – the key stakeholder interview process

One of the central components of the research project is a series of interviews with key actors from the field of health and safety over the last fifty years. These began in August 2014, and we are approximately halfway through the process of talking to 40 people from a wide variety of backgrounds about their lives in the health and safety world. Each of these interviews to date has proved to be fascinating and enjoyable, and many new ideas and useful observations have emerged so far. And while it may be premature to jump the gun on discussing the findings, there are a number of interesting points to make about the process of interviewing itself.

Our first challenge has been deciding who to interview. We had identified a broad range of categories (regulators; H+S professionals; trade union actors; employer and business representatives; politicians; scientists and other observers). Some names were immediately obvious; others were recommended by either our helpful steering group, our existing contacts in the field, or by previous interviewees; and a few have been targeted following research into a specific topic or issue. This has allowed us to populate our categories (some more so than others!) and get a really broad spread of interesting interviewees.

The second challenge has been deciding what to ask – because this is a diverse pool of interviewees, we could not design a standard template of questions to ask in every case. But standardisation is not the goal of oral history interviewing – providing an authentic and personal account of the past is. With this in mind, we have worked from a ‘skeleton’ template, which sets out a chronological structure, and then populated each individual interviewee’s schedule with person-specific questions and areas to discuss. This has worked really well, allowing us to inform each interview with bespoke research on the person, and pointing attention at the key matters that each interviewee might want to discuss.

It must be said that our interviewees have proved to be a great resource – open and forthcoming, sometimes outspoken or revealing, and often insightful, reflective, and generous in their reminiscences. From Peers of the realm to professional managers, and from scientists to civil servants, they have all been able to pull apart the context of regulation in this area over the last fifty years. And all have given their own voice – which is exactly what we want the oral history methodology to capture for posterity!

The hardest part of the process is likely to be one of analysis – pulling out the material that matters and seeing the links between the different interviews. Many people have touched on similar topics from different angles, or given contrasting views on specific points. Some of these (like Piper Alpha, the Robens Report, Asbestosis, and the EU/6-Pack) will likely form the basis of case studies within our reports. We still have spaces for interviews and would particularly value some in key areas (trade union safety reps/policymakers; people working on safety issues prior to the 1974 Act; safety actors in the fields of occupational health and/or Local Authority enforcement) so please do draw this to the attention of anyone who would be suitable!