Health and safety at work has become a widely used, and in some quarters, much derided term in recent years. This term refers to the legislation that is intended to promote the safety and well being of people while they are engaged in paid work. This legislation aims to protect workers from occupational hazards as well as injuries and fatalities at work. It also makes the employer responsible for maintaining certain standards that promote health and safety at work.
Figures released by the Health and Safety Executive show that in 2011, 173 people in the UK died as a result of workplace accidents and 22,433 were seriously injured. In 2008-9, more than 4,000 workers died from work-related cancer. These figures show how important health and safety issues can be.
In the 19th century, working conditions could be hazardous to life. Children under 10 working in textile industries routinely crawled under moving machinery to free trapped threads or jammed parts. This led to mangled fingers and limbs and many children were crushed to death. Early workers’ associations and social reformers raised the issue of safety and conditions at work.
Look at a timeline of the history of Health and Safety here http://www.hse.gov.uk/aboutus/timeline/index.htm
In response to vigorous campaigns by workers, churches and social reformers, the government passed the 1833 Factories Act, which provided for the appointment of factory inspectors, initially to prevent injury amongst child workers. Over the next hundred years, similar inspectorates were created for other workplaces like mines and quarries, their remit was extended to adult workers, and inspectors were given rights to enforce standards. This was, however, piecemeal reform.
Regulation on health and safety developed significantly after WWII through the extension of health and safety legislation and the establishment of workplace safety representatives and safety committees which involved consultation with employees. In 1974, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act created the first comprehensive legislation on this issue in the UK. Since 1975, the European Union has become the main source of new regulation on health and safety.
The effectiveness of health and safety legislation becomes evident when we compare the data on injuries and ill health since the introduction of the first legislation on health and safety. Deaths from injuries at work has fallen since the 1974 Act due to a combination of factors: firstly - many dangerous jobs either disappeared or were greatly reduced in number; additionally, some serious improvements in safety practices have also cut fatalities.
However, mortality attributed to specific occupational diseases has risen over this period because of better monitoring and the recognition of the link between occupational hazards and illness. Additionally, given the long time that it might take between exposure to an occupational hazard and the presentation of the related disease, for instance lung problems associated with working in underground mines, the levels of current deaths refer to exposure in earlier years.
The law on health and Safety in the UK (2013)
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HASAW or HSW), is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK. According to this law, employers have to keep records of accidents in the workplace, and from 1981 had to provide first aid facilities. Laws regulating the treatment of those exposed to lead, asbestos, pesticides, radiation, excessive noise and carbon monoxide followed. In 1992, the law covered health and safety in the office, with guidelines for computer screens, space, lighting and seating.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 came about as a result of the UK’s membership of the European Union. The 1992 legislation requires the employer to actively carry out a risk assessment of the work place and act accordingly to:
- maintain the premises e.g. floors and corridors;
- guard dangerous machines;
- deal with the manual handling of equipment, stocks, materials etc;
- introduce protective clothing etc. where necessary;
- have measures to prevent repetitive strain injury, fatigue, eye problems etc. in the use of technological equipment.
Limitations and directions for the future
Over the last few decades, there has been a significant progress in making the workplace safer for most workers in the UK. However, the legislation does not cover certain categories of workers such as irregular workers, home-based workers - for example those doing sewing on a piece rate basis - or domestic workers such as cleaners and maids working in private homes, or workers who are self-employed.
Over recent years, some sections of the media have mocked inappropriate uses of health and safety legislation, with newspaper reports on bans on children playing with conkers, or bureaucratic obstacles to school trips. In response to public concerns that ‘health and safety’ was being used as an excuse to avoid providing a service, the Health and Safety executive launched a mythbusting section on their website in 2012. This investigates claims about uses of the health and safety legislation and investigates whether the law has been interpreted correctly.
Since the 1992 legislation on health and safety, attempts have been made to pare back the regulations. A 1994 review recommended 100 laws be removed, and in 2010 Lord Young published a review called "Common Sense – Common Safety". In 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrats Coalition government initiated consultations seeking to curtail the health and safety law, called the ‘red tape challenge’. These measures could mean a step backwards in the long march towards making workplaces safe and conducive to workers’ health.