History of Health and Safety in the Workplace
Health and safety is today universal in its importance in the workplace, but where did it all begin? Today we will explore the origins of health and safety, learning how industrial changes shaped health and safety from an initial framework of simple production practices, to evolve into a body of law that protects employers around the world.
Origin of Health and Safety - The Industrial Revolution
The concept of occupational health and safety continues to be critically important worldwide - and it is thanks to revision of legislation and discussions between workers' unions and parliament that have allowed for health and safety protection in the workplace to have become so enshrined in UK law. Workplace health and safety in the UK dates back to the industrial revolution, where concerns relating to worker health and illness impacting on productivity led to the formation of the trailblazing Factory Acts.
The Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century saw Britain transition from artisanal, manual forms of production, into a manufacturing powerhouse. This growth was rapid, and a constant strain on resources centering around finding suitable workers. As competition and demand increased, employers began to look for solutions including new machinery and child labour. Child labour offered a cost effective solution but a lack of industrial experience resulted in serious accidents when working with foreign machines or chemicals. With a rapid rise in other work related accidents, including mining fatalities, and unknown effects of chemical working, pressure was placed on the Government to take action against companies who did not protect their employees effectively.
Factories Act 1833
The first nationwide legislation was the Factories Act 1833. Leading up to this act the British Government had begun introducing a collection of Acts to govern children working in mills. The Factories Acts 1833 rolled out the introduction of factory inspectors, initially to prevent injury and child labour. For the first time, an external set of rules was governing employees' safety in the workplace. Over the next century this act would evolve to include workshops and similar workplace environments, constantly seeking to improve the conditions of workers and initial labour laws.
The Factory Acts of the Nineteenth Century came into force to inspect and analyse working conditions and effectively closed down all health-impacting conditions and procedures by impounding them into law over a number of years. Worker compensation would not arrive in Europe (specifically Germany) until late on in the century, but its existence heralded a new age of occupational health and safety as it set a major precedent for other countries across Europe and North America.
Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
Beyond this, health and safety legislation evolved into the 20th century and eventually resulted in the creation of the wide-reaching Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, which has provided legal precedence in aiding the inspection and auditing of workplaces across all industries - from manufacturing to healthcare - and continues to provide the foundation for any amendments that may arise from concerns over workers' rights. In recent years, the concept of risk assessment has been enshrined into health and safety legislation to gain a better understanding of what may cause certain employees to potentially require sick leave - a process that effectively acts as a preventative measure that protects both employer and employee.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was the first major labour law that not only governed all workplaces but also placed a greater accountability on both the employer and employee. This legislation truly brought health and safety into the conscience of the workplace and has resulted in improvements of both working conditions and a reduction in workplace accidents. For the first time, employers understood their legal responsibility whereby failing to protect workers could result in fines and even criminal charges if breached. This resulted in greater investment in the improvement of workplace conditions and injury/illness prevention methods. But the new Act also empowered employees who now had to understand their own responsibilities. Health and safety training in every workplace is commonplace, and a legal requirement, today in large part because of this act.
Health and Safety Today
Occupational health and safety within the UK has evolved from concerns during the industrial dark age into an all-encompassing piece of legislation that protects employer interests and employee health - and which also ensures that all workplaces are considered safe to operate and work in.
In modern times we enjoy much improved working conditions than previous generations. In 2013/14 some 133 workplace deaths were sadly recorded, which is 0.44 for every 100,000 workers. But this figure is half the amount of workplace deaths in 1994/95 which clearly demonstrates the results of continuous improvement in recent times. To prevent a return to the dark days of the past however, we need to continue our training, understanding and appreciation of the importance of health and safety at work. History shows this is the only successful approach for our working society to maintain these improvements.