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!