History of Health and Safety in the UK

Posted on written by Sam Barton

Health and safety is progressing all the time.

The number of fatalities at work in the UK is much better than it was even 30 years ago.

In this week’s blog, we are going to have a look at the timeline of health and safety in the UK and show you how it has evolved over the last 200+ years.

Timeline of health and safety in the UK

If we really want to get into the history of health and safety, we need to first start with a bit of background.

The Industrial Revolution

Ok, we aren’t going to write a thesis on the Industrial Revolution. Still, it is useful to give it some context as it forms the basis of why health and safety became so important.

As the UK moved away from more traditional methods of work such as agriculture and instead flocked to the factories and other industries in the cities, work conditions became more dangerous.

With so many people looking for work, this resulted in low pay, poor conditions and many accidents. There was also a considerable increase in child labour.

1802 – The Factory Act

This all led to the first piece of health and safety legislation on our list – The Factory Act of 1902.

Actually, it was officially known as the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. The act itself made the following into law:

  • Have sufficient windows and opening for ventilation
  • Be cleaned at least twice yearly with quicklime and water
  • Limit working hours for apprentices to no more than 12 hours a day (excluding time taken for breaks)
  • Stop night-time working by apprentices during the hours of 9 pm, and 6 am
  • Provide suitable clothing and sleeping accommodation to every apprentice
  • Instruct apprentices in reading, writing, arithmetic and the principles of the Christian religion

This legislation applied to factories and textile mills that employed either 20 or more employees or three or more apprentices.

1837 – Duty of Care Introduced

Next on our list comes a few decades later.

Duty of care came from a legal case. A worker, Charles Priestley, suffered severe injuries after he fell from a wagon that his employer had overloaded.

Priestley was awarded £100 (around £11,000 these days), and it was the first time that the practice of employers having to provide a ‘duty of care’ to their employees was introduced.

Over the next 40 or so years, there were a series of other health and safety acts introduced that were mainly aimed at increasing protection for women and children at work.

1880 – The Employer’s Liability Act

Following on from the landmark case in 1837, towards the end of the 19th century The Employer’s Liability Act was passed.

This allowed workers the right to seek compensation if they were injured at work as a result of negligence by another employee. This also extended to allow the injured person or their family being able to seek compensation due to faulty machinery or equipment.

Leading up to the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act

We’re going to take a big leap by going forward almost a century.

In that time, there were many health and safety regulations passed as well as legislation that helped to protect agricultural workers. However, the next big piece of law was the Health and Safety at Work Act.

You will have heard of this. It pretty much changed the health and safety landscape and is still the foundation for workplace safety today. One of the main changes is that it covered all industries and jobs – it wasn’t specific like the Factory Act or any of the agricultural laws.

The Health and Safety at Work Act states that employers have to ensure that staff are kept safe. It also puts an emphasis on employees to work safely too. It created the Health and Safety Commission, as well as the Health and Safety Executive.

The impact of this piece of legislation can’t be underestimated. Fatalities at work were reduced by 87% from 1974 to 2014, and non-fatal workplace accidents fell by 70%.

Recent developments

Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act there have been many pieces of legislation that have been introduced to help protect workers. Many of these are industry-specific with others are more general, such as The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

There has been a substantial rise in health and safety enforcement and this has come down to the legislative changes back in 2015 that took the cap off fines for safety breaches.

Health and Safety Statistics

It can be hard to get accurate statistics for statistics before the 1980s and the introduction of the Notification of Accidents and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations.

That being said, there is some data available.

Workplace injuries and especially workplace fatalities have decreased dramatically over the course of the 20th century. In fact, it has gone from 4,400 reported deaths per year to around 200 by 1999 although some of this is down to the move away from traditionally more dangerous industries such as mining.

Even still, we have far safer workplaces in 2019 than we did in 1819, 1919 or even since the turn of the millennium.

It might have taken a while to get to where we are. However, with the various pieces of legislation, we have mentioned here, plus a whole raft of more regulations and case law, workplaces in the UK have become among the safest in the world.

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