Some project findings (2)

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?