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July 1974: the month modern UK health and safety was born

Fifty years ago this month, major changes in law affecting nearly all workplaces across the UK were about to take place. Changes that have fundamentally made the country one of the safest nations to work in anywhere in the world.

If you are old enough, cast your mind back to July 1974:

  • West Germany beat Netherlands 2-1 to win the FIFA World Cup

  • The island of Cyprus was in effect divided into two sections.

  • Jimmy Connors of the USA won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, a day after his fiancee, Chris Evert, won the ladies title.

  • US President Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal.

  • The Provisional IRA bombed the Tower of London, killing a librarian caught in the explosion.

Perhaps the biggest event to have an impact on the following half century and beyond, took place on the final day of that July, when Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II gave Royal Assent to the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974.

Health and Safety at Work Act 50 years with garish 1970s pattern

The Committee on Health and Safety at Work was appointed in May 1970 by Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity.

The catalyst for the establishment of the committee was the Aberfan disaster of 21 October 1966, when a coal board spoil heap collapsed onto a primary school killing 116 children and 28 adults.

The committee was required to review and make recommendations in relation to the safety and health of persons at work and that of the public in connection with activities on industrial, commercial or construction sites.

The committee was chaired by Lord Alfred Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board, who had previously led the investigation into the Aberfan disaster, and comprised six other members.

He spent a decade as chair of the National Coal Board before heading up the Committee on Health and Safety at Work.

The Committee reported in June 1972, the recommendations of the committee were substantially enacted in the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, which received Royal Assent on 31 July 1974.

In January 1973, the Health and Safety Commission was set up and consequently the Health and Safety Executive. The Act was fully enabled on 1 January 1975. Later, these two bodies merged into the current Health and Safety Executive.

The main parts of the Act still in use are (other sections are still in place too):


It’s impossible to calculate how many lives the Act, along with the many laws it has enabled, have saved over the half century, or how many improvements have been made to workplace health and safety as a result. The best estimate came in a review of the act in 2008 when Lord Grocett stated:

“Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73%: the number of non-fatal injuries fell by 70%. Between 1974 and 2007, the rate of injuries per 100,000 employees fell by a huge 76%, and Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union in 2003… The EU average was 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers; the figure in the UK was 1.1”

According to HSE figures for the year 2022-2023, this figure has now stabilised at 0.41 workers killed per 100,000.

This shows that the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 continues to help protect the workers of the United Kingdom. Long may that continue.

Sources: HSE, Wikipedia


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