“Its bloody health and safety gone mad”
“The safety brigades here, look”
Health and safety, it often gets a bad rap in certain quarters. You may hear the quotes above directed at you, if you decide to give a bit of friendly advice to stop somebody doing something dangerous / stupid. I began working in the construction industry in 2003 and at the time it was permissible to use step ladders. By 2009 when I ended my construction career they had pretty much become extinct on all sites in the UK unless there was no other means of working at height available such as a scaffold tower, scissor lift or cherry picker. So even in my relatively short career I saw health and safety changes in motion.
What I want to talk about is how health and safety at work as changed over a much longer period. I want to step back to the birth of modern day H&S, the Victorian times and look at conditions then and see how things have progressed through the 20th century to the present day and importantly what the future holds for us?
Working conditions in Victorian times
The industrial revolution began in the late 18th century and by the mid-19th century it was in full swing. Britain was booming with new manufacturing techniques and innovations. Factories and mills sprang up throughout the land, especially across the north and midlands of England. With the introduction of these factories a new system of working developed.
Before the industrial revolution trades often worked from home or in small workshops, but everything had now changed, you had 100s of workers all in the same place at the same time. Factory owners wanted to maximize profits and be able to compete with their rival owners. This was bad news for the work force. Long hours, low wages, draconian discipline and poor pay were prevalent in this period for men, women and children (some as young as 5 years).
Things needed to change, and a set of labour laws known as the factory acts were passed. These were updated and amended throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The 1802 act stated that children could only work up to 12 hours a day. Unfortunately, in reality nothing changed, the acts were not enforced initially, and things continued until 1833. At this time factory inspectors were introduced to oversee that the new acts were adhered to. Only four inspectors were employed to oversee over 4000 factories and mills throughout the country! A step in the right direction but sadly a woefully low number that could never monitor the whole country.
Thankfully conditions improved for workers. Updating of these acts occurred in 1842, 1847 and 1878 and with each one work places improved, albeit slowly.
Changes through the 20th century
The first half of the 20th century saw little real change in workplace health and safety. Two world wars swallowed up a decade of time with the government preoccupied on foreign affairs.
In 1956 the Agriculture (Safety, Health and Welfare Provisions) Act brought agricultural workers into the fold of health and safety at work. The most important change to H&S in the 20th century was the 1974 Health and Safety at Work act.
Changes brought about by the act were particularly important for construction workers who were mainly self-employed at this time and not protected under the law. The 1974 act as undoubtedly been a huge success. In 1981 a staggering 495 cases of death were reported. Compare this to a much smaller figure of 144 deaths reported in 2017/2018*.
The Present Day
There can be no doubt that that things have come on a long way since Victorian times and the early twentieth century. If you visit construction sites in the UK today it is abundantly clear that health and safety is taken extremely seriously. PPE, risk assessments, certificates of competency and licenses to operate machinery and plant are all rigorously checked before work commences. Injury and death rates have significantly fallen since the 1970s.
One of the greatest challenges for health and safety face is illegal migrant workers and their safety. Often flying outside the scope of inspectors, it is increasingly difficult to hold employers (often criminal gangs) accountable. The government will need to put in place resources to tackle the criminal employers and protect vulnerable workers from further exploitation.
What does the future hold
The world is rapidly changing, and technology is at the forefront of these changes. Companies and organisations are constantly looking to automate their processes and increase efficiency, which invariably leads to humans losing out to robotics in the jobs market (did someone whisper Luddite?).
Health and safety at its core is about the welfare of the workers, making sure that they are protected from death and injury. What’s the best way to avoid this? Simple take them out of the equation! If a cross beam needs painting why send a man up to do the job when you can send a flying drone machine with a brush and roller attachment to do the job? If the robot malfunctions and falls out of the sky. Oh well if no one was hurt from the falling drone, no harm done except financially.
I predict he same will go for a whole host of jobs. Glazing installers on skyscrapers. Get the robots in. Deep sea welding. Get the robots in. Electric power line installers. Get the robo…. You get the picture.
It’s not unrealistic to foresee that in the future construction projects, manufacturing plants and agricultural jobs will be fully automated without a homo sapiens in sight. Perhaps people will work at home on their pcs overseeing the work? But to me it’s quite clear that the only way to eradicated deaths and injuries at work is to do away with mankind in the workplace.
SummaryNow I understand that many people will not like my predictions for the future. What the world will look like in 10, 20 or 100 years from now? I don’t know, your guess is good as mine. But one thing I’m 100% sure of is, this is the age of the Rise of the machines!