Home >The Health & Safety at Work Act at 40 and beyond

The Health & Safety at Work Act at 40 and beyond

31 July 2014

The Health & Safety At Work etc Act marked its 40th Anniversary on the 31st July; some of the industry's leaders reflect on its impact and discuss the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs, IOSH: Health and safety professionals to have a more strategic role
Brave and futuristic, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) streamlined the voluminous and piecemeal prescriptive legislation that had built up over many decades. At that time, the UK was dominated by heavy industry and manufacturing, but the subsequent four decades were to see many socio-economic changes. These included a shift to a more service- and knowledge-based economy and also a growth in small firms. However, HSWA’s goal-setting and risk-based approach saw it remain fit for purpose and keep pace with this changing industrial landscape. 
The effects of HSWA extended far beyond UK shores. It helped change people’s thinking from one of dealing prescriptively with individual hazards; to one of adopting a management systems approach. The Health and Safety Executive encapsulated this in its flagship publication Successful health and safety management (HSG65), which positively influenced the development of BS8800, ILO guidelines 2001 and OHSAS 18001. And this influence is continuing, now helping inform the new international standard ISO 45001. 
Looking over the next 40-year horizon, we see a myriad of challenges and opportunities ahead for health and safety, many global in nature. Health and wellbeing, new working arrangements and emerging technologies, coupled with globalisation, extended supply chains, climate change and ageing and migrant workforces, mean greater demands for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. This may eventually lead to positive directors’ duties and explicit duties around occupational health, competence and CSR reporting. 
The principle that those who create risk need to manage it, coupled with the inherent proportionality of HSWA, mean that it can readily accommodate new risk areas and vulnerable groups. Health and safety professionals, as horizon-scanners, risk advisers and leaders, will have an increasingly important strategic role, adding value and, like HSWA, helping keep people safe and healthy and organisations operating at their very best.  
Hugh Robertson, TUC senior health and safety policy officer: Challenges ahead
It is ironic that 40 years after the Health and Safety at Work Act got its Royal Assent one of the biggest challenges should be its retention. Despite various reviews of the legislation, all of which said it was both effective and fit for purpose, the government is hell-bent on chipping away as much of it as it can.
 Firstly ministers are removing large numbers of self-employed people from its coverage, and they also want to bring in a two-tier system where small employers have fewer safety duties. To do the latter, they need to change European law but they are already working hard at that. However what it means is that this comprehensive and all-embracing Act will no longer have the universal coverage its creators intended. This will create huge challenges for employers, workers and regulators.
 We also have a challenge to get back to the position we were in until recently where there was an acceptance of the importance of universal inspection. Changes imposed by the government – that mean that most employers no longer face the possibility of a pro-active inspection – are creating a huge change in the culture at workplace level. To be effective and fair, we need a strong and supportive inspection regime that covers everyone. Not just those workplaces that have high safety issues, but also those where most of the health concerns are, which includes the whole of the public and service sectors.
 That brings me to the other point I wish to highlight which is how we get the Act applied properly so that it can prevent occupational diseases. This of course is the massive issue that no-one has yet managed to get right, so hopefully in the next 40 years we will at least make a decent stab at it. That means getting away from the nonsensical mind-set that regulation on occupational health is always a bad thing.
Sayeed Khan, EEf’s chief medical adviser: New and increasing risks
Exposure to potentially harmful materials in the workplace is by no means a new issue in occupational health and safety, but the rise in certain technologies in the past few years poses new or increasing risks.
We will see a range of new substrates as 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, continues to rise in popularity. A drop in the cost of materials is expected and, soon enough, people will be able to print both at work and at home, which will raise new health and safety issues over potential exposure to new chemicals and how to regulate them.
Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter, is another new and rapidly emerging area that will become a focus for occupational health and safety. It may be able to create many new materials and devices with a range of applications, such as in medicine and energy production. Again, occupational health and safety will be concerned with exposure issues. For example, the fibres in the ‘miracle material’ graphene behave similarly to asbestos.
Finally, the future direction and development of synthetic biology could also impact on the safety of workers. It is concerned with the design of new biological devices and systems and re-design of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes, such as genome projects. Research in this area has grown in recent years as scientists are interested in manipulating bacteria and living cells, with the aim of controlling and processing and energy. These sites that this research will eventually take place in will be similar to petrochemical plants, and potentially chemically hazardous, but we do not yet know what the impact on worker’s and the plant’s biosecurity will be.

Rob Burgon, workplace safety manager at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA): Move towards a focus on health and safety in the real world 
In the time it has taken for The Health and Safety at Work etc Act to reach its 40-year anniversary there have been many changes to the legislation. The likelihood is that there will be many more changes in the next 40 years, which I believe will take the form of streamlining current regulations rather than making more legislation.
So, where do I see the next 40 years in health and safety? Well, I see the focus being more on health matters - getting workers to be more aware of hazard and risk, and developing the knowledge required so they can understand these risks.
For example, trying to get builders to use sunscreen 20 years ago would have been a difficult task, whereas nowadays they understand the risk of contracting skin cancer, and are therefore more likely to comply.
In the future, I also feel that health and safety in the real world, not just in the workplace, will be on more agendas. Already schools, colleges and universities are giving children and young people the opportunity to be prepared for the risks of life. 
Some high-performing organisations in the occupational health and safety sphere are also now investigating how they can take their expertise into the communities around them. 
There is a huge potential for firms to make a difference in this respect and I am excited to see how this develops over the next 40 years. 

Thomas Martin, Joint Managing Director, Arco: Time to put the "h” into health and safety
The Health and Safety at Work Act had far reaching implications and has brought about a transformation in the way that we approach health and safety in this country.  In 1974 when the Act was introduced there were 651 fatalities in the workplace – over the year 2012/13 there were 148. Add to this the reduction in non-fatal injuries and the results are worth celebrating.  
However, we mustn’t rest on our laurels; there is still a great deal of work to do.  During the last 40 years our workplaces have changed dramatically.  Most workers have embraced new technologies and working methods that have improved productivity and made working life more bearable. But with these new ways of working come new hazards and risks. For those in an office environment, sitting for longer at a desk in front of a screen could lead to muscular-skeletal problems or repetitive strain injury and other serious health risks. In the manufacturing, waste management and construction sectors workers face new risks such as silica dust, nano technologies and exposure to harmful fumes and gases. So far much of what has been achieved has been focussed on the s in health and safety; the h now needs its fair share of focus and resources. 
With commercial pressures on businesses of all sizes to do more with less, there is an even greater need to take a proactive approach to workplace health and safety; one which offers simple, practical guidance on safe working practices and conformity to legislation. There has been a great deal of debate about the perceived burden of health and safety ‘Red Tape’ but could this view actually increase risk?  Something needs to be done to improve attitudes to health and safety so that it seen as less of a joke or a burden and more of a personal responsibility. Going home at the end of your working day has never been just someone else’s responsibility.

Graham Bostock, senior technical specialist at 3M: Emphasis on education
When the Health and Safety At Work Act was first introduced, I was working for the Safety and Mines Research Establishment (SMRE) which was then re-structured to form the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), now part of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). I now work in the R&D laboratory at a 3M plant in Aycliffe, County Durham, where respiratory protection is designed and manufactured. 
In terms of respiratory protection, the UK has come a long way since the introduction of the Health & Safety At Work Act 40 years ago. Before the Act, much of the work was concerned with the mining industry but as this sector became less fundamental more focus was placed on general industrial problems. One of the activities over the past 40 years has been to work on standards for the improvement of respiratory protection. In the late 1980s we were able to harmonise disparate country standards for respiratory protection equipment (RPE) to form the European Standards, and are now working to develop this into a global standard.
 Our challenge now, although a potential opportunity as well, is to bring about improvements through education. In the 1980s, the statistics showed that there were more recordable accidents connected with farming than mining, however, people’s perceptions are often very different to reality. Education is about recognising where the dangers lie and assessing them correctly.
Another important development has been the collaboration between relevant agencies. An example is the alliance between 3M, the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF) and the HSE on ‘Fit 2 Fit’, the accreditation scheme for fit testers of RPE.  
In the coming 40 years, I think emphasis will  continue to be placed on educating people on where hazards are and how to minimise risk through behaviour. Research will continue into the hazards of new materials such as the toxicity of nanomaterials and the risks of handling them. Nanomaterials are extremely fine and may have more harmful effects as they could be absorbed into the body more readily. I would also expect that permitted exposure levels will continue to decrease and people to demand better protection.

Stuart Turnbull, UK managing director at Honeywell Safety Products: Maintaining momentum
There can be no doubt that the introduction of the Health & Safety at Work act in 1974 transformed the way worker protection is looked at and managed in the UK. Attitudes and perceptions towards workplace health and safety have never been stronger. However, more recent figures highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive suggest that the steady decline in workplace injuries is beginning to level off. The challenge for health and safety managers now therefore is to maintain momentum and ensure workplace injury numbers continue to fall. 
To enable this to happen, health and safety needs to go beyond rules, processes and PPE. It needs to become part of a company’s culture. I say this having seen some excellent examples of this working in practise with health and safety managers enabling workers - through education, training, leadership and positive communication - to make safe choices for themselves, their co-workers and anyone engaging with the business on a daily basis. These workers want to wear or use PPE, not because they are under threat or penalty to keep safe, but because they want to be safe. In these companies health and safety is an integral part of the manufacturing or business process - just like quality assurance, human resources management, or financial management. And therein lies an opportunity too. By making  health & safety part of a company’s overall performance goals these businesses are seeing a positive and tangible impact on the business as a whole.
Another opportunity I see is for the health and safety industry to start integrating new and compelling technologies from other industries more in products and services. 
Finally, if we can base our predictions for the future on the past 40 years, I believe that the pace of innovation will increase dramatically over the next 10 years with plenty of innovative developments from new materials to wearable technology. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the pace of innovation we see over even the next 10 years equals that of the last 40.