The history of health and safety in the workplace

The everchanging industry we work in has an interesting start. Just like everything else, the health and safety industry exist today because of the history of various work environments.

The industrial revolution

The 1760s and 1800s marks the very well-known industrial revolution. This was the start of society moving towards mass production and the factory system. The desperation of the time led to many people flocking towards the cities to find low paying work, with horrible hours and dangerous environments. Unfortunately, this would also lead to child labour, to many falling ill with occupational diseases like lung cancer, phossy jaw or even losing their lives.

The factory act

1802 marked the dawn of a revolutionary act, when Sir Robert Peel introduced “the Health and Morals of Apprentices act” aka the factory act.
This act was implemented in all textile mills and factories employing three (or more) apprentices and more than 20 employees.

The act was as follows:

Every factory or mill must;

  • Have sufficient windows and openings for ventilation
  • Be cleaned at least twice yearly with quicklime and water
  • Limit working hours for apprentices to no more than 12 hours a day (excluding time taken for breaks)
  • Stop night-time working by apprentices during the hours of 9pm and 6am
  • Provide suitable clothing and sleeping accommodation to every apprentice
  • Instruct apprentices in reading, writing, arithmetic and the principles of the Christian religion


This act is generally seen as the start of occupational health and safety regulations.

Factory inspections

In 1833 a movement called “the Ten Hours Movement” resulted in a new factory act. The act extended the limited 12 hours workday to all child labourers, woollen, and linen mills but the most significant result was the appointment of factory inspectors. Inspectors got access to all mills and the rights to question workers, with the main objective to prevent injury and overworking of child labourers. The inspectors were also entrusted with the task of ensuring that the Factory Act was enforced. The public opinion on worker welfare soon grew thanks to popular authors like Charles Dickens and this led to a growth in the employment of factory inspectors from a mere 4 to 35 in 1986. The 4 initial inspectors were able to influence legislation to machinery guarding and the reporting of injuries.

The “duty of care”

In 1835 the first employee sued his employer over work related injuries. Charles Priestly suffered a dislocated shoulder, broken thigh, among several other injuries. The injuries were a result of an overloaded wagon that cracked and overturned. The wagon being loaded to the employer, Thomas Fowler’s orders. Priestly spent £50 (a great amount in those days) recovering in an Inn but won £100 in the lawsuit. This established the idea that employers owe their employees “duty of care”, though this did not extend past the safety standards employers had for themselves.


Over the 36 years, several acts were introduced, which showed great improvement in the working environments for women and children. Mine work was now strictly reserved for men and using child labour to clean or maintain machinery were stopped. The hours of work for women and children saw a decrease to 56 hours per week.

The employer’s liability act

Around 1880, after the Priestly v. Fowler lawsuit, the employer’s liability act was established. This act allowed employees to seek compensation for injuries on duty. The act also stated that the family of an injured or diseased employee may receive compensation if the said injury or death was caused by faulty machinery, negligence from a fellow employee or employer. Eventually in 1987 The Workmen’s compensation act required only prove of injury as opposed to the proof of who caused the injury.

More acts and reforms

With several acts and reforms emerging, health and safety was flourishing. Everywhere the health and safety regulations of companies were improving. Employers were now required to make sure that machinery is safe and has the necessary safeguarding. The legal working age was steadily raised, and even more inspectors were appointed.

The health and safety at work act

In 1974 the Health and Safety at Work act was passed. This revolutionary legislation formed the base of the health and safety legislation we have today. What made this act different from the others was that the act encompassed all industries and employees. According to the act the employer as well as employee both have responsibilities to ensure the health, wellbeing, and safety of everyone in the workplace, even extending this to the public or customer who could also be affected. The act had incredible results in the changing of the workplace and as a result there was a reduction of 73% in workplace fatalities and 70% decrease in non-fatal injuries during the years 1974 – 2007.

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