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Celebrating 40 years of the British Health and Safety at Work Act

The reputation of HSE is well known in countries where health and safety is taken seriously, says Dr Jukka Takala. The Act has had an impact far beyond Britain’s borders.

When the HSWA was adopted on 31 July, I thought I was already an "experienced " chief of the Machinery Bureau at the National Board of Occupational Safety and Health in Finland, and had just returned from the ILO-ISSA-NISO 7th World Congress in Dublin – my first one.

That travelling experience was devastating, literally. Just as the plane from Helsinki arrived in Heathrow, Terminal 1 was set ablaze by car bombs planted by the IRA. Luckily we – inspectors, workers, employers from Finland – were a few minutes late in our landing. We waited for hours on the grass right next to the runway in order to change the plane and make our journey to Dublin. Finally, some six hours later, we arrived in Dublin. But the very hotel we were expected to stay in was bombed by the IRA too and in ruins. Where was health and safety? Luckily we were six hours late.

At that time the authoritative sources for health and safety information were – not HSE, not HSWA – but ILO encyclopaedia 2nd edition, CIS information sheets on machine guarding, the Nordic Machinery Safety Committee, Swedish guidelines, and soon later the enigmatic British Standard 5304 on Safeguarding of Machinery.

Finland had some 150 fatal accidents annually including traffic and the United Kingdom had 651, and if traffic accidents at work in the UK were counted much more, perhaps around 1,500. The Finnish economy was and is roughly 10% of the UK’s. No information existed on fatal occupational diseases at that time, but most likely massively more cases of fatal disease could have been counted than the number of fatal occupational accidents.

I heard at a conference in Vienna in May 2014, and this information is confirmed by HSE website, that there were 148 fatal accidents in the workplace and an estimated 550 work-related road traffic fatalities in the UK in 2013. What is striking is that HSE now estimates there are some 12,000 fatalities caused by work-related diseases and disorders every year. My own estimate made for the ILO was 19,000 fatal work-related diseases in the UK in 2008.

When counting further work-related disorders, such as cardiovascular diseases, the number may be even higher. What is, however, important, is that the loss caused by death, disability and disease is much better recognised, and measures to eliminate and reduce the problems are better prioritised.

The impact of the Act itself has been phenomenal, not just in Great Britain, but globally. It is not a secret that many countries have adopted legislation and measures that closely follow the HSWA.

One example is my present home country, Singapore. Although the adoption here had a long latency period the impact is now clearly visible: a rapid trend downwards for accidents and increasing emphasis on health-related issues at work. In my 41 years of international and European work in this field, I can say with confidence that usually the first point of reference is the British experience, the HSE website, British research, British solutions and practices.

The ILO conventions and guides on health and safety have been prepared without exception in line with the British experience and with British experts. The ILO framework conventions – the chemicals convention and major hazard convention – OSH management systems, globally harmonized labelling system, GHS or CLP and the EU framework directive are good examples. HSE experts have been globally recruited as advisers to put these into practice. The chief executives of HSE have enjoyed high international respect, from John Locke and John Rimington to Geoffrey Podger. And the consistent, continuous, professional and intelligent work that HSE staff have done is highly appreciated.

In fact, if there is any internationally recognised and respected body in safety and health today, it is HSE – created by the Act. The reputation of HSE is well known in all countries where health and safety is taken seriously. It is, indeed, on a very different level altogether – as if it were a different body – from that within the UK.

A good piece of legislation will grow with time. It can be implemented gradually, more thoroughly and more intelligently once our evidence and knowledge of risks and solutions grow. Exactly this has happened over the 40 years with the HSWA. What may have been tolerated in the 70s cannot be tolerated any more. This Act with a capital "A” has had an impact far beyond the borders of the UK and far beyond the rugby pitch. I’m convinced it will continue to do so.

The future

The Act will continue to grow. The job of HSE is not done. The goal posts are moving and the coverage is widening. The criteria for action cannot be based on indicators derived from fairly narrow past compensation criteria. What can we do to eliminate exposures? Can we achieve zero harm? What to do to improve wellbeing through work? I would hope that in spite of the challenging pressures HSE continues to listen and guard the interest of workers around Britain, and around the world, in the spirit of the HSWA. It is the Magna Carta of health and safety at work.
Articular taken from British Safety Council <> [21/-7/14]Written by Dr. Jukka Takala


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