Making Sense of Health and Safety

This year marks 50 years since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act came into being. Has it been a success? Geoff Davies from MD Safety Management explores.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) came about after the landmark Roberns Report in 1972. One of the guiding principles of the HASWA is that those who create workplace risks are best placed to control them - and are legally required to do so. The Act established both employer and employee duties and also paved the way for the creation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - the arm of the government charged with enforcing Health and Safety law.

Unfortunately, health and safety is usually seen as unnecessary bureaucracy or red tape. It is regularly perceived to get in the way of efficient work and is also an unnecessary cost. These views are often perpetuated and reinforced by the popular press or to support political standpoints.

However, this is far from the reality - which is borne out by statistics over the last five decades. Britain’s OSH record has improved significantly in this time. So much so that Britain is looked to from all over the world to see how regulatory improvements can be made to drive down accident incidence rates.

Changes in the occupational structure of the British workforce are estimated to account for 60% of the fall in non-fatal injuries between 1986 and 2003, while the remainder is due to other factors, including improvements in health and safety standards. This is reported by Alan Spence (former HSE Chief Statistician) in "What difference did Robens make? Analysing health and safety data across the decades".

At the time of the Robens Report in 1972, traditional industries (e.g. constrution, manufacturing, etc.) and primary economies (e.g. those involved in the extraction and production of raw materials, such as farming, logging, fishing, forestry and mining) were the norm. Fatalities and injuries were high.

So much so - 1000 people were killed at work each year together with approximately half a million major injuries (Spence, 2022)

Since the inception of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 the rate of fatal workplace injuries has fallen by 88% between 1974 and 2019/20 (Spence, 2022). This is a fantastic achievement that is very often overlooked in favour of negative perceptions and reporting.

So - the statistics lay testament to how well we have improved "safety" outcomes. Those of "health", however, are a different matter. Statistics from the HSE show that in 2022/23 there were 12,000 lung disease deaths estimated to be linked to past exposures at work.

The exposure to airborne hazards - repeated exposures linked to chronic disease - is harder to control. It requires massive changes in attitudes, behaviours and practices and is one of the next big challenges for Britain.

Other challenges come in the form of absences relating to stress. The Labour Force Survey estimates that 0.9 million workers suffered from workrelated stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2022/23. The costs presented to taxpayers from these statistics is increased at a pace and will be the next big challenge over the next decade at least.

So, we've done well - but it is an on-going challenge in an ever changing world. Improving communication around health and safety and changing its pereception is key. Improvements need to be driven by committed leaders embedding management systems in their organisations and making best practices commonplace. 

For MD Safety Management we can take a moment to congratulate ourselves in being invovled in this story in some small way - but then it's back to business, making sure we can continue to help SMEs with their compliance and OSH strategies.

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