Why the phrase “health and safety” sparks hostility among so many Britons is to be examined by historical and legal scholars.
A two-year study by the Universities of Portsmouth and Reading and funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health aims to understand why health and safety regulations are so unpopular despite saving thousands of lives.
Until the end of the 1960s, a large number of prescriptive and complex health and safety laws governed different industrial hazards in an attempt to reduce the number killed or injured at work. Since the 1960s, increasing numbers of workers have moved from heavy industry into offices and the services, where the hazards are not the same. Health and safety law has responded by increasingly concerning itself with duties of care and risk assessment, but public hostility towards so-called ‘elf and safety’ has increased dramatically.
Dr Mike Esbester, a University of Portsmouth historian and expert in the rise of modern health and safety, will conduct research with Professor of law Paul Almond, of Reading University.
Dr Esbester said: “This is a great opportunity to look back at what has changed and why, and to identify the turning points in public perceptions of health and safety in recent years. One of the particular strengths of what we’re doing is that it combines historical perspectives and contemporary practice – we want to see how the past influences the present, and how we might use that insight to make a difference in the future.”
Researchers will interview key stakeholders, including those who work in health and safety, those who regulate it, politicians, policymakers, workers, trade union safety representatives, employers, managers and others who have played an active role in health and safety law in the past 50 years.
Professor Almond, principal investigator, said: “Health and safety regulation is an important area of law that affects everyone. Events like the Piper Alpha fire, the 25th anniversary of which recently passed, and the more recent incidents at Buncefield in 2005 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010, illustrate the need for laws that protect people from the harmful side effects of work.
“We aim to find out why such negative public perceptions apply to it and what can be done about this.”
The project will explore social, political, and economic changes since 1960 to see how they have impacted on health and safety regulation. It will look at the influence of social concerns about risk, the decline of industry and impact of the trade unions, as well as the breakdown of post-war political consensus. Analysis of the expansion of health and safety from industrial to social settings, and the ways in which perceptions of regulation have changed will also form part of the project.
Jane White, research and information services manager at IOSH, said: “When the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, it was held in the highest regard – the solution to the needless deaths and injuries in our workplaces. Things have evolved and our workplaces have changed. Mining and industrial processes have made way for robotics and nano particles. The Act is still as relevant as ever, but what has changed is the nature of the hazard.
“The UK government is currently focused on reducing the burden of health and safety, yet countries and policy-makers the world over see the UK legislative framework as the exemplar and have emulated or just plain copied our systems. Now we face a juxtaposition between the public perception of red tape and the reality of a legal framework that is fit for purpose.”