HAPPY BIRTHDAY HEALTH AND SAFETY AT WORK ACT
31st July is the 40th anniversary of one of the most important and successful pieces of workplace legislation. On that day in 1974, the Health and Safety at Work Act received royal assent.
Since then the number of fatalities in the workplace has fallen by 85% while the number of injuries at work has fallen by 77%. That is a massive achievement. Of course not all of it can be put down to the success of the Act. Much is because of structural changes in the workplace. After all if you are going to close down many of the most dangerous workplaces such as mining, shipbuilding and heavy engineering then it is not surprising that the figures fell dramatically, but, even taking that into account, it is estimated that about half the fall is a result of the changes that the Act brought about.
The Health and Safety at Work Act was effective because of its simplicity. If you read the Act it simply put the responsibility for securing the safety, health and welfare of employees and the public on to the employer. It was the same responsibility regardless of the size or type of employer. Where more was needed this would be done by regulations made under the Act, backed up by Codes of Practice.
The Act also put cooperation between employers and employees at the heart of dealing with health and safety issues. Employers were required to consult with their workforce and unions could appoint safety representatives to ensure that happened. It also laid down the principles of risk assessment. Regulations also had to be approved by a Commission where employers and unions had an equal number of seats and either side could effectively veto any proposal so any new regulations always had the support of both sides of industry.
So for the first time ever we had universal coverage for everyone, and this became the model for many other countries and eventually throughout the EU with the 1989 Framework Directive which borrowed heavily from the British Act. It is also still equally relevant today. Both the Young and Lofstedt Review commended the Act and said that it was still fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Of course there were weaknesses, although most of these were not because of the Act but instead a result of the way it has been implemented. The level of inspection envisioned by those who drafted it never came about and, despite the Act quite specifically covering health, that part was never given the same priority as safety. That is why we have not seen the same reduction in occupational diseases such as cancers, stress, MSDs, etc, that we have seen in injuries.
Another important part of the Act was the political consensus around it. It was conceived by a Labour Government, developed and drafted by the Conservatives and then enacted by Labour again. Now of course that consensus is breaking down and, for all the congratulatory noises being made about how wonderful the Act is, let us not forget that it is under attack.
The Government is seeking to remove part of what made the Act so effective – its universal coverage and its simplicity – by stopping it applying to everyone at work through removing most self-employed workers from its protection. Instead of a simple Act covering everyone we will have a complex system whereby some undertakings will be covered if they do certain activities, while others will be exempt. This means that this comprehensive and all-embracing Act will no longer be have the complete coverage that its creators intended. This will create huge challenges for employers, workers and regulators.”
At the same time we have politicians, including the Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, declaring war on the “health and safety culture”, calls for Europe to reduce the level of protection of workers employed by SME’s, the withdrawal of a range of Approved Codes of Practice and of course the removal of the threat of inspection to whole swathes of industry.
Yes, on the 40th Anniversary we need to celebrate the Act but at the same time let’s make sure we are defending it. Our health, and that of future generations needs it.