As part of our on-going celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974, we're publishing a short series of articles highlighting the history of health and safety practices, the people who helped shape them and a look at what challenges the act still faces, starting with the history of Health and Safety law in the UK.

The history of health & safety law in the UK

The history of health and safety law in the UK stretches back over two hundred and twenty years.

In 1802, parliament passed the first Factory Act, primarily aimed to protect child labourers in factories and mills by implementing cleanliness requirements and improving the condition of workers. However, the standards were limited. A twice yearly cleaning of the premises with quicklime, reducing working hours to 12 hours a day and providing child labourers and apprentices with sufficient clothing and sleeping accommodation was enough to meet your obligations.

Over the next 160 years, parliament passed several more Factory Acts. Each act was a step further in the progression of health and safety standards in factories in the UK. The 1847 Factories Act, also known as the Ten Hours Act, limited the working hours for women and children to 63 hours a week. Alongside the various Factory Acts, parliament passed separate legislation to protect workers in coalmines, quarries and agriculture.

The Factories Act 1961 consolidated and replaced all previous Factory Acts. Today, some aspects of the 1961 act remain binding, although most have been superseded by the Health and Safety at Work Act  Etc.1974. Factories are still bound by the same basic rules on overcrowding, temperature control and adequate lighting. Unlike the Factories Act, however, the Health and Safety at Work Act imposes further, specific requirements on all workplaces.

Why did we need the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act?

Prior to 1974, workplace health and safety legislation was comprised of a complicated web of acts of parliament applying to some, but not all, fields of work. In spite of the legislation, employers struggled to understand their responsibilities, obligations were rarely enforced and workplace accidents continued.

In the years preceding the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, there were several major workplace disasters:

  • On 26 September 1950, a fire broke out at Creswell Colliery, in Derbyshire. In the absence of suitable escape route and with the colliery‚Äôs fire department cut off by the smoke, 80 workers were unable to escape, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Following the incident, the Ministry of Fuel and Power reported that two main intakes should be a statutory requirement for mines.
  • On 18 November 1968, a fire broke out in a building housing an upholstery business, on James Watt Street in Glasgow. The doors to the building were padlocked, and the fire alarm was disconnected due to unpaid bills. The windows were blocked with metal bars, as a security measure when the building was previously used as whisky bond. Workers were unable to escape, leading to the death of 22 factory workers.
  • On 1 June 1974, 28 people died and 36 people were seriously injured in an explosion at a chemical plant near Flixborough, North Lincolnshire. At the time of the disaster, there was no health and safety legislation applicable to chemical plants.

Although significant legislative progress had been made since the days of the first Factory Act in 1802, large swathes of the workforce remained unregulated and unprotected. Workplace safety relied on an assortment of regulations, which was poorly understood and poorly enforced. The workforce needed a new system with clear obligations. Employers needed to understand the practical steps to take, and employees needed a safe workplace and accountability of those in charge.

An evolution of the Act

In 1969, Lord Alfred Robens was selected by the then Labour Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity to chair a committee on workplace health and safety. He began in 1970 with the Conservatives in power. His report, Safety and health at work: report of the committee 1970-1972 (Robens et al, 1972), outlined a series of recommendations aimed at overhauling the fragmented and overly prescriptive existing regime into a system of more flexible self-regulation.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was the result. Most importantly, it widened the scope of health and safety legislation to all workers in all workplaces.

Over the last 54 years, fatal injuries in the workplace have fallen by around 85%. In 2022-2023, 68 members of the public were killed in work-related accidents, a figure down from 1000s before 1970. While the act clearly has succeeded in its mission to protect the workforce, there is still a drive in the industry to push for further improvement.

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