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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Health And Safety And Class Justice

The common law gave no health and safety protection for employees. The first Act intended to protect the welfare of people at work was passed in 1802. This followed revelations of the abuse of children in textile mills. The Act was widely evaded and rarely enforced. Further legislation in 1819, 1825 and 1841 was also largely ineffective. By the end of the nineteenth century, an ad hoc patchwork of statutes and regulations was in place.

These Factories Acts have been described as having been wrung step by step from masters after a civil war of half a century.

Frederick Engels, who toured England during the 1840s, gives a detailed description of working class life, including employment in mines and factories with non-existent safety measures. In general terms, Engels made the following comment:

If one individual inflicts a bodily injury upon another which leads to the death of the person attacked we call it manslaughter. On the other hand, if the attacker knows beforehand that the blow will be fatal we call it murder. Murder has also been committed if society places hundreds of workers in such a position that they inevitably come to premature and unnatural ends. Their death is as violent as if they had been stabbed or shot… murder is committed if thousands of workers have been deprived of the necessities of life or if they have been forced into a situation in which it is impossible for them to survive… murder has been committed if society knows perfectly well that thousands of workers cannot avoid being sacrificed so long as these conditions are allowed to continue. Murder of this sort is just as culpable as the murder committed by an individual. At first sight it does not appear to be murder at all because responsibility for the death of the victim cannot be pinned on any individual assailant. Everyone is responsible and yet no-one is responsible, because it appears as if the victim has died from natural causes. If a worker dies no-one places the responsibility for his death on society, though some would realise that society has failed to take steps to prevent the victim from dying. But it is murder all the same.

Engels’ description of working-class life in England in the 1840s includes the following:

Condemned to mass starvation during periods of recession, employed in mines and factories with non-existent measures, housed in disease-ridden slums. What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together.

  • including the use of cleaning chemicals at the wings, use of acids in the boiler house, and exposure to wood dusts and paints in woodworking, resulting in two prisoners being exposed to chlorine gas.

The origins and significance of health and safety law

Health and safety law is of crucial significance to any analysis of English law. It is different from most other aspects of law in that it expressly protects the interests of the working class.

Health and safety in its widest sense, includes statutory rules and regulations, common law negligence and aspects of employment law. Health and safety suffers from not being taken seriously and from its enforcement being seriously underfunded in comparison with other areas of criminal law.

The historical context of health and safety law

The industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century resulted in a massive, rapid and uncontrolled increase in the number of workers employed in factories. Workplace conditions were observed and described by a number of contemporary reformers.

In 1815 Robert Owen toured the main factories of Britain. He observed that “in some large factories from one-fourth to one-fifth of the children were either cripples or otherwise deformed, or permanently injured by excessive toil, sometimes by brutal abuse”.

EP Thompson has described working conditions in Manchester in 1832 as including eight-year old children being forced to work a fourteen-hour day. Thompson concluded that the exploitation of little children, on this scale and with this intensity, was one of the most shameful events in our history.

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