Informing those at risk

One of the recurrent themes that our research project encountered across the 55-year period studied was the importance of sharing and disseminating information, both as a means of extending the reach and coverage of the regulatory system, and as a method of avoiding accidents and work-related ill-health and injury. Information-provision is one method of bringing different constituencies into the process of controlling risk, empowering and facilitating workers, employers, and others in managing their own health and safety; as such, it is worth reflecting briefly on how the way that information is shared from regulators and professionals to workers and the public, has changed over time.

At the start of our period, this was very didactic, reflecting a very traditional conception of the relationship between those with information and those without: one witness recalls “We organised tuition mornings in one of the Cutler’s halls, and all the firms sent apprentices in for health and safety instruction, rows and rows of apprentices in front of you” (Stan Barnes interview, para.67). This almost Victorian-sounding image of fresh-faced youngsters receiving instruction underlines the status of information about risk as a technical requirement of training – to be endured and attained rather than actively developed and cultivated. It also emphasises the hierarchical nature of information-sharing – being passed down from those in the know. It is perhaps not hard to see the seeds of a cultural resentment of ‘elf and safety’ being sown here, as well as the parallels with the worst examples of the dreaded ‘away-days’ and ‘mandatory HR training events’ that litter many people’s current experience of health and safety.

The 1974 Act provided a catalyst for significant change. It led to the development of more academic, university-based, professional training in health and safety, with different Universities (with Aston University, which also provided education for trainee HSE inspectors, perhaps foremost among them) stepping in as educational providers. this would underpin much of the efforts made to create and develop a respected and accredited safety ‘profession’ in the years post-1974. But the 1974 Act also made information-provision a more fundamental part of the regulatory system. It imposed a requirement (under s.11 HSWA) for coherent ‘information services’ to be provided by HSE. The practical method developed for this provision was very technologically-driven, using cutting-edge means of distributing technical materials: Sheila Pantry, who pioneered much of HSE’s work in the area, recalled that the HSELINE database, created in the late 1970s, actually made use of the European Space Agency’s international computing platforms (a precursor to the internet), the first public body to do so (interview, para.50). Alongside this, the 1974 Act broadened the law’s coverage, creating a need for accessible, non-specialist materials, such as HSE’s ‘DO AND DON’T’ leaflets, written in layman’s language, and the creation of telephone enquiry lines, among other things. Over time, this provision has expanded and taken on many different forms, and the further expansion of the internet and online resources has facilitated this even further.

In more recent times, however, a concern has been raised by some that the professionalization of health and safety has led to information and training benefiting those within health and safety (‘the converted’), but left the wider public behind (something the Löfstedt report was concerned over). The sophistication of information-provision and training for those for whom health and safety is a central part of their role, has not been matched by successful efforts to educate the wider public and workforce, for whom health and safety is less consciously important (perhaps explaining the residual reliance upon very clunky ‘inset’ methods that alienate more people than they empower). The greatest threats to health and safety tend to emerge from workplaces with a climate of disengagement – either due to employer ignorance and neglect, or employee disenchantment and hostility. Better communication provides the best means of addressing both of these issues. While there are examples (such as the British Safety Council’s work on school-level safety education) of wider engagement initiatives, there is perhaps a need to broaden the scope of ‘safety training’ further in the future – building a more risk-literate and informed citizenry who can think about health and safety issues, and made effective decisions, for themselves.

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?

Some project findings (1)

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?

Regulating ‘Live Volcanoes’: Health and Safety in Public


Images from Inquiry into Disaster at Nypro (UK) Ltd, Flixborough on 1/6/1974 (Official Report),via National Archive TS 84/37/1

Images from Inquiry into Disaster at Nypro (UK) Ltd, Flixborough on 1/6/1974 (Official Report),via National Archive TS 84/37/1New Picture (1)

“He [a senior HSE figure] put his hand up and said, ‘no, no, no, stop my boy, stop…that’s worker safety. That’s a dead volcano’, he said. ‘The live volcano is public safety. That is what’s going to energise everyone’.” [R. Bibbings interview, para.19]

One of the most pronounced shifts to have taken place in the last fifty years of health and safety regulation has been a movement towards recognising workplace risks that affect the general public. It is probably fair to say that the earliest eras of health and safety provision did not look beyond the factory or workshop in terms of their scope; indeed, most of the Factories Acts were explicitly limited in terms of the types of workplaces and industries in which they applied. But health and safety today is something that is understood as encompassing all areas of human activity, from education, to recreation, to work, to the use of public space. For many people, this ‘creep’ of health and safety into all areas of life is one of the key reasons for questioning the legitimacy of the law, and negative media coverage of health and safety does place an emphasis on the social, rather than the workplace, aspect of the issue. So when, and how, did this shift occur?

A review of the historical material suggests that the ‘public’ element was relatively little discussed before the 1970s, even in the aftermath of major events like Aberfan (which were seen as ‘public safety’ rather than ‘health and safety’ issues). The turning points appear to be twofold. While the Offices, Shops, and Railway Premises Act 1963 had broadened the scope of the workplaces in which health and safety risks were recognised, it was the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act s.3 which turned attention to ‘public’ safety risks. This had been introduced in part because of the Flixborough explosion in 1974, which showed the potential of high-hazard risks to ‘cross the factory fence’ and affect local communities. Even then, however, the potential of this extension of coverage was not really appreciated or recognised – policy observers from the time have confirmed that, in the words of a former civil servant (and HSE Director-General):

“Robens did envisage that there would be some limited duties towards the public. But…at the time when the Act was going through, I don’t think that the very extensive ways in which public health and safety have come into play was envisaged.” [J. Bacon interview, para.23]

The second turning point was the mid-1980s, when three factors coincided to make public opinion a key player in regulatory thinking. A combination of the politicisation of issues of regulation and government intervention (particularly by the EC) by the Thatcher governments, a series of major disasters affecting the public and workers between 1987-9 (including the Herald of Free Enterprise and Marchioness sinkings, Piper Alpha, Hillsborough, and the Clapham rail crash), and HSE’s efforts to account for growing concern over major hazard sites (mainly nuclear power, and especially post-Chernobyl) as part of their new Tolerability of Risk Framework (1988) meant that suddenly, what the man in the street thought mattered a great deal more than it had in the past. Not only was more evidence then gathered about public opinion, but the balancing approach to be adopted became more explicit. While the initial assessments of both tolerability and preference looked at high-hazard issues, the legislative and policy framework that was created was soon providing a basis for judgements about an ever-widening array of sectors and issues.

In this way, the new focus on principled, evidence-led decision-making, coupled with the ability of s.3 HSWA to apply to people outside the workplace, would change the face of health and safety regulation forever. It remains an irony that the movement towards applying the law to ‘crazy’ cases like so-called bans on playing conkers in schools, was driven in part by the need to respond to some of the most hazardous workplace dangers imaginable, and a desire for greater rationality.

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!

An introduction to archival research

In the middle of July, the project’s ongoing archival research programme turned its attention to the holdings at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, which include some relevant and interesting materials, particularly relating to the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW). Mike and Laura, who have been conducting the archival work to date, booked in for a day at MERL, and this provided a chance for Paul and Carmen to head down the hill from Whiteknights to learn more about the process of archival research at first hand.

The single most striking observation that Carmen and I made, as novice archive-miners, was the degree of discernment/intuition/expertise needed to search through the catalogues to work out exactly what it is you want to look at. It sounds obvious, but when there are large holdings, and much that is available only via request from the archive (so the friendly local archivist must locate the boxes in storage and deliver them to you), a good deal of decision-making is required to ensure that efforts are focused on the right materials, or at least in the directions that are most likely to be productive. The value of this became apparent as we began sifting through the contents of the first boxes – the Minutes of the Health Safety and Welfare Committee of the NUAW. Each bundle of documents took some time to read for relevant material, and this made that initial search and sort task even more important.


The MERL Reading Room.

The second observation was about the needs and conventions of the particular research context. Many of the materials we were dealing with were more than fifty years old and needed careful handling; the reading room at MERL was full of researchers working on their own projects, making it important for us to be quiet and considerate to others; and the rules of the archive (sign in and provide ID; no pens, only pencils!) must be respected. We also learned the methods involved in using a digital SLR camera to photograph copies of documents for future reference, and the need for careful recording of what you had looked at and in what order!

But the most important lesson learned was the value and insight that comes from engaging with historical materials at first hand. Like a sleuth from a detective novel, finding a snippet of info in a document, snapping a picture, and then following the lead as it develops felt like a real thrill. As an example, I was lucky enough to get the box containing the NUAW H+S Committee minutes from 1970-75 – so contemporary with the Robens Report of 1972 and the passing of the HSWA 1974. It was exciting to track the initial concerns raised by the NUAW about the exclusion of agricultural workers from the scope of the Robens Report, through to evidence of the to-and-fro with government over this issue, and then to the efforts to understand the implications of the general duties contained in HSWA 1974 ss.2-3 (which apply to all employees and others affected by business activities) for farm workers.

It was even more exciting to cross-reference these concerns to contemporaneous evidence from Hansard, to see when and how these issues were raised within the legislative process, including by a youthful Neil Kinnock during Commons debate on 21/05/1973. We also located evidence as to controversies during the post-1974 implementation of the new law, including the ongoing argument (1974-6) between the NUAW and the Country Landowners Association about whether agricultural workplaces should be excluded from the scope of the new unified inspectorate (the HSE) and, by 1978, the emergence of disquiet about the limitations of tripartite working within Industry Advisory Committees.

Overall, the real benefit of going back to the archives is that the sources force us not to take for granted any of our contemporary assumptions about the Robens era. Consensual and tripartite working was shaky in practice; unified inspection and legislation was never a foregone conclusion; and the implications and meanings of the broad duties within the HSWA 1974 took time to be recognised and understood. Reform was thus an ongoing process, not a single event, and that is a crucial realisation for the rest of this project.



Is HSE an easy target?

Since it came to power in 2010, the Conservative-led coalition government has issued a series of disparaging statements about health and safety. For instance, back in 2012 David Cameron bemoaned the ‘excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses’ and vowed to tackle the ‘health and safety monster’ ( While just this month, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling pledged to ‘slay health and safety culture’ through the new Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill (

Considering HSE (Health and Safety Executive, the UK’s health and safety regulator) is itself part of government, such negative comments appear counter-intuitive, an example of government shooting itself in the foot. However, the somewhat unusual status of HSE may go some way to explaining this apparent anomaly. Indeed, as an executive non-departmental public body, HSE lies at arm’s length from central government. It is this critical distance that makes HSE’s relationship with the Department for Work and Pensions, under whose ministerial responsibility it falls, a potential battleground and explains why central government feels politically capable of talking so critically of the area it regulates.

This distance is perhaps also the source of central government’s suspicion of HSE and the driving force of the many reviews it has endured over the years. Notably, in the early 1990s under the Major government, it was subject to several reviews which called its very existence into question, prompting John Rimington, then Director General of the HSE, to label them ‘firestorms’ ( Given government’s desire for centralised influence and control, one question reviews often seek to answer is whether HSE, an operationally independent body, is the most appropriate regulation delivery system.

That said, HSE is arguably only notionally operationally independent, as central government consistently seeks to take the lead. The government’s 2011 ‘Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone’ policy document, setting out as it did major reforms to Britain’s health and safety system, is one such example of central government seeking to exert control (

The Health and Safety at Work Act, 40 years on – pt 2

“How much of what we could describe as the “Robens world”…remains? I think that the only possible answer to the question is…very little.” (John Rimington, 2008:

As the previous blog post discussed, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 remains the foundation-stone of the contemporary regulatory regime, and many who work in the area still pay homage to the enduring ‘Robens philosophy’ as a guiding set of assumptions (see the British Safety Council’s Safety Management feature on the ‘HSWA at 40’: But the HSWA is arguably no longer the unifying force that it once was. Rimington, a former Director-General of the HSE, argued that times had moved on since Robens due to the shift of policy-generating capacity from Whitehall to Brussels, a decline in the extent of the problems (a lack of unified regulation, high injury rates, a hazardous heavy industry sector) that Robens set out to address, and the erosion of a common-sense government consensus on the issue by the emergence of a ‘nannying tendency’. Which of these factors have most tangibly influenced subsequent developments is a matter for debate; for now, two perhaps merit a closer look.

Firstly, while it has undoubtedly hugely influenced the UK’s system, the contrast between EU and UK approaches to health and safety regulation is arguably overstated, contributing to the misguided impression that the UK is forced to give effect to an alien regulatory regime. Since the surge of EU health and safety legislation from 1989 to 1992 (the UK implemented the ‘Six Pack’ on January 1st 1993), EU policymakers have opted for the ‘route of less regulatory intervention’ (see Wright:, with soft law methods such as ‘awareness raising’ and ‘social dialogue’ being increasingly engaged (as outlined in The Health and Safety at Work Strategic Framework 2014-2020). This, together with the fact that EU-issued health and safety directives rarely prescribe the precise methods Member States must adopt to comply, suggests that the UK’s hand is far from being forced. Although there are differences in approach to health and safety regulation among Member States (e.g. in the structure of insurance systems and responsiveness to risk-based tools), the EU and UK approaches are perhaps not as dramatically different as they are often portrayed. The EU’s regulatory approach is frequently characterised in terms of the precautionary principle, erring on the side of caution and overregulation. This is in stark contrast to the UK’s perceived approach, with its apparent focus on regulatory impact assessment and tendency towards minimalism.

However, the deregulatory, burden-lifting agenda is not limited to the UK. Even Article 118A of the Single European Act itself, seen as key in facilitating European health and safety legislation, insists that: ‘Such Directives shall avoid imposing administrative, financial and legal constraints in a way which would hold back the creation and development of small and medium sized undertakings’. The establishment of the High Level Group on Administrative Burdens, the ‘Stoiber Group’, is yet another guard against the ‘burdens’ of regulation. Indeed, the economic rationale behind health and safety regulation is increasingly being cited in EU circles, mirroring the UK’s demands for greater economic rationality in governance. While the extent of the EU’s influence could not have been anticipated by the Robens Committee, the charge that it has distorted the UK system beyond recognition is arguably misplaced.

Secondly, since 1974, HSE and the HSWA have been subject to repeated review processes, which have given a sense of how health and safety relates to shifting government priorities. In 1994, a major review conducted by HSC restated support for the Robens approach, but concluded that the regulations had once again become too numerous, requiring simplification. It led to greater use of cost-benefit analysis, audit, and the closer management of regulatory activities; this occurred against the backdrop of the Major government’s wider reforms of public sector accountability and ‘Next Steps’ agencies. Concerns about accountability gave way to those about efficiency when HSE was discussed as part of the Hampton (2005) and Macrory (2006) reviews of risk-based regulation and enforcement; the agency was seen as a leading exponent of ‘better regulation’ practices but was pushed to take greater account of economic concerns in rationing its use of resources, reflecting the wider ‘burdens on business’ agenda within the New Labour government of the time.

Lastly, the more recent Young (2010), Lofstedt (2011), and Temple (2014) reviews of health and safety have shown government taking an interest in the substantive content and character of health and safety regulation, demanding that the way in which regulation is done, and the substantive outcomes it achieves, should change. They suggested that there are areas where health and safety has gone too far and in which it should be curtailed (particularly low-risk workplaces, the self-employed, and areas of social life) because the idea of health and safety regulation, and not just the process, was in question. Whether this is reflective of a fundamental shift in legitimacy, or just an increasing governmental desire to manage public perceptions, remains to be seen.

Regulatory Myths in the media

Paul Almond appeared on BBC WM (West Midlands) yesterday to talk about “health and safety gone mad” and a recent “case” highlighted in the Daily Mail newspaper involving a War veteran who had been banned from acting as a flag-bearer at a Remembrance Day event due to ‘health and safety’ ( The link to the radio show is here: (at 33.20). Paul was happy to explain that there was nothing in the law to stop the gentleman involved acting as a volunteer, and that he was probably the victim of a ‘can’t-do’ attitude on the part of insurers and organisers.

Issues around misperception are a central part of what our project aims to understand.  HSE has long worked to address this kind of story via its myth-busting website, review panels, and media activity, but new examples do endure. Why is it that there is such an appetite for these stories? What understandings do they seem to confirm, and why is health and safety so vulnerable to these attacks? Is it simply the media having fun, or is a political agenda being advanced? What wider views of the legitimacy of health and safety do they seem to confirm?


Finally, the media’s role is not just limited to poking fun at ‘jobsworths’; sometimes the shoe is on the other foot! Private Eye ran a good story last week about the Daily Express, an organ that is very fond of an anti-health and safety story or two, banning kettles in their offices because of, you’ve guessed it, ‘health and safety‘!