The HSWA: a radical act

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40 years after it came into force, the Health and Safety at Work Act remains an ideal framework for managing the likely risks posed by new ways of working and technology and new lifestyles, says Alex Botha, chief executive of the British Safety Council.

When something – or someone – has been around for 40 years, they can come to be seen as a bit familiar, cosy even. After all those years even the young rebel becomes the respectable adult; that once-shocking building is now defended in the name of heritage. This can be misleading as the familiar can still deliver a cutting edge.

The Health and Safety at Work Act is 40 years old this month and in many ways fits this description. It may be that we take a lot of it for granted and in fact do not fully understand it. Few appreciate its radical heart. Before 1974, health and safety law was very prescriptive and quite fragmentary – extremely rule-based for some sectors and pretty much the Wild West for others. The original thinking by Lord Robens proposed a model of risk management based on the concept of reasonable practicability. Finally, after lengthy political wrangling, it was this model of risk management that formed the basis for the health and safety system that covers all sectors of our economy.

This approach has been successful – we have seen an 80% plus reduction in the fatal accidents in our society – and in some respects controversial. In my view this is because such an approach to risk management calls for ownership and responsibility that demand practical, sensible solutions.

At its heart is the idea that the people who create risks must manage them, as they will be most knowledgeable about them and therefore should know more about how to control them. Importantly, and radically, the Act recognised the contribution workers make to it; we should remember that battles in the early 1970s were often around workforce involvement.

As we now broadly accept, the responsibility to manage risks cannot be shirked or given to someone else. It is a radical challenge to anyone who runs a business. It also, sometimes, gives cold-comfort to those who argue for the eradication of risk or call for certain events to never be repeated. The act demands that risks are managed, it does not say you can unburden yourself from this responsibility by banning or removing the risk.

Further, with its concept of reasonable practicability, the Act calls for risks to be reduced in a way that is proportionate and sensible. This means that in many cases spending huge amounts of money so that a one-in-a-million event doesn’t happen again is not really keeping with the demands of the principle of likelihood. Over the years we’ve seen this concept mis- and over-applied, which has often resulted in many of the silly ‘elf and safety’ myths that abound. So the Act gives us no easy answers, because the answers lie with us, or you, our members who grapple with these issues day in, day out. It calls for evidence, not rhetoric. It is the opposite of central planning; an approach many, who want to be told what to do, find frustrating.

The Act was and is radical: in terms of the employer-employee relationship, the expectation is that a wide range of people will properly carry out their responsibilities and in terms of flexibility, it is expected to adapt to control any new risk. Countless reviews over the 40 years rarely question its principles. It has been admired and adopted by other countries and provided the model for many other regulators.

As we look forward to new ways of working and technology, new lifestyles and new risks - with health risks, wellbeing and lifestyle issues impacts on work and productivity moving up the agenda- we need a legal framework that can accommodate these developments. I think we have one. Happy birthday Health and Safety at Work Act!

Follow Alex on Twitter: @Alexbotha1



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