The Health and Safety at Work Act - Happy Birthday To You!
The Health and Safety at Work Act celebrated its fortieth birthday on 31st July and the Act is credited with saving thousands of lives since its inception in 1974. Indeed, the number of fatalities in the workplace has fallen by a massive 85% while the figures for injuries sustained at work has been reduced by 77%. This in itself is an admirable achievement and while we accept that the Act may not be directly responsible for these reductions, it has led the way for the structural changes that we’ve seen in some of the most dangerous workplaces in the UK – mining, shipbuilding and heavy engineering.
Nowadays it’s all too common to see “Health and Safety” blamed for all manner of restrictions or reasons why a simple solution just won’t do. This “health and safety gone mad label” much maligns the Health and Safety at Work Act, proving that we have pretty short memories in many ways. At the time, the Act was considered to be a pioneering piece of legislation with great significance for all employees here in the UK.
The Act came about as a result of the Robens Committee’s conclusion in 1972 that existing workplace safety legislation was confusing and over elaborate. Robens recommended the implementation of a new structure supported by an enabling Act which sets out the basic principles of safety responsibility which would serve as a statutory base on which future regulations would be founded.
Before the Act came into force an average of more than 700 employees were dying every year and hundreds of thousands were suffering injuries of one sort or another. These days it’s a very different story – last year 148 people lost their lives and non fatal injuries had dropped by more than 75% since the bad old days before the Act. When you consider that more than 500 employees have died during the building of the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Quatar since 2012, we can feel lucky that we have such stringent regulations. It’s not just in the Middle East or developing nations that health and safety regulations leave a lot to be desired. Several of the Mediterranean countries turn a blind eye to EU regulations, not just in the workplace, but in all areas of life.
When you look back through our history, health and safety laws have often come about as a reaction to a tragic accident that claimed many lives. This is true of our current Health and Safety at Work Act. While the Act was going through Parliament an explosion at a chemical plant near Scunthorpe resulted in new rules for manufacturers who use dangerous substances.
All in all, the Health and Safety at Work Act is the legislation that protects all of us workers in the UK today – whatever industry we happen to be in. Health and safety is not just an issue for those who work at dangerous jobs, it’s an ethos that serves us well in all walks of life. Next time you’re thinking of having a little moan about health and safety gone mad, think again. Our strict legislation has enabled us to make Britain a safer place to work.