Happy Birthday to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Agriculture workers, UK

I have an argument with my family. I like to read the Daily Telegraph; they think I a mad class traitor. My line of defence is, “why should I read a paper I know I am going to agree with?”

So I was surprised, to say the least, by an article in that impeccably Conservative organ celebrating the Health and Safety at Work Act - which was very positive. Not what you might expect, given the popularity in some quarters, of stories on jobs worth safety rules, and how too much regulation is stifling business.

But as the Telegraph pointed out, thousands of lives have been saved since the law received the Royal Assent, 40 years ago this week.

Although things are far from perfect, we have one of the best systems for occupational health and safety (OSH) in the world - not least because trade unions have a built in role in the system, and have used the legislation to push for improvements in the workplace. 

We can get a good idea of what things might be like without the Act if we look around the globe:

  • 500 workers have died on construction sites in Qatar since 2012, building the infrastructure for the World Cup in 2022. 
  • The 13 May Soma coal mine tragedy killed 301 workers; but an estimated 820 people were killed in Turkish workplaces in the first six months of 2014.
  • 100,000 workers are killed in accidents at work every year in India - not the official government statistics, which are “unfeasibly low”, according to a World Health Organisation study. But several writers - including the author of this blog - have reached that figure by analysing other data. Half of those deaths are in agriculture. That is about 1,000 a week. That basmati rice does not taste quite so good any more.

It’s not just accidents at work. Occupational disease kills even more. For every worker who dies each year as a result of an accident in a South African mine, nine more die of tuberculosis. The dread disease of the nineteenth century, which carried off the poet Keats, works in lethal combination with lung diseases caused by dust in mines. It’s a link first spotted by a British doctor, Charles Thackrah, who himself died of tuberculosis in 1833.

Let’s have some more stats:

  • Every 15 seconds, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease.
  • Every 15 seconds, 160 workers have a work-related accident.
  • Every day, 6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases – more than 2.3 million deaths per year. 
  • 317 million accidents occur on the job annually.
  • The economic burden of poor OSH practices is estimated at 4 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product each year.

And the point is, if we can cut the toll in the UK, well they can do it in China, India, the USA (very bad stats there) as well. And if the GDP figure is right, we can save money! Charles Dickens called manufacturers who fought tooth and nail against the Factories Act in the 19th century "the National Association of the Protection of the Right to Mangle Operatives". He just needed a PowerPoint of the business case.

ETI members are committed, in the Base Code, to a safe and hygienic working environment shall be provided, bearing in mind the prevailing knowledge of the industry and of any specific hazards. Adequate steps shall be taken to prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, associated with, or occurring in the course of work, by minimising, so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment.

That is rather different from saying everybody needs to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). But that is what we see in most audit reports and corrective action plans. The ETI clause says we “must minimise (...) the causes of hazards”. Handing out dust masks is not the same thing at all. Expecting workers to get kitted out in full protective gear in workplaces with high humidity - somewhere like Assam in June -  is just not realistic.

Because of a lack of specialist knowledge in ETI members, suppliers and social auditors, where health and safety problems are identified, it is the symptoms and not the causes that are treated.  They should use the concept of the hierarchy of control. The principle is that hazards should be tackled at source and personal protective equipment should be used only as a last resort, "having regard to what is reasonable, practicable and feasible, and to good practice and the exercise of due diligence."  

What can ETI members do? Not much about the lousy legislation which still prevails in many countries. But there is a huge amount of good practice guidance from the International Labour Organisation. Part of the problem in many countries is the absence of any competent source of information. It’s no good telling suppliers they have OSH problems - we have to help them with solutions.

It’s 40 years since the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 received the Royal Assent on 31 July 1974. Light the candles by all means - and then see how we can apply the same methods to reduce the toll of death, disease and injuries in our supply chain.


ETI's blog covers issues at the intersection of business, news and ethical trade. We welcome a range of insights and opinions from our guest bloggers, though don't necessarily agree with everything they say.