How health and safety laws have evolved over the years


It’s tempting for many of us in the UK to take high standards of health and safety at work for granted now. Things weren’t always this way though. In the not too distant past, many people diced with death on a daily basis simply trying to earn a living. Things were especially bad during the industrial revolution, when factories sprung up and engineering projects progressed apace in the absence of rules for protecting the wellbeing of employees. Here, we take a brief look at just how far health and safety laws have evolved over the years.

The first signs of a change

One of the early signs that people were no longer prepared to tolerate a disregard for worker safety was the passing of the Factory Health and Morals Act in 1802. This new set of laws decreed that children should work a maximum of 12 hours per day. Before this, they’d been allowed to toil from 5am until 9pm. The act also stated that mills must have enough windows to ensure a flow of fresh air and it specified that the walls and floors of these premises must be washed regularly. Provisions like this may not seem much to us now, but they were at least a step in the right direction.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974

New laws continued to be passed in the ensuing years in line with changes in people’s expectations. It wasn’t until the 1970s though that the safety system we’re familiar with today came into being. Before this point, many British workers still fell outside of the sector-specific regulations that were in place. This changed with the passing of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which introduced the idea that those who create risk are best placed to manage it – a model that has endured until today. Highlighting the emphasis placed on risk control, safety specialists Phoenix HSC note that under current UK laws, all organisations with five or more staff are required to conduct written health and safety risk assessments that cover all significant hazards.

When the act was passed, a further eight million employees, including those working in sectors such as education, healthcare and local government instantly came under the protection of safety regulations. Employers now have a range of obligations. For example, as well as conducting risk assessments, they have to consult with their employees over safety matters and they must appoint one or more ‘competent persons’ to help them meet their duties under health and safety laws.

A ‘world class’ safety record

Of course, the UK’s safety laws are not perfect and the body responsible for controlling risks, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is continually seeking ways to improve standards. However, there’s no denying the fact that major improvements have been made since the dark days of the industrial revolution, and even since the 1970s. This fact is reflected by HSE figures, which show that the number of worker deaths in 2013-14 was down by 17 compared with the previous year and the overall rate of injury dropped from 0.51 per 100,000 workers in 2012-13 to 0.44 last year. Commenting on the statistics, HSE chair Judith Hackitt said they “confirm Britain’s performance in health and safety as world class”.

Thanks to the endeavours of campaigners, safety bodies and policymakers, we can all feel much safer at work now than our counterparts in generations gone by.