The mark of a civilised society

A new discovery of 60 years of British Safety Council memorabilia illustrates how much we have achieved in the battle for Health and Safety and what we can learn for the future.

Next year we celebrate 60 years of the British Safety Council and this is a moment to savour with real pride.

I feel pretty lucky that this is happening under my watch, indebted as I am to a long list of people who have come before me, not least James Tye, who founded the organisation in 1957 and ran it for 40 years.

We have an exciting programme lined up about our past, present and future, but I want to share some thoughts on our history, how it relates to us today and what this means for health and safety.

Wordsworth’s statement that ‘the child is father to the man’ tells us that chronology is not a simple matter. Past can in a real sense frame our future. It can be a source of strength and guidance, but equally it can be a domineering and destructive force. The past is never really past and this is true as much for organisations as for individuals.

When we discovered 60 years of magazines, photographs and films, posters and correspondence stuffed into boxes and battered by the conditions of a working warehouse, it was like a window opening onto a vanished world. It is exciting that we can now bring our past back to life when we launch our digital archive website in January and, given the indelible link between the British Safety Council and James Tye, in the process it brings James back to life.

James was an incredibly energetic advocate for healthy and safe conditions of work and public life. Whether campaigning about seat belts – he wrote a report on the need for them in 1959 – product safety, culture change, wellness or workplace health and safety, he went at these challenges full tilt. He took no prisoners and had no time for what he saw as slow moving, consensual action. He was a man of his time; self-taught, iconoclastic, anti-establishment and though he advocated safety, he constantly took risks.

But our celebration is more than paying homage to one man’s crusade. Are we celebrating that we still exist, that in 2016 there is still the need to tackle health and safety? My view picks up on something Sir Bill Callaghan said when he was the chair of the Health and Safety Commission: health and safety is the mark of a civilised society. This is what we are celebrating. While there is risk there is the need for education, and the British Safety Council can provide it.

This brings me to the heart of our relationship with our past. Our 60 years of experience in making an impact equips us to save and improve lives long into the future. But if I can see all kinds of continuities with our past, this hasn’t always been the case. At some point, it was like if our earlier incarnation became an embarrassment to our present self – it is true that many did find James a bit hard to handle. Yet this turning away from who we were was also a kind of trap, a negative illustration of the William Wordsworth’s quote where the child of a tyrannical father retreats and ceases to thrive as an adult.

I can see this is changing. With help from our archive and the drive of colleagues and members, we can take the best bits and remember – with James – that the future of the British Safety Council rests on focusing on today’s risk. We need to be as innovative as we were in the past to stay on top of our gains and recognise the health implications of unhealthy working practices. We need to remember that the battles in the UK are the battles of the present and future for large parts of the globe.

So, let us celebrate 60 years because of the difference we have made and the difference we will continue to make in the future.

Michael Robinson
Chief Executive | British Safety Council