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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 http://www.iosh.co.uk/changingworld
We look forward to hearing what you have to say about it!
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?
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?