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!
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: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137467447
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?
This month’s issue of the British Safety Council’s journal Safety Management includes a series of reflections on the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which has its 40th birthday this month. One of the pieces is written by Mike Esbester, and puts the Act into a long perspective, flagging up some continuities and changes in how we have thought about and approached issues of health and safety at work over the last 150 years or so, and identifying some challenges and opportunities for the future.
Read more at: https://sm.britsafe.org/hswa-40-act-changed-our-working-lives
Expect to read more about the 1974 Act here in the coming weeks – do check back!