Health and safety

Asbestos demonstration, 1970s


By Dave Lyddon, Centre for Industrial Relations, Keele University

The years 1945-95 can be divided into three distinct time-periods:

- 1945-64: when there was a slow and piecemeal extension of legislation to groups beyond the coverage of the Factories Act and mining laws.
- 1964-79: a period when governments (both Labour and Conservative) adopted a new approach, leading to protection based on employee status rather than where you worked. The 1972 Robens Report led directly to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974,
while the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations 1977 helped to spark a culture change at workplace level.
- 1980-95: the Conservative government's 'deregulation' agenda coincided with Europe becoming the main source of new legislation, with 'risk assessment' as the key technique for managing health and safety in the workplace.


In 1945, health and safety laws applied only to those working within mines and quarries and in factories (whose standards, along with some specific 'regulations', encompassed docks, shipyards, power stations, building and civil engineering). The standards in factories were limited. For example, the requirement for a minimum temperature and 'sufficient and suitable' lighting only dated from 1937. Safety in factories concentrated on the fencing, or guarding, of machines; while this was essential, unguarded machinery was only responsible for a minority of injuries and deaths at work.

In 1958, Dr Barnett Stross, a campaigning Labour MP, estimated that about 2 million British workers suffered some respiratory disability through inhaling dust in their employment. While the health hazards of the 'dangerous trades' of the late nineteenth century were now under some control, there was a wide and growing range of other occupational hazards.


Before the Second World War there had been regular private members' Bills in Parliament on the subject of regulating offices. In 1946, following a wartime promise, the Gowers Committee on Health, Welfare and Safety in Non-Industrial Employment was set up, reporting in 1949. This is largely forgotten now, but it recommended that the provisions of the Factories Act - on matters such as space, ventilation, temperature, lighting, washing and sanitary facilities - be adapted for employment in shops and offices, while underground rooms in both should be regulated.

Less extensive standards were recommended for hotels and restaurants (with a maximum temperature in kitchens and bakehouses), and these standards should be extended to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other public and private institutions. Similar reforms should apply to theatres in new buildings, and whatever was practicable attempted in existing theatres.

More than 500,000 British Railways employees at that point were not covered by the Factories Act; Gowers recommended that railway running sheds be brought within it, along with providing hot water for washing purposes there, and that other railway employees should have the standards recommended for offices and other employment. Agriculture was unsuited to regulation by the Factories Act but basic legislation was required for washing and sanitary facilities, the guarding of dangerous machines, and for protective clothing when using fertilisers, sprays and chemicals.

Apart from the Shops Act 1950, which limited working hours for under-18-year-olds, progress in implementing the Gowers Committee's findings was snail-like, governments usually pleading a shortage of parliamentary time. Through a mixture of private members' Bills and lobbying by the Trades Union Congress, various enabling Acts (which gave Ministers the power to issue regulations) were passed: for agriculture in 1952 and 1956; and offices in 1960. The last forced the Conservative government's hand and it passed the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963.

This covered one million premises, encompassing some 4 million office workers, 3 million shop workers and 400,000 in railway premises; it included wholesalers and warehouses. It excluded: hotels, restaurants, pubs and entertainment; transport operations; postal and telephone services; educational establishments and hospitals. Railway running sheds had been included in the 1959 Factories Act.

The 1963 Offices Act was enforced mainly by local authority inspectors, who retained responsibility for these premises under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.


Work was a dangerous activity in many industries. In the year 1947, for example, the following numbers died from 'accidents' at work: 618 in coal mines; 42 in quarries; 839 in premises covered by the Factories Act; 226 in railway employment (annual average for 1946-50); no figures were collected for other occupations.

Coalmining disasters with multiple casualties, usually due to underground explosions or fires, were still common, with the biggest post-war losses of life being 104 at Whitehaven (now Cumbria) in 1947; 81 at Easington (Durham) in 1951; 80 at Cresswell (Derbyshire) in 1950; 47 at Auchengeich (Lanarkshire) in 1959; and 45 at Six Bells (Monmouthshire) in 1960.


One general problem facing all workplaces was the risk of fire. Some of the worst cases led to law and practice being tightened up. For example, the fire at Eastwood Mills, Keighley, Yorkshire, in 1956 when eight people died, led to new provisions in the 1959 Factories Act. The fire at the William Henderson department store (Liverpool) in 1960 - when ten were trapped and another fell to his death - reputedly prompted some of the fire sections in the 1963 Offices Act.

After the Smithfield meat market (London) fire, which raged for several days in 1958 and in which two fire-fighters died, the fire service introduced precautions for fire-fighters in situations of thick smoke as well as a means of checking on fire-fighters using breathing apparatus.

The worst peacetime fire services disaster - when 14 fire fighters and 5 salvage workers were killed - took place at a bonded (whisky) warehouse in Glasgow in 1960. Disgracefully, the very serious fire in a nuclear reactor at Windscale (now Sellafield, Cumbria) in 1957, which released plumes of radioactive contamination, was the subject of an official cover-up.


While manual workers were exposed to a variety of dangerous substances in their work, and were protected against some of them, a general condition suffered across a range of occupations was dermatitis - an inflammation of the skin caused by irritants, particularly chemicals. During the 1950s there were about 20,000 cases a year of dermatitis (of which some 4,000 were in mining), resulting in an average of four weeks off work per case.

Dermatitis was responsible for more than half the total number of benefit claims for a 'prescribed' industrial disease under the Industrial Injuries Act. But less than 10% of cases in factories were notified - as it was not a 'notifiable' disease under the Factories Act and any notification by the employer was voluntary - thus severely restricting the Factory Inspectorate's ability to investigate the causes.

Not until 1959 was there a general requirement under the Factories Act to provide a supply of clean hot running water for washing purposes - an important factor in containing dermatitis.


Dust disease in coalmining was 'the most significant of Britain's occupational health tragedies' and is detailed in McIvor and Johnston's book, Miners' Lung. From 1918, silicosis was a 'prescribed' industrial disease (and sufferers eligible for benefit) but relatively few incapacitated miners fitted the exact criteria.

Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis (CWP), another occupational lung disease, was eventually recognised as a prescribed industrial disease in 1943. Miners with this had to leave the industry but were allowed back from 1948, when the more seriously incapacitated could work in 'approved dust conditions' on the surface, while those in the early stages could work in 'approved dust conditions' underground.

CWP was responsible for 700-800 deaths per year in the late 1940s, peaking at over 1,600 per year from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. Between 1930 and 1990, the total recorded deaths from CWP were more than 40,000; this is an underestimate as many early cases were misdiagnosed. Significantly, three to four times that number of miners suffered from 'progressive massive fibrosis', the most disabling stage of CWP.

Under union pressure, a government scheme in 1974 provided lump sum compensation for certified pneumoconiotics. But it was not until 1993 (when most of the industry had been shut) that chronic bronchitis and emphysema became prescribed industrial diseases for coalminers who had worked 20 years underground (two years as a screen worker on the surface was equivalent to one underground). By the 2004 deadline to register for compensation under the 1998 bronchitis and emphysema litigation against British Coal, some 570,000 claims (more than half by families of deceased miners) had been made!

The miners' unions had campaigned for decades for recognition of the industry's occupational lung diseases and had challenged orthodox medical knowledge in the process. They had also argued for improved dust-suppression techniques and legislation to back these up. With increasing mechanisation and use of power-tools in coal mines, the dust problem worsened in the post-war years. The Coal Mines (Respirable Dust) Regulations 1975 imposed a standard but problems of measurement made it almost unenforceable.


In reaction to the dangerous and unhealthy nature of their industry, the Foundry Workers' union pursued an active health and safety policy from the 1940s. The union brought in health and safety committees in districts, and health and safety officers in branches. Some basic statutory regulations were passed in 1950; then a private member's Bill was withdrawn when the government committed itself to introducing regulations specific to iron and steel foundries in 1953. (Broader regulations were introduced for non-ferrous foundries in 1962.) There were problems with some of the protective equipment required, such as goggles, but, along with the drop in new cases of pneumoconiosis, it was one of the few examples in the 1950s of solid progress in health and safety for manual workers.


This period was the high point of trade-union influence in Britain and witnessed, eventually, a major extension of health and safety legislation, albeit within the continuing tradition of industrial 'self-regulation'.


The most heart-rending tragedy of the whole period was at Aberfan (south Wales) on 21 October 1966, when a waste tip from Merthyr Vale colliery slid down a mountainside. Along with other properties a junior school was engulfed: 144 died in total, including 116 children between 7 and 10 years old.
Surviving residents demanded that the remaining tips that overlooked the village be removed. The Labour government and National Coal Board (which had not followed its own rules on the management of waste tips in the Aberfan case) were not prepared to pay all the cost, so the Disaster Fund very reluctantly paid 150,000 towards it. That same sum was eventually repaid, by the newly elected Labour government in 1997 - but not the 1,500,000 it would have been worth by then!


In 1968, 24 people, working for two companies that were located in a former Glasgow whisky store with iron bars on the windows, perished in a fire. The next year 11 lives were claimed in a hotel fire in Saffron Walden. The latter was one of the tragedies leading to the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which required fire certificates for a wide range of premises; the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act amended this to include places of work.

An explosion at Dudgeons Wharf, on the Isle of Dogs in east London, also in 1969, killed one demolition worker and five firefighters, as there was no information on what an empty oil storage tank had contained. The Hazchem (hazardous chemicals) Code was introduced in 1975, on a voluntary basis. Its identification scheme enabled emergency services to know how to proceed when faced with buildings, vehicles or storage areas containing hazardous chemicals; it was used that year in regulations for the rear marking of vehicles.

The explosion at the Nypro (UK) chemical plant at Flixborough, near Scunthorpe, in 1974 left 28 dead and 36 seriously injured. In the previous six years there had been 25 major fires at chemical and petroleum plants in Britain. It was an 'accident' waiting to happen. It led to the Fire Certificates (Special Premises) Regulations 1976 where the Health and Safety Executive took responsibility for fire safety.

In a fire at Woolworths, Manchester, in 1979, nine shoppers and one employee died, mainly from toxic fumes given off by polyurethane-filled furniture. This tragedy was one factor in the campaign that led to 1988 legislation setting levels of fire resistance for upholstered furniture.


An annual average of 43 people (about one-third of work-related fatalities in agriculture) was killed from 1957 to 1967 as a result of tractors overturning. Agricultural tractor cab regulations were introduced in 1967, requiring all new tractors from 1970 to be fitted with safety cabs; existing tractors had until 1977 to comply. The new cabs amplified the noise of the engine in the cab so development work was required to bring the noise level down.

Power presses (for shaping metal) have always been considered particularly dangerous, with amputation injuries of fingers the main hazard. A joint industry committee, set up in 1945, had recommended statutory provision for inspection and maintenance. In 1957 this committee drew up draft regulations but no law was passed for several more years.

As well as periodic external checks, the Power Press Regulations 1965 required a trained person to carry out tests and inspections after every tool change and during the first four hours of every shift. There were 441 reported injuries on power presses in 1965; with the regulations this fell to 230 in 1967 and 48 in 1979.


From the mid-1950s the Trades Union Congress (TUC) worked with employers' organisations on the Industrial Safety Sub-Committee of the National Joint Advisory Council to the Ministry of Labour. This collaboration included the publication of a pamphlet in 1956, Industrial Accident Prevention, advocating, among other things, joint safety committees. In 1962, a TUC General Council member argued that (as with other aspects of terms and conditions of employment) the TUC preferred voluntary development of safety committees over compulsion but, if voluntary action failed, this would be reconsidered.

As industrial injury figures were rising at the time, a number of unions (particularly the Foundry Workers) demanded compulsory safety committees and won the day at the 1964 TUC. The successful resolution also requested 'safety delegates'. This shift in TUC policy led in 1966 to the Minister of Labour giving employers notice that, if there was not sufficient growth in the number of voluntary committees, compulsion would follow.


Separately, the Labour government in 1967 was considering a revision of the 1961 Factories Act and consulted on proposals to integrate this with the 1963 Offices Act. There was union pressure to expand the industries covered (as several million workers were still unprotected). Ministry of Labour civil servants started to argue that, rather than the traditional approach based on premises where people worked, protection should be based on employee status - this approach would make it more difficult to justify exclusions.

In March 1970 the Employed Persons (Health and Safety) Bill - to establish an employment medical advisory service and to give recognised trade unions the right to appoint safety representatives and to establish joint safety committees (but only in premises covered by the Factories Act) - was given its second reading.

At the same time the Labour Secretary of State, Barbara Castle, announced the formation of an inquiry into health and safety provision. Despite misgivings, the Conservative spokesman agreed not to oppose the Bill (which fell with Labour's defeat at the general election), thus committing the Tories (at that point) to the principle of union safety reps.


The Robens Committee on Safety and Health at Work reported in 1972. Its view, depressingly, was that 'apathy' was the main cause of accidents at work. Yet it made it clear that management had the main responsibility for health and safety, though it argued that there was an 'identity of interest' between managers and workers on health and safety, which therefore was not a matter for bargaining.

The Robens philosophy was summed up in the view that there were 'severe practical limits on the extent to which progressively better standards of safety and health at work can be brought about through negative regulation [i.e. laws] by external agencies [i.e. inspectors]. We need a more effectively self-regulating system.'

Most of the Robens Report's recommendations were shaped by civil servants in the Department of Employment and formed the basis of a Conservative government Bill. This was presented to Parliament on 24 January 1974, but fell when the government called a general election for 28 February during the miners' strike. The Labour Party formed a minority government and the Labour Bill on health and safety, presented on 21 March, was very close to the previous government's (which caused some criticism at the time).

The 1974 Act imposed many general duties on employers. Most were qualified by 'so far as is reasonably practicable', a term that had been tested in the courts and involved the balance between risk and cost. (If the risk is high and the cost low, then it is reasonably practicable to do something; if the cost is high and the risk low, then it is not.) Interestingly, this undermines Robens's assumption that safety is not a matter for bargaining.

Under the 1974 Act, policy is made by the Health and Safety Commission (HSC, now restyled the HSE Board), a 'tripartite' body - with employers, unions and other interests represented. This includes drafting regulations (in the form of 'statutory instruments'), after extensive consultation, for the appropriate Minister to lay before Parliament. These become operative (on the date stated in the regulations), without a debate or vote, unless annulled by a resolution of either of the Houses of Parliament. According to one study, this has meant that 'the unions have voluntarily accorded the employers a veto over health and safety regulations'.

As the 1974 Act, in the main, only laid down general principles, existing specific standards and procedures were still based on other statutes (such as the Factories Act) and regulations (such as the Abrasive Wheels Regulations 1970). These would remain on the statute book until amended or superseded by more general standards, such as those in the later Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
Those workplaces never previously covered, such as in health and education, 'borrowed' appropriate standards until new general or specific regulations were made.


The most important difference between the Labour and the Conservative health and safety Bills in 1974 was over safety reps and safety committees.
The Conservative Bill, following the Robens Report, gave every employer a duty 'to consult with his employees or their representatives' but no specific arrangements were laid down. The Labour Bill stated that regulations would provide for the appointment of union-only safety reps and that safety committees could be established. This was amended in the House of Lords, which added a new sub-clause - 'the election by employees of safety representatives'; the government's attempt to remove this in the House of Commons was defeated.

When Labour formed a majority government after the October 1974 election, the Act's sub-section on employee reps was removed by the Employment Protection Act 1975, which gave further rights to recognised trade unions. Despite the retreat of union power after 1979, there was no attempt by Conservative governments to alter this.

The SRSC Regulations were agreed in 1977, and become operative in 1978 (the International Monetary Fund, in 1976, had pressured the Labour government to drop the draft regulations but the HSC insisted on them). The regulations gave very important rights to safety reps (described as functions), especially the right to inspect the workplace; safety committees only had the right to exist, given certain pre-conditions.

The unions had to quickly develop a training programme for all the potential new reps. A course had been designed for Foundry Workers' officials to train their shop stewards in health and safety law and practice, and this formed the genesis of the TUC safety courses. Materials had to be created; tutors (not safety professionals) had to be found and briefed for courses that were independent of employers' ideology and information (which dominated safety training at that time).
In the peak year of 1978-79, with the SRSC Regulations now on the statute book, some 30,000 reps went on the TUC 10-day day-release courses (out of 80,000 during 1974-82). These, and individual unions' own programmes, have continued ever since. This mass provision of training, more than anything, was probably responsible for the distinct culture shift on health and safety, within many workplaces, that occurred from the late 1970s.
(In 1993 the Conservative government complied with the European Framework Directive (see later) by making automatically unfair the dismissal of any safety rep for carrying out his/her functions.)


Before the 1974 Act, prosecution was the only sanction for factory inspectors, who practised what has been called a strategy of 'negotiated compliance' with employers. The inspectors relied on persuasion to secure compliance and threatened prosecution much more than they used it.

When they did prosecute (and, outside Scotland, inspectors took cases themselves in magistrates courts), they faced serious constraints in court. Where the defendant pleaded not guilty, defence lawyers could bamboozle inspectors who were less familiar with court procedure. While inspectors often only took employers to court after a history of previous offending, only the offence in question could be tried.
More importantly, any previous convictions were admissible in court only if the defendant pleaded, or was found, guilty. The low level of the maximum fine available in magistrates courts (2,000 before 1992), along with the much lower fines usually imposed, made a mockery of the seriousness of the offence. What price a worker's health or life?

From 1992 there were different maximum fines in magistrates courts depending on which law was contravened and this affected the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors' prosecution strategy. It may have been easier for an employer to defend a charge under section 2 (1) of the 1974 Act - 'It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees' - but this attracted a much higher maximum fine (20,000) than breaking a regulation (5,000) which, being more specific, may have been harder for an employer to defend.

'Crown immunity' applied for certain public organisations, which could not therefore be prosecuted - though the National Health Service lost this immunity in 1988.

The 1974 Act significantly expanded HSE and local authority inspectors' available sanctions by allowing them to issue prohibition notices (where a dangerous activity was stopped until it was made safe) and improvement notices (with a set time period to comply) to employers, but this led to a drop in prosecutions.

In 1973, there had been 2,091 prosecutions by the inspectorates that were to join together to form the HSE, compared to a total of 1,632 (including those by local authority inspectors) in 1979. In place of the drop in prosecutions were 13,517 improvement notices and 3,674 prohibition notices handed out by all inspectors in 1979.


Continuous Conservative government marked this period, which coincided with industrial restructuring, high levels of unemployment and falling trade-union membership. The coverage of recognised unions, and therefore safety reps, declined significantly.


The Single European Act 1986, creating a single market from 1992, required 'particular attention' to be paid to workers' health and safety. Qualified majority voting, rather than unanimity, was used for health and safety objectives, incensing the British Conservative government, which would be unable to exercise a veto on any such measure.

The 'Framework Directive' was adopted in 1989, to be put into domestic legislation by the end of 1992. Along with this were several individual directives; in the UK they were sometimes referred to as the 'six-pack'. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 (later amended) put into effect the framework directive, thus generalising the technique of 'risk assessment' as the main employer technique for health and safety.


The 1986 Sex Discrimination Act removed many protections on women's employment, particularly the restrictions on women's working hours in factories. The same was to happen to working hours for young people (16-18 years old) in factories and shops in 1989. One result was the lengthening of shifts in certain industries. This effectively left only certain road transport workers covered by any restrictions on their working hours (for reasons of public safety).

The Conservative government, which was the only European Union member-state to vote against the Working Time Directive, argued that it was not a health and safety, but an employment, measure; the government's challenge was lost at the European Court of Justice. (Labour introduced the Working Time Regulations in 1998, but allowed opt-outs.)

After a failed attempt in 1986 to remove all restrictions on Sunday trading (when the government, with a large majority, unusually lost the vote in a second reading - of the Shops Bill), the Conservatives pushed through the Sunday Trading Act 1994, which allowed 6-hour opening on Sundays in England and Wales. There were some protections for existing shop-workers but not for new staff.

The same government indicated that there would be a 'bonfire of controls' and there were serious fears of abolition of important health and safety regulations but these did not materialize in what became the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994.


Several disasters in quick succession highlighted the importance of safety measures for protecting the public as well as workers: the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry at Zeebrugge (March 1987) with 193 dead, mostly through hypothermia; the Kings Cross (London) underground station fire (November 1987) with 31 killed; Clapham Junction (London) rail crash (December 1988) with 35 dead; and the sinking of the Marchioness on the River Thames (August 1989) with 51 drowned.

The biggest loss of workers' lives was on the Piper Alpha oil production platform, situated 110 miles north-east of Aberdeen in the North Sea. On 6 July 1988 a series of explosions turned it into an inferno, with 165 of the 226 persons on board perishing, along with two crewmen from an emergency stand-by boat.
The Health and Safety at Work Act had been extended to offshore installations in 1977 but, in response to the high level of fatalities among offshore divers, the Burgoyne Committee had been set up, reporting in 1980. Its two trade union members, in a minority report, argued for the transfer of regulatory authority from the Department of Energy to the HSE to counter 'the conflicting pressure emanating from the exigencies of production and the requirements of safety'. This did not happen until after the (1990) Cullen Report on Piper Alpha.

The SRSC regulations had not been introduced offshore, due to pressure from the oil industry employers. Draft regulations, weaker than onshore arrangements, were drawn up in 1987. Within 12 months of the Piper Alpha disaster they had been laid before Parliament, under the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971 and not under the Health and Safety at Work Act. In the situation of limited trade-union recognition by the oil employers, the regulations allowed the election of safety reps from the workforce as a whole - by secret ballot conducted by installation managers. In 1995 the HSE recommended no change in these regulations.

The scale of dust disease in coalmining was generally hidden from public view, but the everyday hazards of asbestos - a naturally occurring mineral, widely used for fire resistance and insulation - belatedly, and slowly, seeped into public consciousness.
Along with the prescribing of asbestosis (an occupational lung disease), asbestos had been recognised as a serious enough hazard to warrant the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931, introduced to contain dust levels in the manufacture of asbestos products. But only two prosecutions ever took place in nearly 40 years.

An inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman) in 1976 criticised the Factory Inspectorate for not carrying out its responsibilities at Acre Mill, Hebden Bridge (near Halifax) before Cape Asbestos closed it in 1970. The Ombudsman accepted that there was a general belief that the regulations were adequate and that, before 1964, there had been an 'imperfect' understanding of the dangers of asbestos. But, as the cases of asbestosis (which was not a notifiable disease) mounted, there was a failure to prosecute in the late 1960s, despite several visits and even after a specific threat to prosecute had not led the company to make improvements.

Evidence had emerged in the mid-1950s about the prevalence of lung cancer among asbestos workers generally; and in 1960 the link with mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer, whose only known occupational cause is exposure to asbestos, was first made public. Mesothelioma sufferers could have had minimal exposure to asbestos fibres and the disease might not manifest itself for decades (including, eventually, in people who had never even worked with asbestos products - e.g. relatives who washed workers' overalls); mesothelioma became a prescribed disease in 1966.

The 1931 regulations had only covered workers manufacturing, rather than using, asbestos products. The Asbestos Regulations 1969 covered all processes that used asbestos and introduced a measurable exposure limit. These regulations applied particularly to workers in construction, shipyards and power stations, but especially to thermal insulation workers (known as laggers), some of whom had been on strike in Glasgow in the mid-1960s over their exposure to asbestos.

A strike is very important in drawing attention to, and can be successful in resolving, an immediate occupational health problem - but its necessarily temporary nature is no substitute for the eventual implementation and continuous enforcement of legal regulations to control a particular hazard, especially one as pervasive as asbestos. From the 1970s a spate of action groups emerged to publicise the dangers of asbestos; increasingly these are concerned with civil compensation for sufferers and their families.

The asbestos industry imposed a voluntary ban on the importation of blue and then brown asbestos, as well as fuelling the myth that white asbestos (which had always been by far the main type used in Britain) was much safer. (Statutory bans on the use of blue and brown asbestos took place in 1985 and white asbestos in 1999.) There has been a gradual tightening up on all working with asbestos, especially its removal (which will continue to be a major activity). The various Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations, since 1987, impose extra legal duties.

Tragically, a 1996 report found that face masks, with a claimed 'protection factor' (the ratio of dust outside to inside the mask) of 2,000 only had one of 40. Workers removing asbestos from a power station found the mineral's microscopic fibres penetrating their 'top of the range' masks!

From 153 recorded deaths from mesothelioma in 1968, the annual figure rose inexorably to 1,317 in 1995 (and to 2,249 in 2008). The number of asbestos-related lung cancer deaths compared to those from mesothelioma was in the ratio of 2 to 1 before the 1990s but has gradually fallen. With around 250 asbestosis deaths in 1995, the total asbestos-related deaths in 1995 was several thousand and will remain at that high level for decades to come.


Many hazards prominent in 1995 were not particularly new but were more visible. Some were more specific to manual workers, such as occupational deafness (noise-induced hearing loss), a prescribed industrial disease since 1975. This was sometimes accompanied by vibration disease, a twentieth-century affliction. Whole-body vibration is caused, for example, by driving heavy or industrial vehicles but also affects the crew of ships, airplanes and helicopters; hand-arm vibration, from hand-held pneumatic or power tools and chain saws, for example, is manifested most in vibration white finger (prescribed since 1985).

Construction workers have always had more fatalities and injuries from falls from a height than other occupations but the requirement to be supplied with, and wear, a hard hat, only came with the Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989.

Occupational asthma (prescribed from 1982) afflicts both manual and white-collar workers, as does repetitive strain injury (RSI), a term encompassing many musculoskeletal conditions, such as tenosynovitis. This is caused by repetitive physical activity, particularly with repeated and frequent movements of the hand or wrist. It is found in some routine assembly jobs (and disassembly such as gutting chickens or turkeys on a production line) as well as in the constant use of a keyboard or computer mouse.
Musculoskeletal disorders, caused by repetitive work and uncomfortable working posture, are exacerbated by long shifts, too few work breaks and, in office situations, poor seating. Back pain is suffered by those in sedentary occupations as well as those involved in lifting operations - such as construction workers, and health and care workers who have to lift people.

'Sick building syndrome' came to public attention in the 1980s in the development of sealed airtight (and air-conditioned) buildings with various toxic materials and airborne agents along with insufficient fresh air circulation. Occupants of these buildings suffered a general malaise, particularly irritation of nose, throat and eyes, lethargy and headaches. So the lack of ventilation and natural light, features of the 'dark Satanic Mills' of the industrial revolution, have come back, but now in an environment of fluorescent lighting, computer equipment and photocopiers.

Finally, by 1995, stress - defined, according to the HSE, as where 'work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person's capacity and capability to cope' - was rapidly becoming a modern epidemic, affecting workers in a whole range of occupations. It can be caused by overwork, bullying, job insecurity and individualised performance targets, to name but a few.


Deaths from injuries at work fell during the 1945-95 period as many dangerous jobs either disappeared or were greatly reduced in number; some serious improvements in safety practices have also cut fatalities. But the figures presented to the public by the HSE in the mid-1990s were seriously flawed. They excluded deaths of homeworkers, those in merchant shipping, offshore installations, civil aviation and, most seriously, road traffic fatalities incurred in the course of people's work.
Any employee dying within a year of a work injury was recorded as an occupational fatality but this did not apply to those self-employed injured at work or members of the public who were injured in a workplace. Thus, according to Tombs, we simply do not know how many die from occupational injuries each year.

Yet, as we have seen in this narrative, by 1995 the scale of death from occupational disease probably dwarfed that from injury. We have only touched on the biggest single killers - coal dust and asbestos - but there are hundreds of others that have blighted the lives of millions of workers.


No book systematically covers 1945-95 but the first five listed here provide useful accounts for the periods up to their date of publication; between them they cover the time-span of this contextual narrative. Most will be out of print but can be found in libraries or on websites for second-hand books. Some unions will have copies.

John L. Williams, Accidents and Ill-Health at Work (Staples Press: 1960)

Patrick Kinnersly, The Hazards of Work: How to Fight Them (Pluto Press: 1973)

Alan J. P. Dalton, Health and Safety at Work for Managers and Supervisors (Cassell: 1982).

Sandra Dawson and others, Safety at Work: The Limits of Self-Regulation (Cambridge University Press: 1988).

A. J. P. Dalton, Safety, Health and Environmental Hazards at the Workplace (Cassell: 1997).

Also see the following for specific information:

Alan J. P. Dalton, Asbestos Killer Dust (British Society for Social Responsibility in Science: 1979).

Steve Tombs, 'Death and Work in Britain', Sociological Review (1999), pp. 345-367.

Iain McLean and Martin Johnes, Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press: 2000).

Ronald Johnston and Arthur McIvor, Lethal Work: A History of the Asbestos Tragedy in Scotland (Tuckwell Press: 2000).

Arthur McIvor and Ronald Johnston, Miners' Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining (Ashgate: 2007).