Here’s the next couple of conclusions from our research project – to give you a flavour of some of the big issues we’ve grappled with and tried to make sense of, and where we’ve ended up!
- How have public attitudes towards health and safety changed since 1960? How does the public regard health and safety now? Was there ever a consensus as to the social license underpinning health and safety regulation?
Public attitudes towards health and safety have perhaps bifurcated in the last twenty years or so; there is evidence of an instinctive, surface-level antipathy and hostility towards ‘health and safety’, but also of an enduring, underlying acceptance of the importance of health and safety as an area of provision and activity. The right to safety is endorsed, and levels of awareness are relatively high. When hostility is expressed, it is centred upon core issues that symbolise particular moral conundrums around choice and responsibility (such as the ‘compensation culture’), and certain trends towards commercialisation and overspill that might be thought to be more recent issues of concern. But this kind of contest around health and safety is not new, and was present right through our period of study, even the ‘consensus era’ of the 1970s. Those on the right have always contested it as an interference in the autonomy of individuals and of business; those on the left have always valorised it as a progressive undertaking; and many people have accepted an uneasy bargain or balance between these two principles, seeking the capacity to earn money and freedom from bureaucracy, while also demanding to be safe. The only differences now are that these conflicts are played out and settled in a much more public, media-driven, and occasionally politically opportunistic manner than in the past, and arguably with a less visible and developed welfarist lobby to argue in favour of regulation and protection.
- What are the key factors, events, and trends that exert particular influence over the social profile of health and safety? What are the implications of this for those seeking to shape policy in the next 5-10 years?
The principal implications and recommendations to flow from this investigation’s findings are addressed in our Recommendations (more on this in due course). In 2015 one of the most significant factors influencing public discussion of health and safety is undoubtedly the media, which has an impact across the social and political spectrum. Shaping the public presentation of health and safety issues is therefore a key challenge for those seeking to influence policy and practice in the future, and a number of suggestions relating to this goal are set out below. Spectacular moments of crisis (e.g. Aberfan, Flixborough, Piper Alpha, Ladbroke Grove) propel health and safety issues briefly to the top of the agenda; but longer term attitudes are derived from more mundane, day-to-day experiences of health and safety. Striking a balance in response to each side of the equation is therefore an important consideration for policy-makers. Finally, perceptions of the proportionality of regulation and health and safety protections have in recent years had an increasingly important part to play in defining the social profile of health and safety.
What do you think?
In addition to presenting research findings at conferences and symposia, and producing the project report, we’ve also been working on publications. One of these came out earlier this month – a chapter in an edited book looking at risk in modern Britain.
In the chapter, we show how public opinion came to exercise a key role in health and safety regulation in post-1960 Britain, extending governance beyond the State. We argue that the period after 1985 was crucial, when the changing political and economic structure of the UK, including the gradual decline of trades unions and rise of neo-liberalism with its anti-regulatory agenda, increasingly made health and safety and State intervention matters of significant political dispute. Amid these public disputes, the State took greater steps to respond to attitudes about health and safety at work and beyond, and incorporate the public voice in the regulatory process. This crossover between the workplace and wider society is particularly significant, and from it we can see the roots of contemporary ideas – and, indeed, distrust in some quarters – about health and safety.
The chapter appears in the book Governing Risks in Modern Britain: Danger, Safety and Accidents, c.1800-2000, which Mike co-edited: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137467447
As we have reached the end of our project, and are now preparing to share and disseminate the results, it seemed a good time to put forward a few of the conclusions that we posited in our report (which IOSH will be publishing in the coming months). There is much more in the project, and more conclusions, to share, but here are a couple to start us off:
- How and why have perceptions of health and safety changed in Britain since 1960? What historical, economic, legal, and sociological factors have prompted any change in perceived legitimacy?
Perceptions of health and safety have, in general terms, remained relatively (and surprisingly) stable over time. There have been consistent challenges, particularly surrounding the role of the state, though these have varied in intensity (often around moments of crisis). There have also been changes in the way the health and safety is conceptualised, arising from changes in the law and the economy: notably the HSWA 1974 and extension of coverage under s.3 to include the public, and the declining economic importance of heavy industry coupled with the rise of newer sectors of employment and their radically different health and safety challenges. Political and media discussion of health and safety has become increasingly polarised, certainly in the last 20 years or so. At the same time, the principle that protecting people (at work or beyond) from death, injury and ill-health is a good thing has rarely been contested, even if the form of that protection has been debated.
- How far do changes in policy and perception during this period reflect historical continuities, particularly with reference to changing ideas of voluntarism, individual agency, and the role of the state?
A key continuity across the period would be the degree of variation of state policy: as political parties have changed, policies towards health and safety have changed – just as they have done for the preceding 150 years or more. Here a key example would be the movement towards a more consensual policy in the 1970s contrasted with a shift to a much more fractious relationship in the 1980s. In this sense, the period since 1960 has followed a much older pattern, and one which we could reasonably expect to continue in the future. The notion of voluntary solutions to occupational health and safety issues was long-standing and has continued to underlie much of the thinking since 1960 – articulated (albeit in slightly different terms) in Robens’ influential conclusions about self-regulation. Central to this narrative is the understanding of individuals as possessing sufficient rationality and autonomy to be able to safeguard their lives and health. Such ideas have continued to remain influential as they are, put simply, attractive to most people, who like to think that they are capable of judging risk and taking care of themselves.
What do you think?
Mike and Paul will be presenting an overview of project research and recommendations at next week’s IOSH 2016 conference in London. This is a really exciting opportunity for the project’s findings to start influencing practitioners and policy-makers. There will be over 800 delegates present at the conference, from around the world, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how our work is received.
Appropriately, we’re part of the ‘Positioning for the Future’ strand – whilst our project has kept one eye on the past, we’re clear that knowing what has happened is essential to understanding the present, and can be a dynamic way of generating suggestions for how we might shape the future.
As when writing the project report, a key challenge in preparing our presentations has been thinking about how to make sure contemporary practitioners can see how and why the past is important and relevant. We’re looking forward to some interesting discussion and questions after the presentation, and really hoping to inspire delegates to take up the project’s recommendations!
More details from: http://www.ioshconference.co.uk/