50 years ago today, the rest of Britain found out about the existence of a small Welsh mining village – for tragic reasons. On the morning of 21 October 1966 the National Coal Board (NCB) waste tip that sat above Aberfan collapsed and slid down the hill, engulfing parts of the village, including the junior school. 144 people died, including 116 children. Technically under the then-current health and safety laws, the incident did not even have to be reported to the Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries, as no NCB employees were amongst the casualties and those who had died were not on NCB land.
The story of Aberfan is, now, well known, but what is perhaps less commonly realised is the impact the disaster had upon understandings of health and safety. On rare occasions, perhaps, significant disasters sparked considerable public interest and intense debate in the press regarding questions of safety – Aberfan was one of these. Not only so, but crucially it was a point at which occupational and public health and safety met, and the dangers to which the public were exposed as a result of workplace hazards became very visible. As David Eves, then a Factory Inspector and later Deputy Director General of the HSE, recalled in an interview for our project: “Now surprisingly [what happened] wasn’t actually illegal, there wasn’t any legislation about the safety of tips at that time. Naturally a law was then quickly made which required spoil heaps at mines to be examined by a competent civil engineering surveyor periodically, and steps taken to make sure that they were absolutely safe.” (David Eves interview, paragraph 33.) The Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act of 1969 made specific reference to the safety of the public. As Rex Symons, a former member of the HSC, observed at interview for our project: “Aberfan didn’t strike one as being a health and safety issue, it struck you as being a public safety issue” (Rex Symons interview, paragraph 10.) It was becoming clearer that older divisions between health and safety in the workplace and that of the wider public were not so straightforward as might once have seemed.
Aberfan wasn’t the first time the public had been affected by what might otherwise have been considered workplace dangers – a notable earlier incident was the Brent Cross crane collapse, in 1964, in which a crane on a construction site in London fell and crushed a passing motor coach, killing 7 and injuring 32. And Aberfan certainly wasn’t the last time the public was affected by occupational hazards – the dramatic 1974 explosion at the Nypro chemical plant in Lincolnshire caused severe damage to the nearby village of Flixborough. What Aberfan did do was add to the mounting sense that something needed to be done to control the risks to which the public were exposed as a result of industry – a feeling which eventually came to pass in the creation of the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. The irony was not missed that the Committee which effectively led to the creation of the 1974 Act was chaired by Alfred Robens, chairman of the NCB in October 1966 and who was heavily criticised for his response to the Aberfan tragedy.