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!

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?

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.

Focus groups

The contemporary public attitudes component of the project, co-ordinated by the University of Reading, is now well underway, with Paul Almond and Carmen D’Cruz having run focus groups across the country over the past month.  The last of the eight focus groups (each lasting ninety minutes and with roughly eight participants) was carried out just over a week ago week in Bath, with the others being held in Leeds, Manchester, London, Reading, Windsor, Southampton, and Bristol.

We largely focused on the following:

  • Media coverage about occupational health and safety (OHS), looking into participants’ awareness of and reaction to ‘regulatory myths’ and ‘health and safety gone mad’ cases;
  • Personal experiences, examining participants’ knowledge of and opinions about the legal/regulatory framework of OHS, their experiences of OHS in the workplace and elsewhere, and their perceptions of change in this area over time;
  • Trust and values, assessing how far participants support/ identify with the concept of health and safety regulation and the values underpinning it, as well as the factors influencing this support; and
  • Key concerns, asking about participants’ reservations and concerns regarding this area of the law (e.g. independence, public interest) and the things they would like changed.

Each focus group shed new light on key issues and we gathered crucial information about the motivations, processes, and understandings that inform and shape public attitudes, as well as their substantive form and direction. Following transcription, we are excited to begin an in-depth analysis of our findings. Stay tuned for more!

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.

A first update

The project started in July 2013 and it is still very early days to be reporting on progress made! We are currently scoping out the available archival materials and historical resources that will be drawn on, as well as starting to review the available literature on concepts of legitimacy in a regulatory context. Work has begun on planning and recruiting for the interview stages of the project, and we are also presenting some preliminary observations on the project at conferences and public lectures in the next couple of months. This will allow us to start getting the project into the wider public sphere so that we can engage with, and address, some of the issues and debates that we hope to analyse!