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.

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.

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.

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.



The Health and Safety at Work Act, 40 years on – pt 1

As the current health and safety regime in Britain approaches its 40th anniversary, it is interesting to look at the origins of one of the most significant changes to occupational health and safety regulation of the 20th century. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act received royal assent on 31 July 1974 and came into operation that October. It wasn’t just a reshuffling of existing provisions, but a major rethink of how Britain approached occupational health and safety – and it has had an impact on everyone. Importantly, it didn’t just apply to workers but also to situations where the public might be exposed to dangers created by work. Given that this forms the basis of approaches to health and safety today, it is important to appreciate how it came about.


Britain’s health and safety legislation developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in a piecemeal fashion, with regulations being made and amended in a rather fragmented way – industry by industry, case by case. It was reactive, rather than proactive, and tried to play ‘catch-up’ with harmful developments after they happened. By the 1960s a confusing array of legal requirements, recommendations and inspection agencies meant that a unified approach to health and safety at work was lacking. And there were indications that the current situation was not as effective as it could be: deaths and injuries at work were rising.


As a result, the Committee on Safety and Health at Work was set up. It was chaired by Lord Alfred Robens, a former Labour MP and Chair of the National Coal Board, and sat between 1970 and 1972. It was given a wide remit: to examine not only existing occupational health and safety provisions, but to consider the whole ethos that underlay workplace safety – with particularly emphasis on the place of voluntary action – and to consider how best to protect the public from hazards produced by workplaces. The Committee held meetings, went on visits (in Britain and beyond) and considered written and oral evidence from government agencies, employers, unions, employees and accident prevention organisations, before producing its report.


The Report’s recommendations shaped the subsequent debates and eventually the 1974 Act. Some of the key aspects were to do with where responsibility for health and safety should lie. The Report concluded that the current approach to regulation ‘tends to encourage people to think and behave as if safety and health at work were primarily a matter of detailed regulation by external agencies.’ Instead it – and the Act – wanted to promote self-regulation, so that employers and employees played a greater role in health and safety. It wanted to involve all levels within a company, from senior management to shopfloor worker, but also seeing a place for a new, single government agency to oversee and if need be enforce the law.


The law was to be permissive – so, instead of specifying (in sometimes minute detail) what equipment was to be used in a particular case, it was to lay down a general duty of care, to be backed up by voluntary codes of practice and standards that could be worked out (and changed quickly, if need be) at a local level. The new legislation was also to apply to virtually all workplaces, whereas previous laws tend to apply to individually specified occupations. This broadened the application of health and safety law hugely, including to many self-employed people. And the new Act was to take into account the interests of public safety, particularly where large-scale hazards were posed (for example, from factories or chemical works situated near housing).


As might be expected, the Act had a mixed reception. The large scale nature of the changes were immediately obvious and attracted comment from those involved with occupational health and safety. Some welcomed the Act, seeing it as a ‘new philosophy’, particularly in the provisions ensuring workers should be consulted over health and safety matters. However, not all responses were enthusiastic. Some trades unions were concerned about the ways in which government power appeared to be being reduced – particularly when it had long been claimed that failure to enforce the regulations was a major problem. And at least as early as 1978 complaints were being levelled at the Act on the grounds that it created ‘red tape’ and a ‘paperwork burden’, or imposed extra costs on the economy. There were also underlying factors that were not addressed by the Act – as one commentator at the time noted, ‘the Government’s part will remain inadequate … unless they are willing to provide more money’. Clearly ideas about the legitimacy of health and safety were contested, and many of these debates for and against continue to this day – and the next post on this blog will have a think about the more recent years.