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In the beginning: Health and Safety in the workplace

When did we start caring about public health and safety and why are we now so cynical?

Health and safety gone mad?
It’s a popular refrain: ‘It’s health and safety gone mad,’ about some reported restriction issued by an organisation, frequently a public body. Delve a little further and there’s often a perfectly rational and sensible decision in response to an accident or risk assessment, or the report turns out to be an urban myth. In a few instances there may be some truth in what is being reported and unfortunately, this casual regard for the truth in reporting such matters has an impact on attitudes to health and safety and persuades us that it has all gone too far.

When did health and safety legislation start?
It wasn’t until large numbers of people and, in particular, children, started working in factories that there was any legislation and enforcement regarding safety in the workplace. The Factories Act of 1833 was introduced to protect children working in the new industries, both from accidents and from working too long hours. This was quickly followed by more legislation to safeguard adults. Factory inspectors were appointed to carry out checks. Ten years later, inspectors were appointed to ensure safety in the mining industry. So was born the forerunner of the Health and Safety Inspectors and environmental health officers, who are today’s enforcers of health and safety legislation. People working in both these roles are well trained and many other staff working in industry attend health and safety courses to ensure that their workplace complies with the current legislation.

Do we still need it?
Is there still a need for inspectors and legislation? There has been a huge reduction in the number of deaths due to accidents in the workplace. In 2011 / 2012, there were 173 reported deaths. This may seem a small number, but it actually means 173 people, almost one every other day, leaving home to go to work and not returning because they have been killed doing their job. 173 families and 173 groups of friends, losing someone due to an accident in the workplace. It should also be remembered that these deaths were due to accidents. What about the ‘health’ bit of health and safety? What about all those workers who suffer from lung disease, cancer and cardio vascular disease due to exposure to some harmful material at work? What about people suffering from musculoskeletal disorders, or from stress? An estimate by the Health and Safety Executive is that there are 12,000 deaths per year due to some work related illness and that there are over one million people suffering from a work related condition. There are also many more people injured and not killed, or made ill, but not dying, whose lives are severely worsened by some incident or exposure at work. So yes, there is still a need for legislation, inspectors and health and safety courses.

Sometimes what we read in a newspaper about some health and safety requirement may make us sigh and think it’s all gone too far. We should remember that what we read may not be true, it may be a version of the truth, or may actually be a response to some real risk.

Health and Safety in the workplace
Pauline Henderson has a keen interest in industrial conditions in today’s world and through the ages and is also interested in health and safety courses. She has written articles for a variety of blogs and websites.

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