British Safety Council’s archive now online

Today the British Safety Council (BSC) has released its digital archive, covering the 60 years of its life and really showing how ideas about health and safety in Britain have changed since 1957.


Mike has been advising the BSC on its archive and making best use of its past – and in the project, we benefitted from this, as we were able to visit the archive in person and get early access to its wealth of insight. Contained within the archive are a good run of the BSC’s posters from the 1970s to the present, a complete run of the BSC’s newspaper and magazine publications from 1957, minutes of the BSC’s meetings, reports produced by the BSC and press coverage. It’s a fantastic resource for health and safety practitioners, for historians of health and safety – and indeed for anyone interested in Britain’s social and cultural history.


In the archive we can see a gradual increase in concern about workplace health, for example, or the prominence of the EU (Brexit only adds a piquancy to the ‘the load must not be too heavy for Europeans to lift’ poster).

European load, BSC poster  Asbestos kills, BSC poster

Manual work, including using machinery, features strongly – but increasingly over the years office work becomes more visible.

Little chap  1988 office safety, BSC

It’s also interesting to see how ideas about gender have played out – reflecting their times, much of the older material plays to men, featuring women only as sex objects. Later material is more balanced, particularly as more and more women entered the workplace. And of course we can get at ideas about masculinity, as well – a recurring motif is the idea of not being too tough for first aid, for example.

1972 first aid

Although the majority of the archive material focuses on occupational issues, from the outset this was understood in very broad terms, something reflected in the archive which highlights the BSC’s involvement in pretty much every aspect of accident prevention imaginable – including things like consumer safety, healthy beaches, DIY, women’s safety, AIDS, fireworks, children’s playgrounds and more.


Needless to say, there’s plenty more in the archive than this quick outline – the best way to get an idea about it is to visit it yourself:


(All images: courtesy British Safety Council)

Aberfan & public safety

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.

Project Report – out now

We’re excited to say that this afternoon IOSH release the reports from the projects that make up their ‘Health and Safety in a Changing World’ research programme – including the report from our project, ‘The Changing Legitimacy of Health and Safety at Work, 1960-2015‘.

Our project report represents the outcome of over two years of work, including multiple focus groups, 40 oral history interviews with key actors, and a wealth of archival research. We describe and analyse what has happened over the past 55 years, in terms of the ways in which health and safety has been understood and perceived, and how people have acted – and, importantly, conclude by making 22 recommendations for current and future practice.

If we had to summarise, we would say our key findings were:

  1. While politics, disasters, and the influence of different stakeholders have brought fluctuations over time, health and safety is actually a remarkably stable system. Institutional longevity and consistent challenges mean that the core idea of health and safety as a public good has endured, and so we should be wary of viewing this as a ‘crisis’, becoming more defensive and alienating audiences further. Open communication, and the confidence to share expertise, are key values to pursue.
  2. One reason for this stability is that health and safety has a life of its own beyond direct Government control, embedded in workplaces and interest groups, and increasingly devolved in form and function. This means deregulation is thus ‘easier said than done’, helping the system to weather political storms. It also means that communicating beyond the ‘core’ of the safety profession and stakeholders, to engage wider audiences, is vitally important.
  3. When dispute and controversy does arise, it is often because positive change tends to bring related negative perceptions. For instance, self-regulation gives choice to, and empowers, decision-makers; this empowerment also allows for a degree of inconsistency and self-prescription; similarly, innovating to tackle new challenges can lead to perceptions of over-reaching. But these controversies can also be celebrated and framed as successes, and we can work with, rather than against, these tendencies.
  4. The great strengths of the health and safety ‘system’ lie in the perceived good motives of those who work in the area; the expertise and skill that they possess (and can advertise or ‘sell’); their ownership of a powerful message (the moral ‘right’ to safe work); and their ability to achieve realistic, tangible change at the local level. All these goals should be prioritised and emphasised in day-to-day engagement with workers, employers, and the public.

Of course, there’s plenty more in the full report, so we encourage you all to read it. You can get hold of a copy here, and find the website for the research programme as a whole at

We look forward to hearing what you have to say about it!

Book chapter now out: ‘Il/Legitimate Risks? Occupational Health and Safety and the Public in Britain, c. 1960–2015’

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:


The last 6 months …

So, we’ve been rather quiet of late – mainly because we’ve had so much to do! We’ve spent a lot of the last 6 months or so finishing off the research, conducting the final interviews and having them transcribed, thinking about what it all means and putting together our final report, including recommendations for the future.

That report was sent off to IOSH in August, and is currently being reviewed – we’re expecting to hear back from IOSH shortly. There will probably be some changes to make as a result, but after that we’ll have the formal report in hand. This will be publicly released at the same time as all of the reports from the IOSH research programme as a whole – more details on this to follow as-and-when we have them.

We’ve also been working on a number of other publications – an article for a special issue, based around the IOSH research programme, of Policy and Practice in Heath & Safety; a chapter for a book made up of contributions from the various IOSH-funded research projects; and a chapter for a book, co-edited by Mike, on the history of governing risks in modern Britain.

Although the project funding is now finished, the work isn’t. We’re now working with IOSH on the formal launch of their whole research programme, and on various publications and other outputs. So, watch out for more from us over the coming months, including more posts on this blog.

PhD Opportunity: History of Risk and Safety – applications welcome

Excellent news for anyone considering pursuing a PhD in History – there’s an opportunity up for grabs at the University of Portsmouth at the moment, under the project’s Mike Esbester.


The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Portsmouth is making a number of PhD studentships available in core areas of interest. Within the History area, one of the topics is the history of everyday dangers and risks and how they have been understood and managed in Britain since c.1900.


Debates about safety and risk management are integral to contemporary British society, but are as yet under-historicised. This PhD will lead the development of this broad area. Within the broad remit of a focus on 20th-century Britain, there is great freedom for the successful candidate to define the parameters of the project in conjunction with the supervisor, Dr Mike Esbester. Possible areas might include: how people have constructed and responded to risk in everyday life; the development and role of safety organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and local safety councils; the use of safety education as a means of governing individuals and actions; the role of the state in managing risk. These areas might be accessed by exploring topics including workplace safety, road safety or home safety.


The studentship will start on 1 September 2015 and last for 3 years full-time; it covers fees, with additional payment for teaching during the course of the PhD. Applications are welcomed from suitably qualified UK/ EU candidates.


For full details, including the application process, please see:


Mike welcomes informal enquiries about the post:


The deadline for applications is midnight on 31 July 2015; interviews are expected to take place in the week commencing 10 August, in Portsmouth.

Conference presentations next week

Whilst teaching term might be winding down before Easter, an academic’s life is far from quiet: conference season starts in earnest. Over the coming weeks, the project team are in action, presenting some preliminary findings from their research.

First comes the Social History Society conference, conveniently being hosted at the University of Portsmouth. We have a project panel in action on Tuesday 31 March, consisting of papers by Paul and Carmen (‘People talking about regulation: public perspectives on the changing legitimacy of health and safety’), Laura (‘Accessing women’s experiences of occupational health and safety in post-1960 Britain’) and Mike (‘“They never bother about safety, never”: occupational health and safety in port towns in post-1960 Britain.’).

No rest for Paul, though, as he heads straight from Portsmouth up to Warwick, to the Socio-Legal Studies Association conference, to present his paper (‘Il/legitimate risks? Perceptions of occupational safety and health in post-1960 Britain’) on Wednesday 1 April.

It’s going to be a busy week for the project, but hopefully we’ll get some useful feedback and thoughts on our work so far from these conferences.

Government Report on Risk Released

Last week, the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor launched the first of his annual themed reports, entitled ‘Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It’. It is significant that Sir Mark Walport has chosen to focus the report on risk, recognising the significance of the topic for contemporary British society.


Mike has contributed a short case study to the report, using an historical example – the introduction of driverless trains on the Docklands Light Railway in London in the 1980s – as a means of thinking about the ways in which risks and perceptions of risks have been managed in the past, and what this might suggest for the introduction of new technologies in the future.


Writing the case study presented Mike with some challenges. Usually historians have the luxury of several thousand words in which to develop an extended argument, going into the nuances and complexities in some detail. In this case, though, the word limit was significantly tighter – only 500 words. It meant focusing in on the absolute essentials, as well as identifying what might be of most benefit for the contemporary user – important, given the report will be read by government staff and policy-makers in Britain and beyond in order to shape their decisions and frame debates in the future.


Mike’s case study identified a number of factors that influenced perceptions of safety and risk in relation to the DLR’s driverless trains, including proactive communication, public testing and the role of state regulation. He has suggested that these areas might all usefully be considered when introducing new technologies that might be perceived as in some way risky – but also that far from a knee-jerk reaction that feared driverless technologies, the public’s risk perception was more sophisticated, including a more open-minded approach to new technologies.


You can find the report and the associated evidence and case studies here.

Project talk – podcast available

Mike’s presentation at the symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act is now available online.

The talk – ‘Buying in to health and safety? Perceptions of legitimacy of occupational health and safety & the 1974 Act’ – was given at the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to an audience including policy-makers, practitioners, academics and former and current members of the HSE.

In the presentation, Mike discussed how various groups viewed occupational health and safety around the time of the Robens Report and the 1974 Act, including testimony from the archives and from workers.

A number of other presentations from the symposium are also available, including those given by Tim Carter (former Director of Health Policy at the HSE) and John Rimington (former Director General of the HSE).

Combining history and policy: 2014, 1974 and earlier

The 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act has not passed unnoticed. As might be expected, health and safety organisations and professionals have drawn attention to Act’s history, and this has been picked up by some media outlets. Now this project’s Mike Esbester has contributed an opinion article on the anniversary to the ‘History & Policy’ network.


This network brings together policy-makers, journalists and historians, showing how the past is relevant to the present and providing avenues to explore for the future. Mike’s piece draws on the longer term history of occupational health and safety – past 1974 and into the nineteenth century – to look at the ‘appropriate’ role for the state in the workplace.


Read more at: