Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act receiving royal assent.
Arguably it is one of the best pieces of legislation on the statute books, although it is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. It has protected millions of British workers, and driven sharp reductions in incidents of occupational death, serious injury and ill health.
In 1974, fatalities to employees covered by the legislation in place then stood at 651. In 2012/13 this was down to 148 for employees and self employed combined. The actual reduction is probably more than this as data for sectors not covered by health and safety law pre 1974 was not collected. In the same time frame (and with the same caveat) non-fatal injuries have dropped by more than 75 percent. There is still room for improvement clearly, but the change in the last 40 years is quite remarkable.
Before the 1974 Act there was a host of different regulations – some industries swamped with prescriptive rules and others with little or no regulation at all. Something needed to be done.
The 1972 Robens Report concluded there were too many regulations and that what was needed was a regulatory regime that set broad, non-prescriptive goals for dutyholders, underpinned by a fundamental principle: ‘those that create risk are best placed to manage it’.
The Act that emerged from his review swept away detailed and prescriptive industry regulations; it created a flexible system where regulations describe goals and principles, supported by codes of practice and guidance. Based on consultation and engagement, the new regime was designed to deliver a proportionate, targeted and risk-based approach.
Forty years on this approach still applies. Despite having diversified away from an economy based predominantly on heavy industry and manufacturing, much of the original vision and framework of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 remains relevant. The principles have been applied time and again to new and emerging technologies and sectors. The legacy is a safety record envied around the world.
Much of the current reform agenda is aimed at: stripping out unnecessary or duplicated regulation and helping smaller businesses to understand how to take a proportionate approach to managing their risks – but the basic principles remain the same.
Forty years on the Health and Safety at Work Act has demonstrated it can be applied to new responsibilities and new demands, creating the framework for people to come home safe and well from a day’s work in any sector of the economy.
The British Safety Council joined with many other organisations in placing on record our appreciation of this ground breaking legislation in helping to improve the regulation and management of workplace health and safety.
The headline of the September 1974 edition of the British Safety Council’s then monthly publication, Safety and Rescue, read: “Work safety: A new era begins”. The evidence since then does indeed support this headline.
Alex Botha, chief executive of the British Safety Council, speaking of the improvements embedded in the 1974 Act’s approach over the years, commented: “This approach has been successful, we have seen an 80% plus reduction in fatal injuries in our workplaces.
“At the heart of the 1974 Act is the principle that those who create the risk of injury and ill health in the workplace must manage the risks. The 1974 legislation has attracted admiration and emulation across the globe and provided the model for many other regulators.”
He added: “Going forward we need a legal framework that is flexible and one that can adapt to changing risks. We cannot stand still. There remains so much to do including tackling the thorny issues around health and wellbeing, the sometimes forgotten part of the health and safety equation.”