Why the Health and Safety at Work Act is perhaps the most important law of a generation

Why the Health and Safety at Work Act is perhaps the most important law of a generation

Why the Health and Safety at Work Act is perhaps the most important law of a generation by By Mark O'Neill.  Available from <http://www.legalcheek.com/lc-journal-posts/why-the-health-and-safety-at-work-act-is-perhaps-the-most-important-law-of-a-generation/> [APR 18 2017 10:57AM  ]

Whenever we think of health and safety, the inevitable image is of the jobsworth with a clipboard telling you what you can and cannot do. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t get good press! But there is a sound argument that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HASWA) has done more to revolutionise how we go about our lives, and our working lives in particular, than any other piece of legislation from the past 50 years.

A brief bit of history. With the images and tales told of the workhouses and of working conditions in general, it is hard to believe that the very first piece of health and safety legislation dates back to the early nineteenth century and the Factory Act 1802. Throughout the nineteenth century, workers’ existences were, to quote the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”.

The 1802 act was introduced by Sir Robert Peel in response to an outbreak of malignant fever at one of his cotton mills. The act itself was fairly limited in its scope as it only affected cotton mills and factories, requiring them to be properly ventilated and set basic requirements for cleanliness. In effect all this meant was opening windows and ensuring that premises were cleaned a minimum of twice a year. The 1802 act also granted apprentices a basic education, included a clothing provision and set limits on daily working hours (12 per day).

Even with the good intentions of the 1802 act, it was not effectively enforced as it lacked an independent body to make sure these minimum standards were being met, and instead relied on the good will of the mill and factory owners. In spite of this, we can see the first tentative steps towards what we take for granted today.

The Factories Act 1833 introduced, for the first time, the idea of a government appointed inspectorate. This was done in order to give the legislation more teeth, but again it appeared to have a relatively limited impact as the inspectorate was only a four-man team and there were over 4,000 mills and factories. The act was easily evaded by unscrupulous mill or factory owners.

The common law took a turn toward employee rights in the workplace with the 1837 case of Priestly v Fowler, which established a common law duty of care of employers towards their employees. This principle was enshrined in legislation in the Employers Liability Act 1880, which gave legal protection to workers for accidents caused by their employers’ negligence. This was replaced by the Workman’s Compensation Act 1897 which introduced payments for workers in certain industries who were injured “out of and in the course of employment”.

The Factory and Workshop Act 1878 consolidated all the previous acts into one, and also placed working hour limits on child and female labour: no child under ten was permitted to work, and women were permitted to work a maximum of 56 hours a week.

All previous legislation relating to factories and workshops was consolidated by the Factories and Workshop Act 1901, which also raised the minimum working age to 12, and for the first time legislated at national level for employers to provide a means of escape for employees during fires. Parliament provided further consolidating legislation through the Factories Act 1937, which consolidated all factory and workshop related legislation between 1901 and 1929, and perhaps this was the first attempt at a more comprehensive and condensed legislative code on health and safety in all factories.

As you can see, the overwhelming majority of health and safety legislation focussed on areas of manual labour, with reasonable justification.

In 1947 through the Gowers Committee — which looked into health and safety away from its traditional focus — there was perhaps the first recognition of the need to extend health and safety legislation to non-industrial spheres of employment such as offices and shops.

Among its most important recommendations were for sanitary accommodation, washing facilities, heating, lighting and ventilation, fire escape systems, first aid and safeguards for dangerous machinery and chemicals in such workplaces where there was no previous legislative provision. It was not until the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 (now superseded by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992) that non-industrial workers had some form of protection under the law, extending safety provision to a further eight million workers.

Why the Health and Safety at Work Act is perhaps the most important law of a generation by By Mark O'Neill.  Available from <http://www.legalcheek.com/lc-journal-posts/why-the-health-and-safety-at-work-act-is-perhaps-the-most-important-law-of-a-generation/> [APR 18 2017 10:57AM  ]

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