We seem to love anniversaries, marking the passing of time with reference to notable events of years gone by. The centenary commemoration of the end of the Great War in 2018, provided a national opportunity to reflect on the sacrifice of a lost generation, whilst the 50th anniversary of the moon landings earlier this year, reminded us of the supreme technological achievement of the ‘race into space’ and in putting a man on the moon.
Other anniversaries, though, pass us by. 2019 marks the 45th anniversary of a piece of UK legislation that represented a sea-change in safety at work. The 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act continues to define the fundamental structure and authority for the regulation and enforcement of workplace safety, health and welfare in the United Kingdom.
Building on preliminary work undertaken in the dying days of the second Wilson government (1966-70), proposals went to and fro between administrations before being enshrined in law in the third Wilson government of 1974-76.
The importance of the legislation and its impact on work safety cannot be over-emphasised. The Act secures the health, safety and welfare of any person in the workplace, protecting staff, guests, visitors and contractors alike. As well as defining the regime for workplace safety, it created the Health & Safety Executive, the supreme body appointed by the Secretary of State to enforce the Act, and provides the enabling mechanism for protection and safety, with the Executive able to exercise powers that enforce 15 criminal offences for safety breaches – including against ‘body corporates’.
We have perhaps become too used to cynical attacks on the culture of health and safety, but it is sobering to be reminded that before 1974 there was little in the way of ‘best practice’ regulatory oversight. The HSE mandates that workplace accidents have to be reported – data we use continually as investors to assess the strength of a company’s safety regime and its record of improvement or regression.
In the UK in 2018, there were 600,000 non-fatal injuries in the work-place and 144 fatalities. The annual cost of workplace injury is estimated at £5.2bn in 2016/17, with over 30m lost days in 2017/18 from ill health and injury. Injury levels represent the highest observable incidences of welfare at work; however, the HSE also notes 1.4m work-related ill-health cases in 2017/18 and 600,000 work-related incidences of stress, depression and anxiety.
The long-term figures show reducing trends in serious physical injury at work, but little overall reduction since the turn of the Millennium in reducing mental harm.
The legislative regime of education, protection and enforcement has been a silent victory for safety in the workplace with injury rates and fatalities seeing a long-term downward trend – as the FT recently said “a UK clampdown on workplace dangers over the past two decades has been a little acknowledged triumph”. Before 1974, fatal injury, disfigurement and accidents from unguarded machinery were seen as the price of doing business. The Act made that unacceptable – there are around 75% fewer workplace accidents than 35 years ago. Injury rates stand at an all-time low of fewer than 2% per 100,000 workers per year (1.7% to be exact).
The most dangerous industries remain little changed over time – agriculture and forestry still represent the biggest risk to life and limb, whilst construction, manufacturing and food services all present higher than average risk.
So 1974 should be celebrated as the UK leading where others have since followed. In 1974 there were on average 700 workplace deaths every year; the 85% reduction over the life of the Act is a very significant achievement, together with the rate of non-fatal injuries at work falling by over half since 2000. Statistically, the UK now has significantly lower fatal injuries than the EU 28 (France has the highest at 3.37 per 100,000 workers compared to the UK’s less than 0.5), whilst non-fatal injuries compare well to other leading European markets.
Where more work is needed is in the more invisible aspects of workplace health. 44% of all work-related ill health is linked to stress, depression and anxiety with 57% of all ‘lost-days’ due to these conditions. Over time, these statistics have remained stubbornly flat, with only marginal downward trends. 595,000 workers suffered work-related stress or anxiety in 2017/18, with 239,000 new cases reported during the year. The cost in human suffering from work-related mental ill-health is still a novel issue, but encouragingly, we are beginning to see more companies developing a mental health and wellbeing strategy for their colleagues. This is something we strongly endorse, and look for in our engagement with companies.
The 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act cannot claim the allure of the moon landings or the heartfelt wrench of the ending of the First World War, but in a quiet, unassuming way, the Act has been of seismic importance in just helping to ensure that those who go to work every day do indeed return home safely; for that we should all celebrate.