A new study, led by the University of Reading in partnership with the University of Portsmouth, and funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), will examine how the social standing and perceived value of health and safety (H&S) regulation has changed over the last 50 years.
Professor Paul Almond, from the University of Reading’s School of Law and the project’s Principal Investigator, said: "Health and safety regulation is an important area of law that affects everyone. Events like the Piper Alpha oil rig fire, the 25thanniversary of which recently passed, and the more recent incidents such as the Deepwater Horizon BP disaster in 2010, illustrate the need for laws that protect people from the harmful side-effects of work.
"Up until the end of the 1960s, health and safety law consisted of a large number of very prescriptive and complex laws governing different hazards. They were enforced by a multitude of regulators, and applied to an industrial and manual workforce, where rates of death, injury, and illness were stubbornly high. However the law has evolved to apply to a largely office-based, service-sector economy.
"Rates of injury and death have fallen, and health and safety management is an accepted part of business. But public hostility towards‘elf and safety’has increased dramatically, with negative media coverage of these issues coming to the fore. So why do we seem to think so badly of laws that, on the face of it, to have been a success story and what can be done to alter public perception.”
The two-year project will see researchers interview key stakeholders from health and safety practice, including former regulators, politicians and policymakers, workers and trade union safety representatives, employers and managers, and others who have played an active role in the law in this area over the last half-century. Focus groups will assess public attitudes and perceptions towards H+S regulation and analysis will examine the changing representation and arguments about it over time.
Dr Mike Esbester, from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies and the project’s co-investigator, said: "This is a great opportunity to look back at what has changed and why, and to identify the turning points in public perceptions of health and safety in recent years. One of the particular strengths of what we’re doing is that it combines historical perspectives and contemporary practice – we want to see how the past influences the present, and how we might use that insight to make a difference in the future.”
Jane White, IOSH research and information services manager, said: "When the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, it was held in the highest regard – the solution to the needless deaths and injuries in our workplaces. Things have evolved and our workplaces have changed. Mining and industrial processes have made way for robotics and nano particles. The Act is still as relevant as ever, but what has changed is the nature of the hazard.
"The UK Government is currently focused on ‘reducing the burden of health and safety’, yet countries and policy-makers the world over see the UK legislative framework as the exemplar and have emulated or just plain copied our systems. Now we face a juxtaposition between the public perception of red tape and the reality of a legal framework that is fit for purpose.”
‘The Changing Legitimacy of Health and Safety regulation, 1960-2013’ begins this autumn