Race & occupational health and safety

When researching modern British history, the issue of race comes up often, particularly in the late 1950s/early 1960s. This era saw a sharp increase in immigrant labour, as the government recognised that post-war reconstruction depended on an influx of new workers. Throughout the 1950s, immigration from the Commonwealth rose significantly.

For employers and safety organisations, this rise in immigrant labour brought with it particular problems relating to health and safety. Communicating OHS regulations to workers whose first language was not English is a concern that arises in the minutes of safety committees and industrial advisory groups, often reflecting the presumptions and beliefs dominant at the time. The following is an extract from the minutes of an Industrial Group Advisory Council dating from January 1960 (click to enlarge):

1960 race and OHS minutes

The committee minutes state that the Wolverhampton Safety Group’s rules for ‘dealing with Pakistani and Indian Labour’ included entreaties to employers to: ‘treat them kindly but firmly, as though they were children’. Other rules stipulate close supervision (as it was thought workers could not be trusted to be mindful of safety issues) and not employing immigrant workers on jobs which ‘involve the use of discretion.’ Whilst such perspectives now seem astonishing and inconceivable, at the time they were widely held and would have appeared unremarkable.

This sheds light on the increasing issue of race relations in the British workforce in the early 1960s, something that was recognised in industry at the time. Indeed, ‘The Immigrant in Industry’ was one of the topics discussed at the Conference of Advisory Councils on Occupational Health in 1962/3. Minutes from this conference hint at a more constructive (though at times no less misguided) approach, suggesting short courses on occupational health and safety to be offered to workers entering the country for the first time. The conference minutes also recommended the production of pamphlets, the purpose of which was to ‘guide the immigrant to a successful entry into industry. The idea was to sell to the immigrant the maxim “When in Britain, do as the British do”’.

These documents flag up a topic we might not normally think about in relation to the history of occupational health and safety in the UK; namely, immigration and race-relations in industry, particularly in the post-war period. How far was racial prejudice an issue when it came to establishing good health and safety practices in the workplace? How far did employers perceive the communication of OHS regulations and issues to immigrant workers to be problematic, and how much of this was tainted by intolerance? And how far did immigrant workers feel that they were protected by OHS regulations, compared to their British colleagues?