• Robert Spicer

The importance of Health and Safety Law

In the early nineteenth century the industrial revolution caused a massive, rapid and uncontrolled increase in the number of workers moving from rural areas to be employed in factories. A number of contemporary reformers observed and recorded factory working conditions.

In 1815, for example, Robert Owen an early socialist, 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”.

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

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, in his book on the condition of the working classes in England, 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.”

The first factory legislation, which was passed in 1802, aimed to regulate the hours of work of apprentices in cotton mills and to set standards for lighting, heating and ventilation. These rules were not consistently enforced. In 1833 new legislation appointed inspectors to enforce the law.

During the nineteenth century, a series of Acts were passed which consolidated the law of health and safety (although it was not described as such), and its administration, in relation to factories and workshops.

Importance of Health and Safety Law

Health and safety law and practice, however imperfect and underfunded, clearly operates in practice to protect workers and to improve safety standards. If there were no health and safety law, could it seriously be argued that employers would voluntarily cut profits to improve safety standards?

During the Franco regime, advertisements for investments in Spain regularly appeared in the British press. These stated that one of the main advantages of investing in companies in a country with a fascist government was that there were minimal health and safety regulations and little legal employment protection.

Anyone who doubts the importance of health and safety law should attend a coroner’s inquest into a workplace death. The tragic reality of these proceedings, and the devastating effect of such incidents on the family of the deceased, illustrate the crucial significance of health and safety.

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