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Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive

Teaching our history

Roger Bibbings MBE, RoSPA’s Partnership Consultant
August 2022

“If you don’t know where we’ve come from, you’ll find it hard to know where we might – or more importantly, ought – to be headed”. “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them”. And so on. All common sentiments – but in a “history-free”, “me-now” age, just how much do we really embrace these ideas in the way we organise and run things, especially education and training?

I watched an online video the other day that showed motorcycle fuel tanks being made in a metal bashing shop somewhere in Pakistan. The work rate was impressive but the working conditions were crude in the extreme. There was an appalling lack of safety. Absolutely no interlocked guarding on presses. For every so many thousand tanks made, there would almost certainly be a toll of amputations. You just didn’t see them in the video. And customers in a more safety conscious West, where these products are sold, don’t see them either as part of the relatively low price they pay for goods manufactured with parts made through subcontracting in this way. In the bad old days our forebears used to talk of “blood on the coal”. Today there is almost certainly blood on many of our imported manufactures.

In the UK, we outlawed unsafe practices like this over 70 years ago. In today’s global economy however, workers everywhere deserve decent safety standards. But how many of us know the standards in place in all the supply chains used to make the things we buy every day that are manufactured overseas?

As the struggle to improve prevention goes on worldwide, we need to know much more about how we achieved the standards and safety expectations we have today here in Britain. So how did our forebears see these issues? What solutions did they propose? What opposition did they face? What allies did they find?

Some of you might ask, what has all this got to do with health and safety professionals today, particularly those who are seeking professional qualifications in a complex world where law, technology, science and systems have changed beyond all recognition? Surely there is now so much to learn that we have to have priorities and make choices about what goes into the professional curriculum – and thus delving back into the past might at best be a “nice-to-have”, at worst a dangerous distraction.

Well, one of the most practical reasons for studying what went on in the past is to avoid reinventing wheels. Revisiting old solutions to common health and safety problems can often yield valuable insights and sometimes give clues to better ways of doing things now that we have access to better materials, technologies and so on. Our forebears were not stupid. But often they just lacked the knowledge or techniques that we now take for granted.

So how did the improvements we see today actually come about? Take industrial fire safety as just one example: It wasn’t until 1937 that the Factories Act 1901 was extended to cover means of escape in case of fire. The first rudimentary fire certificates were required by the Fire Services Act 1947. Before that, issues of fire safety were in the hands of the local authority. And it was not until the tragic fire at the Eastwood Mills, Keighley, Yorkshire in February 1956, when eight people died, that the Fire Brigade were given powers of inspection or enforcement.

That is just one little chapter in a really huge subject – but the reason it is worth studying is not just because the battle to curb fire, a persistent and serious hazard in all work settings, goes on today but because the arguments used then for change (and the arguments against change) bear a striking similarity to those we encounter today.

The world of safety we inherited was built up, brick by brick, based on the findings of investigations into countless tragedies which cost the lives and health of hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of working people.

Under the old pre-Robens Factories Act system (which left millions of workers out of scope), the investigations and recommendations of inspectors were converted into Factory Orders, and then eventually into prescriptive – but limited – regulations dealing with certain classes of machinery or processes. It was careful, patient work. It achieved results, but piecemeal and slowly. And in that sense it was part of a very much slower pace of social reform generally, be that in health, education, housing and so on.

Safety in factories (where modern wars are won) became critically important to production during the Second World War. If Hitler was trying to kill workers with bombs, it was important that others were not killed or maimed in accidents.

Indeed as Professor Andrew Watterson, of the University of Stirling, points out, after the War, bearing in mind interests in Just Transition now, the economy was rapidly switched from arms to building houses and manufacturing construction materials that had health and safety implications.

But it was not until a quarter of a century after peace had returned that the foundations of our present health and safety system began to be even thought of, with a move away from the hazard-by-hazard approach to regulation to broad duties and broad classes of goal setting regulations informed by risk assessment.

How many hours of patient campaigning, research, committee work, law writing, Parliamentary debate and so on went on to get us to where we stand today? Which organisations and individuals were most involved? Bodies like trades unions, safety campaigners like RoSPA, trade associations, doctors and scientists of all kinds were in the forefront. We shall never know all of the individuals involved nor the full extent of what they did and what they bequeathed us – but to the extent that we accept that today we stand on their shoulders, we should set aside at least some time and try.

For those who want to begin to work their way into the subject, I can thoroughly recommend that they visit the History of OS&H website, run by Sheila Pantry. In particular, I recommend a careful reading of the brief history and the timeline of reform by David Eves CB, ex Deputy Director General of the Health and Safety Executive. One is left with a very definite sense that in the last two decades, dominated as they have been by debates about alleged “regulatory burdens”, that we continue to live in an era of “two steps forward and one step back”.

The baton which David and Sheila’s work represents needs now to be picked by others. Why is the history of OS&H not mainstream in the teaching of social history and social policy at all levels in our schools colleges and universities? And why is it not a mandatory part of the education and ongoing development of all health and safety professionals?

In this year which marks the 50th anniversary of the Robens Report – an under-recognised inflection point in our recent social history – these are important questions which deserve fresh consideration.

Seven key historical OSH books...

(Thanks to Professor Andrew Watterson for his input)