Women in the ascendant

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

In the UK the 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was marked by a debate about the relative merits of militant campaigning and the more sedate methods of leafleting and lobbying.

What was not in doubt, however, was the significance of the extension of the franchise to women, fully embraced ten years after the act first conceded the principle. 

In this time of almost daily revelations of harassment in workplaces, in parliament, in Hollywood, it was refreshing to hear that Millicent Fawcett, a leading campaigner for votes for women in the early years of the 20th century, had been voted the BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s most influential woman of the past 100 years. Perhaps we need to think about how we both encourage and celebrate (they are directly related) what women do to achieve higher standards in workplaces.

A few years ago I and my colleagues sponsored the IOSH Lifetime Achievement Award. The recipients included Lord Walker, who as Harry Walker MP piloted the Health and Safety at Work Act on to the statute book, and Lord Cullen, whose report revolutionised the safety regime in oil and gas exploration after the Piper Alpha disaster. Practitioners, regulators and safety campaigners such as David Eves and Roger Bibbings were also recognised. 

But did the awards process pay enough attention to fairness and balance? Probably not, until the award went to Nancy Tait, who had given no prior hint of her steely determination before her husband, who worked for the Post Office, died of mesothelioma in 1968 and she was denied compensation because his employer denied liability.

For 40 years Tait campaigned tirelessly on all industrial diseases and the urgent need to control exposure. It was her readiness to speak not only about the impact on sufferers and their families but also the wider arguments for prevention that marked her out.

OSH management in the UK is populated in a way that increasingly reflects the country's demographics


This is also the year of the 50th anniversary of the campaign by the wives and daughters of Hull trawlermen. Led by Lillian Belocca and dubbed “headscarf heroines”,  they pushed the Board of Trade to introduce new laws that made deep-sea fishing much safer after three trawlers foundered with much loss of life.

While we wait to hear the proposals for correcting the “not fit for purpose” building regulations after the Grenfell Tower fire last summer in west London, it is worth noting that the former chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and now chair of the Engineering Employers Federation, Dame Judith Hackitt, is leading the inquiry. Jenny Bacon was a director general of the HSE before it merged with the Health and Safety Commission. There are many other examples of women who operate at the highest levels in companies and national bodies, including IOSH’s chief executive, Bev Messinger.

Safety and health management in the UK is populated in a way that increasingly reflects the country’s demographics; women and people from different ethnic backgrounds play a full part in securing their workplaces. But equal access isn’t yet global and those arguing for the benefits of fair employment practices and equal career prospects should recognise and celebrate the role of women in pressing for higher standards. The female clothing workers in Bangladesh, before and after the Rana Plaza disaster, were organising for fairness, equality and safety and establishing their own leaders. 

The safety and health of all workers benefit from all our efforts. In the year of the centenary of women’s suffrage, it seems appropriate to highlight women’s contribution.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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