July 2014 saw the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. Our health and safety consultant, Wendy Nixon, takes a look at the impact this important –and sometimes controversial – legislation has had since its introduction in 1974.
Many of us are guilty of labelling health and safety as ‘kill-joy legislation’ and we have all laughed at articles which have quoted incidents where the legislation has been misinterpreted or misunderstood… children not allowed to play conkers, cafes not allowed to serve hot drinks and retail premises not allowing customers to use their toilets!
Health and safety gone mad…..or has it?
As 2014 sees us celebrate 40 years of the Health and Safety at Work Act, we should all take time to reflect on what is arguably the most effective piece of legislation on the statute books.
Let’s look how far we have come.
Before 1974 we had a host of regulations which swamped some industries with rules and regulations whilst allowing others to go relatively uncontrolled. The Health and Safety at Work Act was implemented as a conclusion of Lord Robens report which concluded there were too many regulations and that what was needed was a regulatory regime that set broad, non-prescriptive goals for duty holders, 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.
Since 1974 the Health and Safety at Work Act 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. The latest figure for 2013/14 is down to 133, whilst non-fatal injuries have dropped by more than 75 percent.
More recent reviews have continued in this vain. The review of health and safety by Professor Loftstedt in 2011 and his subsequent report, Reclaiming health and safety for all, saw further streamlining of current legislation, and 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.
More recently the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has implemented a Myth Busters Challenge Panel aimed at investigating complaints regarding health and safety and advice provided by non regulators, providing simplified guidance and consulting with industry to clarify interpretation and implementation.
Today we face changes in our environment and technology, which ultimately impacts on new and changing workplaces, presenting new hazards and risks. We must continually be on the lookout for emerging hazardous chemicals, new fibres behaving similarly to asbestos and carcinogens presented by the way we work and live.
The future for health and safety
The focus for the immediate future is likely to be on health matters, bringing the concept of health and safety into the real world and educating children and young people on hazards and risks.
It is becoming more difficult to segregate risks in the workplace and those at home, for example people working in office environments are now sitting for longer in front of screens, whilst our lifestyles also dictate similar activities, increasing the risks of musculoskeletal disorders, repetitive strains, stress and other health issues.
Overall, the changes in the last 40 years are quite remarkable, but there will always be room for improvement. We must strive for a change in attitude to health and safety, seeing it no longer as a joke or burden on society, but more a personal responsibility. We all expect to leave work and go home safely, yet this will not happen unless we continue to do our bit to make it happen.
133 fatalities is still too many, especially when you imagine this could be you or your loved one.
Take responsibility and make a difference.
Here’s to the next 40 years of safe and healthy workplaces.