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The revolutionary Robens report paved the way for the Health and Safety Act 50 years ago this month

July 2022 marks half a century since the Robens committee, led by Lord Alfred Robens, published its landmark report, Safety and Health at Work: report of the committee 1970-1972.

18 July 2022

July 2022 marks half a century since the Robens committee, led by Lord Alfred Robens, published its landmark report, Safety and Health at Work: report of the committee 1970-1972.

It outlined recommendations aimed at overhauling the nation’s ‘fragmented and overly prescriptive’ Occupational Health & Safety (OSH) regime.

Accidents and fatalities at work were unacceptably high in 1970 and the UK regulatory system at that time was failing those whom it aimed to protect.

When the Aberfan disaster came on October 21, 1966, killing 116 children and 28 adults after colliery waste slid down a mountain to engulf Pantglas school, in South Wales, many blamed Lord Robens.

The tribunal into the disaster concluded: “Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board” (Aberfan Tribunal, 1967) which Lord Robens was chairman of when the tragedy happened.

His immediate behaviour did not help. Instead of going direct to Aberfan, he kept an appointment to be installed as chancellor of Surrey University . He only went to Aberfan the following day – a grave error of judgment for which he was never forgiven.

Critics wanted Robens to resign

In his obituary in the Guardian, it was reported that Roben’s critics wanted his resignation, and when the Aberfan tribunal of inquiry reported in July 1967, the demands became more widespread. The tribunal report found the coal board culpable of neglect and, by definition, responsible for the Aberfan tragedy. Robens offered his resignation but it was refused.

The former Labour minister’s conduct at the time of the disaster and his ultimate appointment to the committee has understandably raised eyebrows over the years; however the committee’s work was in fact a success.

The Robens report claimed that “those who create the risks are best placed to manage it.”
At the time, this firmly placed the onus on employers and employees to work together towards providing a safe place of work and since then, a sense of shared knowledge and a collective sense of responsibility for a duty of care towards workers emerged.

The report, in turn, underpinned the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) (The British Academy, 2016). The new regime also extended OSH protections to a greater number of workers and, for the first time, the public who visit workplaces – so the report was indeed a catalyst for wide-reaching positive change in the workplace.

Royal Assent

The committee’s recommendations were implemented in the HSWA, which received royal assent in July 1974, two years after the Robens report was published.

This landmark legislation created two new bodies: an independent, tripartite Health and Safety Commission (HSC), and the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a regulator enforcing health and safety legislation in workplaces, except for those regulated by local authorities.

The HSWA also promoted the idea of health and safety as integral to good management, introducing codes of practice and general duties to reduce risks ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ (Almond et al, 2016).
Traditional heavy industries – coal and steel – played a major role in the British economy in the early 1970s, radically different to the UK’s current service-based, digital economy.

However, the HSWA and the Robens report philosophy that underpinned it, have brought about numerous improvements to Britain’s overall safety record from when it was implemented, up to the present day.
Now 50 years on, the same principle that all workers should be able to go home safe and well still lies at the heart of all of the work HSE does.

As for the next 50 years, with more pandemics and cyber wars predicted to happen, homeworking is likely to be even more prevalent and more legislation is likely to be brought in to focus on Artificial Intelligence, mental health and well-being and the Cyber environment as a whole.

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