Former senior HSE officials have published three papers that look back at the genesis of the Robens report, what happened to its recommendations and the way in which health and safety outcomes have changed, to mark 50 years since its publication.
The research reveals that workplace fatalities, serious injuries and accidents have reduced significantly. Fatalities have fallen by 88% since 1974, and non-fatal accidents have been reduced by 72% since 1986/87.These represent an average annual reduction of 4.8% and 4.0% respectively.
Today (19 July 2022) marks the 50th anniversary of the parliamentary tabling and debate of the Robens Report which revolutionised GB’s approach to workplace health and safety.
Conceived under a Labour administration, introduced by a Conservative one and finally implemented by an incoming Labour Government in 1974, the report resulted in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, introduced to replace a mass of old Acts and Regulations.
'The Robens report came at a time of crisis,' said David Ashton, a former director at the HSE. 'Safety standards were dropping,' he explains. 'There was no confidence in the old arrangements which were based on occasional inspections with years of apathy in between. The previous philosophy implied that ensuring health and safety standards were being observed was a government problem and responsibility. Robens realised that this was the wrong approach and beginning to do more harm than good.'
His colleague David Snowball continued: 'Much of that reduction reflects wider changes in the economy over the last 50 years – particularly the contraction or demise of heavy industries like mining and shipbuilding. The data suggests that 60% of the reduction can be attributed to such changes. The remaining 40% reflects genuine improvements in remaining sectors – including construction. New technologies have introduced new risks over the 50 years that have also been successfully managed under the approach Robens established.'
The data on ill health are less clear for a number of reasons, including the long latency of some industrial diseases and the difficulties in attributing some diseases and illnesses to occupation rather than to other factors. Data on some ill health conditions was not collected 50 years ago (eg work-related stress and musculoskeletal disorders). In comparison with the data on fatalities and injuries, the data shows lower average and annual reductions.
'Effective ways of ensuring the proper control of major hazards have been created on the basis of Robens’ recommendations. Safety of the public arising from work activities – not even considered before Robens – has improved significantly,' said David Eves.
Kevin Myers added: 'The system proposed by Robens has endured over the past half century which is, in itself, quite remarkable – not least given the dramatically changed industrial and economic landscape and the numerous political challenges it has been subjected to over the years.'
On the importance of the central recommendation of the Robens Report today – those who create the risks are best paced to manage it – IOSH's head of health and safety, Ruth Wilkinson, said: 'This paved the way for a vital risk-based approach that is flexible and proportionate, and one which was inclusive of all key stakeholders, including employers and employees.
'At the time of the Robens Report, the Industrial Safety Officers’ Section (ISOS), which would later become IOSH, we had around 2,000 members. We now have more than 48,000 members across 132 countries. This reflects well the expansion of scope and expertise our profession has experienced in the past half century.
'The requirement for, and the demand for, each OSH professional to provide competent assistance covering a range of technical OSH matters through to OSH management systems to occupational health matters such as psychosocial risks and MSDs, is perennial and ever-increasing,' she notes. 'This demonstrates the importance of OSH capacity and the value of the OSH profession in providing competent assistance to employers.
'We have just seen a landmark decision in June 2022 recognising a safe and healthy work environment as a fundamental principle and right at work at the ILO's International Labour Conference. The implementation of this right, the changing world of work in a working environment that is now global with global supply chains, with emerging and future technologies, and the role of OSH within social sustainability, can only continue to strengthen the demand for OSH capacity, good OSH principles and practice, and for recognising OSH as strategic within business practices,' Ruth added.
The former HSE senior executives have published three papers:
- Why Robens? sets out the genesis of the Robens report – and what it said. It is inevitable that, with the passage of time since the report was published, some recollections of the report may have become blurred. Indeed many people currently working within the “system” may be unaware of its genesis.
- Unravelling the Maze seeks to answer an obvious question that emerges from reading Why Robens? as to whether and how the recommendations in the Robens report were implemented – and, if not, why?
- A third paper, What difference did Robens make? Analysing health and safety data across the decades seeks to look at the changes in health and safety outcomes over the last 50 years to inform any discussions about the impact of the report.
'Such anniversaries provide opportunities for reflection on developments and lessons learnt – particularly in consideration of contemporary issues and challenges,' added Kevin. 'It is likely that the 50th anniversaries of the Act and HSE in 2024/25 will prompt such interest and scrutiny. However, we believe that it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what the Robens Report said; and to celebrate the extraordinary and enduring impact it still has on how we look after people in their working lives or when the work activities of others might harm them.'
Next: watch our video depicting how the Robens report transformed health and safety.