A Brief History of Health and Safety

This article was written by an Administrator working within the business and is their account of the development of UK health and safety legislation.

Working within the consultancy over the past few months I have gained an insight into the world of Health and Safety as it is today, and with this knowledge, I have decided to, admittedly briefly, research the origins of Health and Safety in this country and plot it’s development to modern times.

From the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 to the “Six Pack” regulations of the ’90s, here we go…

First Legislation

The “Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802” was the first Health and Safety legislation to be passed by parliament. Yet, it was extremely limited and was on the whole only applicable to apprentices in cotton and wool mills. There is also not a great deal of evidence that this legislation was ever enforced.

Health and Safety legislation was arguably first brought into effect with the Factories Act of 1833 which focused on protecting the child workforce of the UK’s textile factories which, at this time, employed a significant number of child labourers. This act attempted to prevent injury and overworking by giving considerable legislative power to the newly formed “HM Factory Inspectorate”.

This act set out a series of rules regarding the use of child workers, summarised as follows:


  • The employer must have an “age certificate” for all child workers.
  • No child workers employed under the age of nine.
  • Maximum nine-hour days for workers between the ages of nine and thirteen
  • Maximum twelve-hour days for workers between thirteen and eighteen
  • No children allowed to work at night


This legislation was developed and extended to protect almost all workers, with the inspector’s role no longer simply to observe but to advise employers and employees.

Improving the working conditions in mines


Public outcry over the terrible working conditions in the country’s mines prompted the 1840’s Royal Commission investigation into the working conditions in the mining industry. The findings of this two year investigation were published on it’s completion, bringing to light numerous issues such as the horrific accidents, lung disease prevalence, brutality and long hours. In 1842 the public response to these findings prompted the formation of the Mines Act 1842 and the formation of the Mines Inspectorate in 1843. Although the powers of the inspectorate were limited it undertook many prosecutions and ensured that investigation of more serious incidents and dangerous mines was conducted. It was also recommended that mines keep a record of accidents and injuries and that improving the safety of the mines and the workers’ housing should be a top priority.

The Mines Act 1842 was not as effective as many thought, mainly due to the limitations of what the legislation encompassed. There were no clauses limiting the hours workers could be subjected to and inspections were only of the workers, not the mine premises.  Despite these negatives this was the start of Health and Safety provision for mine workers and included the following legislative rules:


  • Minimum male underground working age of ten.
  • No female underground workers.

A further limitation of this legislation was a lack of provision for Quarry workers who were not all protected by legislation until the 1894 Quarries Act. Prior to this act the only quarries that factory inspectors had power over were those quarries using steam power.

Agricultural Legislation Coming Into Play


It was not until the mid 1950’s that the agricultural sector began to face regulation and legislation. In 1956 the Agriculture (Safety, Health and Welfare Provisions) Act 1956 was introduced in an attempt to protect both agricultural workers and children who come in contact with agricultural machinery. Included in this act were regulations regarding:


  • “Safety and Health of employees”
  • Lifting excessive weights
  • Provision of sanitary and washing facilities
  • Cleanliness of sanitary facilities
  • First Aid

Along with these specific regulation aims there were also “Measures for Avoiding Accidents to Children” including the “Power to prohibit children from riding on or driving vehicles, machinery or implements used in agriculture.”

There were also specific regulations regarding the investigation and notification of accidents and deaths. These were as follows:


  • “Notification of, and keeping of records as to, accidents and disease.”
  • “Inquest in case of death by accident.”

Supplementary provisions ranging from the appointment and powers of inspectors to the duties of employees were also included.

The effectiveness of this legislation in improving the standards of health and safety in the agricultural sector has often been praised and it has gone on the whole unchanged since its first incarnation in 1956, continuing to be enforced (now by the HSE) to this day.

Other acts have since been put into place to cover many other workplace sectors, for example the Nuclear Installations Act 1959 which established the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974


Arguably the most radical change to the world of Health and Safety since the Factories Act of 1833, this act laid the foundations of regulation and enforcement of Health and Safety in the workplace, attempting to improve Health, Safety and Welfare in all workplaces in the United Kingdom through one act.

The Act works by enabling the creation of specific regulatory requirements through “codes of practice” or by enacting Statutory Instruments such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulation 2002 (COSHH).

In terms of responsibilities placed upon employers and employees the act laid out a set of “General Responsibilities”. The Act made employers responsible for safety in their own business, getting to create their own rules and safe working practices. The Act also brought into existence The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) which was created when the act received royal assent and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was created a year later. The HSC was the body responsible for providing information and guidance regarding Health and Safety at Work as well as proposing new regulations. Shortly after the creation of the HSC the HSE was created as the enforcement arm of the HSC to assist local authorities in the enforcement of Health and Safety law. Since then the HSC has been dissolved and the HSE is now a single body for providing information, providing guidance, proposing new regulation and assisting in the enforcement of Health and Safety law.

Viewed as seminal this Act ensured that both employers and employees were consulted during its creation and responsibilities were placed on both the employer and the employees.  It was also the first time that a Health and Safety body was created to ensure codes of practice and guidance were readily available and up to date.

This Act is still in existence to this day with the HSE enforcing Health and Safety law whilst also providing information and guidance to both employees and employers. The act has allowed many more Health and Safety regulations to be created with ease, ensuring that Health and Safety regulations and legislation cover a plethora of different workplaces.

Despite often being mocked this Act made huge strides in reducing bureaucracy and creating sensible requirements by consulting with employers and employees. It has also set up a much faster and more effective system for passing new regulations, allowing the creation of many new regulations, such as the infamous “Six Pack” Regulations. Regulations created under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 include:


  • Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977
  • Dangerous Substances in Harbour Areas Regulations 1987
  • The Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989
  • Electricity at Work Regulations 1989
  • Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1991
  • Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (Soon to be 2013)
  • Control of Lead at Work Regulations 1997 (Now 2002)
  • The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997
  • Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998
  • Transport of Dangerous Goods (Safety Advisers) Regulations 1999
  • Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999
  • The Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations 2001
  • Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002
  • Chemicals (Hazard Information and Packaging for Supply) Regulations 2002 (Now 2009)
  • Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002
  • The Work at Height Regulations 2005
  • The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005
  • Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005
  • The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 (Now 2012)
  • The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007




When the detrimental health effects of Asbestos became clear the HSE made Asbestos awareness and safe working practices regarding asbestos a priority. The Asbestos (Licencing) Regulations 1983 were put into place, somewhat oddly, in 1984 after medical evidence and research on engineering controls had been verified with UN agencies. These regulations have since been amended by several pieces of legislation, yet in the original regulations work could not be conducted with asbestos insulation without having been granted a licence to do so by the HSE (with some exceptions).

Further to these regulations the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 were put in place to ensure that employers:


“ shall not carry out any work which exposes or is liable to expose any of his employees to asbestos unless either a) before commencing that work he has identified, by analysis or otherwise, the type of asbestos involved in the work; or b) he has assumed that the asbestos is crocidolite or amosite and for the purposes of the Regulations has treated it accordingly.”

Asbestos regulations have been updated often and the latest set of regulations have been in force since 2012.

Further Regulations


Since the creation of the HSC, HSE and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act regulations have been created and refreshed often. In 1980 the Control of Lead at Work Regulations 1980 were put in a place to ensure assessments are conducted when employees were in exposure to lead, as well as the provision of training, information, labelling and washing facilities. These regulations were also the first regulations to specifically require risk assessments to be carried out.

In 1980 the Notification of Accidents and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1980 were put into place followed by the Health and Safety (First Aid) regulations 1981.

Many, many more regulations and refinements have been put into place and a full list of these can be found on the HSE’s website.

The most notable of these later regulations were the 1992 “Six Pack” regulations which are well known for their simultaneous creation and similarities with European Union regulations. The regulations comprised of six separate regulations:


1.    Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999


2.    Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998


3.    Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992


4.    Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992


5.    Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992


6.    Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992




Many more regulations, laws and acts have been passed, and others will follow. The HSE is working to ensure the safety, health and wellbeing of all employees and the public with the same, on the whole, good intentions that Alfred Robens had when writing the Robens Report which later brought about the creation of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, the HSC and the HSE.

This article shows how the field of Health and Safety is constantly evolving to cover more and more aspects of the workplace and beyond. In this rapidly changing field LRB Consulting can be relied upon to ensure that all advice is given in accordance to the most recent acts and regulations. For further information on what LRB Consulting can do for you and your company visit www.LRBconsulting.co.uk.



  • http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1956/49/pdfs/ukpga_19560049_en.pdf
  • http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/education/factory-actdoc.pdf
  • http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/factmine/minesact.htm
  • http://www.hse.gov.uk/aboutus/timeline/
  • http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/take-care-a-history-of-health-and-safety-in-the-workplace-2275437.html?printService=print
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_and_safety_regulations_in_the_United_Kingdom
  • http://www.hse.gov.uk



One comment on “A Brief History of Health and Safety

  1. Andy Gibb on

    Thanks, very helpful. I had previously heard this relayed through a “morals>statistics>equipment>behaviour” frame as a progression and ever improving approach but had lost the full context. Very hard to legislate for behaviour of course so the current focus on behavioural impacts on safety is the next step in reducing harm.


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