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)

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.



Women in the North Sea Oil industry

Arguably one of the key challenges when researching the history of health and safety is in accessing women’s experiences of industry and employment. The papers of organisations like the Women’s Advisory Committees of trade unions can go some way toward bridging the gap, but archival documents that shed light on the average circumstances of female workers day-to-day are difficult to come by. If anything, this is even harder in the male-dominated heavy industries where women often made up a very small percentage of the workforce.

During a recent trip to the National Archives of Scotland I unearthed an interesting file which explored women’s experiences seeking employment in the North Sea oil industry in the mid-1980s. The document prompted me to think about the ways in which we historicise female employment and ‘traditional’ female roles in industry. It doesn’t directly relate to safety, but does discuss how ideas about working conditions and the physical demands of manual labour were used to justify discriminatory attitudes toward women, including managerial assumptions that women were less able to ‘handle’ heavy work.

 The report ‘Women in the North Sea Oil Industry’ was produced for the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1984, based on statements given by 158 female respondents regarding their experiences finding work in the industry, and the discrimination they encountered while interviewing for jobs with offshore oil companies.

This discrimination took the form of an overwhelming bias on the part of employers regarding the ability of women to carry out the kinds of physically-intensive offshore jobs traditionally dominated by men. According to the report:

“Companies stated there was no chance of women working “in the field”. This seemed to be quite a common situation within geology companies. Lack of facilities and inability to endure the physical side of the work seemed to be the excuse.”

There was also evidence of more extreme sexist attitudes on the part of some interviewers. One of the respondents said:

“During interviews with mud logging companies and oil companies, female colleagues were asked questions specifically because of their sex. I.e. do you know how to change a car tyre/electrical plug? Also, they were shouted at, by the interviewer, to determine how they would react under pressure. Neither of these lines of interview were taken when the same interviewer addressed male interviewees.”

The lack of facilities available, sleeping quarters and amenities were also cited as issues, as was the fact that women would require a male chaperone for some aspects of the work. Generally, the perception on the part of some companies was that women wouldn’t be able to cope with the rough nature of the job, and that they would eventually leave to start families anyway (so training would be a waste of time):

“My interview consisted of questions about hobbies, future plans (I.e marriage, children), why I went to one specific university, affinity to family/home. Whilst I was asked such “Noddy” stuff the boys on my course were asked specific geological questions, examined slides/specimens to identify for the interviewer.”

Sometimes potential candidates were point-blank refused interviews on the basis of their gender, with one company stating that they just didn’t employ women. Some interviewees found that companies were more willing to hire less qualified men for offshore jobs:

“On being told I wouldn’t be physically strong enough (for offshore work) I challenged this and it was admitted that I was as strong as a male of my build (of which there were two interviewed the same day – both offered jobs and both with 2:ii degrees as compared to my 2:i).”

The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act protected against discrimination on the basis of gender, and in 1984 the amendment of the Equal Pay Act (1970) demanded that men and women be paid the same amount for jobs that were broadly similar. Respondents said that although this legislation seemed to influence oil companies to interview more women for offshore jobs, this was very much a ‘box ticking’ exercise:

“Both companies said the main reason for taking on women was because of the Equal Opportunities Act and it would be good for them to be seen to be doing so.”

Other respondents said that although they were called to interviews they felt they weren’t taken seriously by potential employers:

“He (the interviewer) tried to dissuade me from sustaining my application and was also rather patronising. The following interviewee, male, reported that the interviewer made several comments to him about me, amongst which was “Cor, I wouldn’t mind having her out on a rig”, in such a manner as to indicate lewd intentions.”

Many women who were offered jobs found themselves being pushed into laboratory work and non-geological roles – not the offshore jobs they had originally applied for. For others already working at oil companies opportunities for promotion were cited as being slim, with male employees more likely to be promoted over more qualified female counterparts.

Challenging assumptions

The physically demanding nature of offshore work is here used as an excuse to enforce discriminatory attitudes, but is also a symptom of normative ideas about women and ‘traditional’ gender roles in the workplace. One person interviewed for the report recognised that this discrimination was less about the oil industry and more about long-entrenched societal attitudes:

“Women are not given the same opportunities, not because of the industry necessarily. But because of old traditions. Slowly we can overcome some of these problems, but not without time and the slow infiltration of other women colleagues.”

Perhaps it is too easy, for historians, to fall into the trap of thinking predominantly about women working in secretarial/office/factory roles. Although statistically this may have been the case, maybe we also need to think more about the experiences of women working in traditionally ‘male dominated’ industries.

So in the 30 years since this report was commissioned, has the situation in the oil industry changed for the better? Last year Sarah Darnley, a steward for an offshore catering company, died in a helicopter crash in which 3 other oil workers were also killed. As she was believed to be the first woman to have died in a North Sea oil rig incident, her death threw the spotlight on gender diversity in offshore work. Encouragingly, since 2006 the industry has seen an increase of 18.7% in the total numbers of females travelling offshore. However, this is just a 0.15% increase in the proportion of females relative to the total workforce population, which, in 2012, represented just 3.75% of the offshore workforce.

Field engineer Sophie Kellas McKenzie, interviewed for The Guardian following this incident, said that she had experienced some sexism In her job and hinted that such ideas are still in evidence: “one or two [men] have told me I couldn’t possibly help them with a physical task because I must be too weak, even though I’m probably stronger than a lot of them.”  It’s possible that the industry still has some way to go.


Archive research update

The historical part of the project (based at the University of Portsmouth) is now well underway, and over the past three weeks Mike Esbester and Laura Mayne have been visiting archives and collecting information on relevant collections across the UK.

In particular we’re looking for sources which will show how social, political and economic factors have influenced perceptions of the legitimacy of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in Britain since 1960. In essence, have attitudes changed? If they have, how and why? And how do we go about investigating this?

One of the main points of interest for the project will be the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. Collections held at Warwick include the records of the Trade Union Congress, papers of many trade unions (Including, for example, the Transport and General Workers Union) as well as records of labour organisations and employment welfare bodies like the Industrial Welfare Society.

The National Archives also hold a wealth of relevant information like the records of the Health and Safety Executive (1969-2006) and the papers of the Factory Inspectorate. We’re also particularly interested in practitioner organisations concerned with OHS in Britain, and the archives of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents promise a number of exciting sources.

Media sources are invaluable for examining popular opinion and discourses about health and safety and how this changes over time. The British Library Newspaper Archive will be useful for discussion of OHS in the media, whilst a number of press archives have been digitised, such as the Times Digital Archive and UK Press Online.

A number of TV, film and radio archives are also available online, and so far Laura’s been involved in identifying these and in sourcing programmes discussing OHS (such as current affairs programmes like Panorama). Other moving image/audiovisual archives like British Pathe Newsreels will also be useful, and material is being sourced from the British Film Institute.

Hopefully this brief post provides an idea of how the Portsmouth-based aspect of the project is developing, and we’ll aim to keep the blog updated with more information as research continues and we get further into the archival research.