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In celebration of compassion

Posted on February 13, 2024

I saw a question the other day: “Is Taylor Swift more famous than Barack Obama?” Well, she is today, but she wasn’t five years ago and is unlikely – to my admittedly older sensibilities – to be so in five years’ time.

She’s the firework, the flavour of the month. With health and safety in the workplace, fireworks or flavours should happen rarely. The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) has been described by some people as part of the ‘nanny state’, but the employer looking after the employee should always be the day’s flavour and to everyone’s taste – it’s part of the essence of society in the UK and provides the baseline of the culture for the country.

The Act has been here for 50 years, often just in the background humming away and not looked at very often, but it’s there for assurance that things are done properly and, if not, there are consequences.

Like a classic car

It’s worth reflecting on this landmark UK legislation which is clocking up its half century this year. I’ve described the Act in the past as a classic car. The Act was spectacular in its day and it set Britain apart from the rest of the world in 1974. Perhaps the classic car of that time, was the Rolls Royce Corniche which purred onto on our roads at the time the HSWA was being conceived and written.

Like the Act, these dream machines are still running today.

The HonestJohn (Classics) website describes this four-wheeled beauty thus: “Looks great and is totally timeless.” Classic & Sports Car magazine describes the Corniches as “magnificent machines” and says: “The standard of construction means that they will go on for a long time without costly maintenance.”

Both, however, say that without care and attention you will need a few quid to keep them roadworthy. That’s a little like the 1974 Act, because over the years there has been some tinkering under the bonnet, various upgrades and it’s even been said that it’s no longer fit for purpose.

For example, in 2014 as HSWA reached its 40th anniversary, the website Conversative home actually characterised Britain’s health and safety culture as ‘nanny state restriction on individual liberty’. Yet last year, the (Conservative) government was described as “woefully out of touch” on health and safety standards by the Safety & Health Practitioner website, because of its since-abandoned Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which put some 4,000 laws derived from Europe in jeopardy.

Roles and responsibilities

The Act was designed to reduce the risk of serious accidents and deaths because there was an absence of any standardised law addressing this. Prior to the act, it took so long for acts of parliament in relation to Health and Safety to go through the system from committee stage to becoming legal requirements that often everything had moved on ahead of it. The Act’s main objectives are: securing the health, safety and welfare of persons at work; protecting persons, other than persons at work, against risks to health or safety arising out of or in connection with the activities of persons at work; controlling the keeping and use of explosive or highly flammable or otherwise dangerous substances and generally preventing the unlawful acquisition, possession and use of such substances.

It also clearly defines roles and responsibilities and the need for the employer to provide a safe place and safe system of work and for employees to cooperate with whatever the employer puts in place for health and safety. At the same time HSWA came into being so did the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive (since merged), the public body responsible for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare, and for research into occupational risks in Britain. It’s worth saying that HSE’s existence is also often questioned!

When applied appropriately HSWA is phenomenally effective and allows for plenty of common sense. It has a feel of continual improvement about it. Health and Safety is a live a topic which means it cannot be a folder gathering dust on a shelf, because providing a safe place and system of work changes every day.

It was a massive step change at the time in how we as a society looked at ourselves and how we thought about colleagues, neighbours and stakeholders and how we care about them. Health and safety should not be seen as a cost, but an investment because it reduces the likelihood of loss.

A forever flavour

It’s strength is that it has made people think differently from the way they did 50 years ago. I mention HSWA in every training course I do, because it is fundamental and it’s still fit for purpose.

We do need to keep an eye on it – a little like that Rolls Royce – to make sure it’s still doing the job it was designed for. It’s a challenge that grows because society changes quickly and technology even quicker, but it’s largely kept pace with the evolution of the workplace and prevailing attitudes – the environment, mental health, to name but two.

It’s about compassion. If we rewrote it today would it have that running through it? The HSWA is about looking after each other – my brother’s keeper and I like that. HSWA is excellent legislation; it’s goal setting rather than being prescriptive – it says what you have to achieve rather than do – and at its heart is the fundamental principle that health and safety at work is a human right, whatever the occupation, from rugby player to construction worker, from office secretary to yoga instructor.

Ultimately, though what I like about it, is that it wasn’t done on a whim and despite challenges, it has stood the test of time – a ‘flavour’ for the ages.

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