Origins of health and safety legislation and accident reporting

Source: NHE Jul/Aug 16

How did health and safety legislation actually emerge? And what does this mean for today’s workforce? Chris Langer, scheme intelligence manager at CIRAS, looks at the progress made over the last 150 years.

To understand the birth of health and safety as we know it today in the workplace, we really need to journey back to the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. 

Before then, there were of course accidents involving individuals with the equipment and materials used in their work. Craftsmen such as glassmakers and potters were able to injure themselves well before the industrial revolution came along. But it was the concentration of manpower in factories that created the potential for accidents that could injure, or kill, on a much larger scale. 

Today’s health and safety practices largely owe their existence to the industrial revolution, driven by the incredible pace of technological innovation and the factories built to harness it. To truly understand the difficult, protracted birth of health and safety legislation, we will first need to fire up the industrial revolution with some gusto to set the scene. How did powered machinery create the conditions for a potentially more dangerous working life? 

The rise of the machines 

The industrial revolution effectively ensured that machines could replace human and animal labour. In the space of just 35 years (1769-1804), new technology provided the means to effectively replace the physical muscle which drove the economy. Inventions such as Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Arkwright’s water frame, James Watt’s steam engine, and Trevithick’s steam locomotive all helped lay the foundations for the mechanisation of industrial production. 

The images of factories and smoky cities conjured up by the industrial revolution are immediately recognisable, but we are interested in what happened inside the factory walls here. Within the cotton mills of the time, an incredibly effective model for organised factory work was being deployed. Truly astonishing gains in productivity were being made by machines designed with one goal in mind: to mass produce cotton on a gargantuan scale. The hand-operated devices previously used in the cottage industry were slowly being consigned to historical oblivion. 

To gauge the scale of these gains, consider the spinning mule which was a hybrid combining elements of the spinning jenny and water frame. Worked by just half a dozen overseers, the mule could produce as much thread as several thousand hand-spinners. The thread was better quality, too. The sweat and toil of earlier years was beginning to seem ridiculous. 

The rise of the cotton mills to make full use of these labour saving machines transformed the nature of work on a massive scale. In 1782, there were just two cotton mills in the Manchester area, but by 1837 there were 4,283.  As the number of mills rose, so did the use of child labour to further drive productivity. The exploitation and horrific treatment of children was probably the darkest chapter in Britain’s industrialisation. Evidence given to a House of Commons committee in 1799 focused on the conditions and grave health concerns at one mill in New Lanark:

“These children were generally from the age of 5 and 6, to 7 and 8. The hours of work at that time were 13, inclusive of meal times, and an hour and a half was allowed for meals…their limbs were very generally deformed, their growth was stunted.” 

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Reforming the system 

It was these conditions faced by the children, who served as pauper apprentices in the new mills of the north, which provided the impetus behind reform. The 1802 Act for the ‘Health and Morals of Apprentices Act’ was introduced by Sir Robert Peel, who was a mill owner himself, and an employer of some 15,000 workers. The 1802 Act symbolised the beginning of a more enlightened approach to health and welfare in mills and factories, though legislation to deal with worker safety would come much later. The dreadful accidents caused by the increased mechanisation of the industrial revolution were not fundamentally addressed at this time. However, an important principle was enshrined in the Act with the idea that each county with a mill should appoint two independent visitors empowered to enter factories at any time they saw fit for the purposes of independent inspection. 

In the early 1800s, the gradual imposition of regulations and controls upon factory owners and manufacturers was met with fierce resistance. The common complaint was that such rules would cut into profit margins and expose them unfairly to less regulated foreign competition. Similar arguments are often made in today’s marketplace – perhaps things haven’t changed all that much in over 200 years. 

The first safety legislation 

In 1840, a commission was set up to investigate the conditions in which children worked in coal mines. This followed the Silkstone Colliery disaster in 1838, where 26 boys and girls had drowned when the pit flooded. The ‘Coal Mines Act’ subsequently passed in 1842 was the first industrial safety legislation to reach the statute book. It prohibited women and children from working underground, and young persons under the age of 15 from acting as an engine man on a hoist. The safety of workers was now firmly on the legislative agenda, but would be frequently challenged. 

Reporting accidents 

New provisions for the safety of children and young persons were implemented by the 1844 ‘Act to amend the Laws relating to Labour in Factories’. Of particular historical significance was the requirement to report any factory accident that prevented the injured person from returning to work before nine o’clock the following morning. There were penalties for not fencing machinery as described by the Act. A failure to fence a machine after notice from an inspector could attract a penalty of up to £100 if someone was injured. Inspectors could now do more than just voice their concerns from the sidelines – they could actually enforce the safety clauses contained within the Act. 

The inspectors found themselves in constant conflict with factory owners who predicted the downfall of British industry. The birth of health and safety legislation in the nineteenth century was a difficult, protracted one. In fact, at times it seemed still-born. In 1856, ‘An Act for the further Amendment of the Laws relating to Labour in Factories’ effectively weakened previous legislation by limiting the extent to which machinery had to be fenced. 

The tensions at the time of the industrial revolution, fuelled by these opposing interests, set the scene for a debate which continues to this day. The need to ensure the safety of workers often finds itself at odds with the drive to make a profit. Now, as then, it is regrettable that safety reforms are often only implemented after accidents have taken place.  

The role of confidential reporting in the 21st century 

We can trace back the requirement to report factory accidents to 1844. Fast-forward 150 years and a legal duty for reporting accidents and ill health at work was placed on employers, self-employed people, and people in control of premises in 1995 under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrence). 

The focus on accidents and injuries is naturally the bedrock of any good reporting scheme, but for the collection of complex data on health and safety culture it can never be the whole answer. An over-reliance on such data is symptomatic of a reactive stance. Weaknesses in safety defences can be reported long before there is an incident. 

Whistleblowing may provide another avenue for the reporting of unsafe practices likely to cause harm in the future. Legal protection exists for the reporter disclosing an issue in the public interest in such cases. However, whistleblowing can still be hugely damaging for an individual if his or her name enters the public domain at a later stage. The fear of future exposure no doubt stymies the reporting of health and safety concerns – the potential negative repercussions weigh heavily on the reporter’s mind. 

It is important to observe that there is a clear distinction here between whistleblowing and confidential reporting. Only confidential reporting to an independent organisation can guarantee that an individual’s identity will never be revealed. The guarantee of confidentiality effectively neutralises the fear of reporting in the first place, allowing important subsurface information to emerge in an atmosphere of trust. 

It took more than 150 years for confidential reporting to become established in the aviation, maritime and other transport sectors like rail. However, there is no reason why the scheme cannot benefit organisations in the health sector.

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