Safety first: Health and Safety since the 1980s

Health and safety has come to be regarded as a curse of modern life, with many of the benefits taken for granted, underappreciated or resolutely ignored. Yet if we look back to the 1980s, when an unprecedented series of tragedies left nearly a thousand people dead, we realise how far we have come.

Greg Mahon

Greg Mahon, Regional Director, Chichester office

It is not especially hard to understand why popular opinion regarding health and safety is dominated by derision and contempt. In the eyes of its most determined critics, health and safety is a laughing stock, an object of scorn, something to be derided, denounced and disregarded.

But is this really a fair assessment? There is a strong case for arguing that we should be able to see beyond the ridicule and the rejection and instead consider the broader and altogether more positive implications.

Imagine a society in which even the most everyday activities could carry a wholly unnecessary level of risk. Imagine a society in which something as simple as using public transport, going to work or even attending a sporting event could very well culminate in serious injury or death.

We were that society. And it wasn’t so long ago.

By the mid-1980s, by any standard, Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium was antiquated. Simon Inglis, a historian specialising in sports and architecture, likened the view for spectators to “watching football from a Sopwith Camel”. The main stand was made from wood and had remained essentially unaltered since the First World War. It was neither charming nor quaint. It was dangerous.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) pointed out as much in 1981, warning that piles of litter that had been allowed to accumulate beneath the timber structure could constitute a fire hazard. The county council echoed the sentiment in 1984. The club had the money to implement improvements, but most of its turnover was spent on assembling a promotion-chasing side.

On 11 May 1985, the final day of the season, 56 people died when the stand became engulfed in flames. A discarded match or cigarette slipped through one of the many gaps in the floor, and the litter did the rest. Survivors later reported wondering why their feet were getting warm. The inferno beneath them, fanned by high winds, spread to the bitumen-and-tarpaulin roof above them within minutes.

A copy of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus was later discovered among the charred debris. It was scorched, but the date of publication was still visible: 4 November 1968. There, in the singed pages of a pre-decimalisation newspaper, was genuinely pathetic evidence of the longstanding neglect and apathy that eventually led to the loss of 56 lives. Valley Parade was a monument to inertia.

The tragedy provoked outrage, yet it was to prove only the first of many. By the end of the decade an unprecedented series of catastrophes had claimed nearly a thousand lives and shed damning light on a fundamental lack of investment and expertise in health and safety. Almost every one of them has since become so synonymous with disaster that its name alone is sufficient to remind us of its infamy. Manchester Airport, the Herald of Free Enterprise, King’s Cross, Piper Alpha, Clapham Junction, Lockerbie, Kegworth, Hillsborough, the Marchioness – this was Britain in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is the world’s largest health and safety membership organisation. Founded in 1945, it is the only chartered body for health and safety professionals. It trains more than 130,000 people a year.

Professor Robert Dingwall, director of IOSH’s ‘Health and Safety in a Changing World’ research programme, believes the tragedies of the mid-to-late 1980s were the products of a 'perfect storm'. "There’s a parallel with a wave of catastrophic accidents in late Victorian England,” he says. “There was the same combination of technologies being stretched to their limits and a difficult economic climate for firms to invest in. In many instances it wasn’t necessarily a case of cutting corners: it was more a case of the technological envelope being pushed and there being insufficient resources to keep pace with that. The ’70s left a legacy of cuts in maintenance and investment. It was an unusual set of circumstances. The issue of health and safety crept up on people without them noticing.”

The picture had appeared considerably more promising in the 1960s. The landmark Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, passed by Parliament in 1963, was intended to extend the protection of workplace health, safety and welfare – initially granted under the Factories Act 1961 – to a far greater range of employees, including those in service industries.

“It exposed a genuine scandal about low-level conditions,” says Professor Dingwall, a specialist in sociology and organisational theory. “Take the railways. There were rural signal-boxes where sanitation amounted to a bucket and a shovel and the only warmth came from a paraffin heater that gave everyone a headache. There were stations without anywhere for staff to wash their hands or eat and with no heating in the winter.

“The idea was to move beyond such anachronisms and bring the whole of British industry within a framework that would improve workforce conditions, enhance employee happiness and therefore increase productivity. And this was welcomed. That was certainly the attitude for much of the ’60s and the early ’70s.

“But by the ’80s a counter-narrative had definitely emerged. It was felt that health and safety imposed extra costs, that smaller companies and entrepreneurs were being told what to do rather than being left to make their own decisions, that people should be allowed to take risks if they wanted to and so on. Those perceptions are still with us today.”

One of IOSH’s current research projects is entitled ‘The Changing Legitimacy of Health and Safety’. By analysing a variety of sources – including newspaper and broadcast archives and the records of the HSE, the Factory Inspectorate, the Trades Union Congress and numerous labour organisations – academics hope to develop a fuller understanding of why attitudes have shifted so dramatically.

There can be little doubt, of course, that a key contributor has been the “can’t do” philosophy that provides such easy fodder for the media in particular and health and safety’s naysayers in general. Tales of trapeze artists being forced to wear hard hats, graduates being ordered not to hurl their mortarboards in the air and candy floss on sticks being banned for fear of passers-by tripping and impaling themselves have sustained the stereotype of the barmy bureaucrat.

The HSE has dismissed many of these alleged intercessions as myths. The truth, it says, is that not one is rooted in health and safety law. IOSH endorses this view. “There are people who say no to everything,” says Professor Dingwall. “For them, unfortunately, health and safety has become a convenient alibi. But health and safety isn’t about creating problems: it’s about solving them.”

In the early hours of 20 August 1989, near Cannon Street Railway Bridge on the River Thames in London, the Marchioness pleasure cruiser and a dredger, the Bowbelle, collided. Fifty-one of the 131 people aboard the Marchioness drowned. It was the last of the high-profile tragedies that punctuated the second half of the decade.

As in so many of the incidents, human failings were a significant factor. A government-ordered investigation criticised both vessels’ lookouts and highlighted the poor training and monitoring of crew members. The captain of the Bowbelle later admitted to drinking five pints of lager during the afternoon before the collision and to forging signatures on documents to secure his master mariner’s certificate of competency.

The academic world has a term for an organisational situation in which bad habits become accepted: the normalisation of deviance. It was coined by American sociologist Diane Vaughan in her study of NASA’s ill-fated decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle on the freezing-cold morning of 28 January 1986.

Normalisation of deviance tends to flourish where communication is lacking. Individuals have to know what their own role is and, just as importantly, how it relates to the roles of others. It is not just a question of sharing responsibility: it is a question of sharing knowledge.

“One of the things we’ve got much better at is understanding how we interact,” says Professor Dingwall. “We appreciate that the people responsible for the individual elements of a system can’t operate in isolation. It’s imperative that they talk to each other. If the right people don’t talk to each other – well, that’s when you have a problem.”

Professor Justin Waring, a Professor of Organisational Sociology at Nottingham University Business School and a leading researcher in the field of knowledge-brokering, agrees. “We live in a risk society,” he says, “and the fact of the matter is that most risks aren’t like smoking, where you and you alone make the decision and pay the price.

“If we look at the rail industry we see there was an enormous fragmentation of responsibility in the wake of privatisation. In a case like that, with different stakeholders serving their own political, business and institutional agendas, there’s often only a narrow response to safety. The companies that run the trains, the teams that maintain the lines, the drivers, the people who look after the safety management systems – ensuring effective cooperation and coordination between all these groups is a key challenge for regulators. In the end it comes down to communication. Even today we find gaps between the person who assesses a risk, the person who takes that risk and the person who suffers the consequences. That’s really what health and safety is about – bridging gaps.”

Health and safety’s benefits are easily overlooked. Sometimes they are flat-out ignored. In essence, as with so many things, we hear only about the negatives – which, as we have already seen, can more often than not be traced back to a warped and deliberately erroneous misapplication of overarching legislation. Maybe because they have become so commonplace, so assumed and expected, the myriad advantages go unnoticed.

“Historically, health and safety tended to be an add-on,” says Professor Dingwall. “You came up with the technology and then asked about the health and safety. The modern approach is to bring health and safety in at an early stage, which allows it to solve problems rather than create them – and once a problem has been solved, of course, you tend not to hear much about it. The Olympic Park is a classic example of how far we’ve come. The aim was to build it without a single fatal accident. Health and safety was a cornerstone of the project from the outset, and the aim was achieved. Compare that with the preparations for the World Cups in Brazil and Qatar, where we regularly hear of accidents involving construction workers. It wouldn’t even be accurate to compare Qatar’s situation now with our situation in the 1980s. Health-and-safety-wise, Qatar now is more like late Victorian England – it’s like the Irish navvies building the railways. The fatality rate is appalling.”

In the space of a quarter of a century Britain has arguably gone from dilapidated death-trap to world leader. Allowing for the inevitable differences in speed and scale of response from one industry to another, this has been achieved discreetly and efficiently. The transformation has been remarkable and has not gone unnoticed elsewhere: our expertise in health and safety is now one of our major exports.

As Professor Dingwall notes: “Ultimately, the objective of health and safety is that everyone gets to go home at night.” When you really think about it, our success in this regard is extraordinary.

Yes, maybe we are occasionally delayed or frustrated more than we would like. Maybe we see the concept taken too far now and then. Maybe we have to pay a little extra in fares to fund the systems that prevent roll-on/roll-off ferries from setting sail with their bow-doors still open or to stop trains smashing into each other because of wiring faults.

But the thought of another Valley Parade is inconceivable. The notion of a football stadium burning to the ground, the flames stoked by a bed of detritus that has gone untouched for nigh on 20 years, is anathema. And that has to count for something.

Investing in safety

By John McDougall, Research Analyst

As well as saving countless lives, the dramatic improvement in UK health and safety standards has been very positive for many UK companies, which have led the way in developing innovative health and safety equipment and systems.

Smiths Group (which was known as Smiths Industries until 2000) has a long history of pioneering safety-related products for the motor, aircraft and medical industries. One of its divisions, Smiths Detection, produces airport scanners and is a world leader in the design and manufacture of sensors that detect and identify explosives, weapons and drugs. This is the frontline of the battle against terrorism.

Other long-term success stories include Intertek Group, a multinational inspection, product testing and certification company, and Halma, which is the parent of a group of companies that make products for hazard detection and life protection.

As health and safety standards have started to improve in other parts of the world, these companies have performed strongly. They are widely owned at Rathbones, which is another reason to be grateful for the improved standards in the UK following the dark years of the 1980s.

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