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The Evolution of Health and Safety

Modern-day Health and Safety legislation is broad and all-encompassing, but it wasn’t always the case.

In this month’s blog post we take a look back to how it all started and then evolved until the current day.



The Birth of Health and Safety – Factory Act 1802

The first Act of the Parliament in the UK intended to protect the welfare of people at work was the Factory Act 1802.

With the industrial revolution in full swing, factories and mills were busy. In the main, the labour was provided by children, often below the age of ten, know as ‘pauper apprentices’.

In 1800 some 20,000 apprentices were employed in cotton mills and in the next decade, as many as 1/5 of workers in the cotton industry were children under the age of 13.

These types of industries used mechanical technology which led to many accidents and deaths. Children were often required to crawl under machines, leading to the loss of limbs, being crushed and even decapitated!

Due to growing public outcry, factory owner, Sir Robert Peel, introduced the ‘Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802’, commonly known as the Factory Act 1802.

Applicable to textile mills and factories employing three or more apprentices or 20 employees, the act required them to;

  • Cleaning the premises twice yearly with quicklime
  • Provide sufficient fresh air by means of ventilation
  • Provide every apprentice with sufficient and suitable clothing
  • Provide them with sleeping accommodation
  • Prohibited night work for apprentices
  • Limited apprentices to 12 hours work in a day

Most importantly, the Act also required that apprentices be taught how to read, write, perform arithmetic and the principles of the Christian religion.

Whilst not enforced by everyone, this act is regarded as the birth or beginning of Health and Safety.

Factories Act 1833

Since the introduction of the Factory Act in 1802, the British Government had begun introducing a collection of Acts to govern children working in mills.

There was, however, limited enforcement. It was only under the provisions of the Factories Act 1833 that the first factory inspectors were appointed. Their job was to prevent injury and prevent over-working of child labour.

As well as being extended to woollen and linen mills, the Act gave inspectors the power to enter a mill, to make regulations and to enforce them

Initially, four inspectors were appointed and they were responsible for around 3000 textile mills. Surprisingly though, and despite initial resistance from both employers and politicians, they were able to influence legislation.

As a result, their numbers grew from 4 to 35 inspectors and sub-inspectors in 1868, each responsible for a distinct geographical area.

And, with changes to legislation between 1860 and 1871, the Factories Acts was extended to practically all workforces.

A Turning Point

The first documented case of an employee suing an employer over a work-related injury is in 1835 when Charles Priestley sued his employer Thomas Fowler.

Whilst accompanying a wagon of mutton to the market, Priestly was severely injured when the wagon axle cracked and turned the wagon over, directly on top of him. The wagon had in actual fact been loaded by Fowler, severely overloaded, and when questioned about it told Priestly and the other driver to just get on with it.

As a result of the accident, he suffered a broken thigh, dislocated shoulder and a number of other injuries which took him 19 weeks to recover from. During this time, he stayed at a local inn, costing him £50, a lot of money in those days.

Subsequently, he sued his former employer and this was the 1st time that an employer was ruled to have a duty of care to his employee, actionable by the employee if any breach resulted in injury.

He was subsequently awarded £100 in compensation!

The Employer’s Liability Act 1880

Up until this point, an employer would not be liable to his worker in negligence if the accident was caused by the act or omission of one of the worker’s fellow employees.

This new act was a turning point in that it extended protection for those injured as a result of a fellow employee.

The act stated that a worker or an immediate family member is entitled to compensation for injury or death when the injury was caused by;

  • a defect in equipment or machinery
  • negligence of any person given authority over the worker by the employer
  • an act or omission made by following the orders or bylaws of the employer or their representative

A Revolution – The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Prior to 1974, employers were left to their own devices to improve health and safety. Often, they took limited steps and only implemented cheaper fixes.

Whilst some state regulations, such as the use of machine guards in factories, and inspections, did have some impact, many industries were not covered by any acts.

With the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974, it finally encompassed all industries and employees.

The Act also placed responsibility on both the employer and employee to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals across all workplaces, and members of the public who could be affected by work activities.

Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive (HSC & HSE)

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 also established the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) for the purpose of proposing new regulations, providing information and advice and conducting research.

The Health and Safety Executive was formed shortly after on 1st January 1975. The role of the HSE was to undertake the requirements of the HSC to enforce health and safety legislation in all workplaces.

Commonly-Known Acts

Over the past 46 years, there have been many new laws and acts – some, more well-known than others.

Some that you may recognise:

Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981

Coming into force on 1st July 1982, these regulations stipulated that an employer shall provide or ensure that there are provided, such equipment and facilities as are adequate and appropriate in the circumstances for enabling first aid to be rendered to his employees if they are injured or become ill at work.

Employers were also required to inform employees about the arrangements in place for providing first-aid – including the location of facilities, personnel and equipment.

Further, self-employed people were also covered by the Regulations. They needed to provide appropriate and adequate equipment for rendering first aid to themselves at work, if necessary.

Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations ‘RIDDOR’ – 1985

The introduction of ‘RIDDOR’ required a ‘responsible person’ to notify the enforcing authority where a person dies or sustains any injuries or specific medical conditions or where a dangerous occurrence takes place in connection with a work activity.

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) – 1988

These regulations were introduced to protect the health of people arising from work activities where they could be exposed to substances which will be hazardous to their health.
Where exposure to such substances cannot be prevented, employers were given a duty to provide suitable protective equipment and control measures and to ensure that such equipment is adequately maintained, examined and tested and the results of tests recorded and kept.

Manual Handling Operations Regulations – 1992

The introduction of these regulations required employers to ensure ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ that employees should not be asked to carry out manual handling work where there is a risk of being injured.

Where such work is necessary, employers were required to make an assessment of the risks involved, take any appropriate steps required to ensure that risks are kept to a minimum.

Display Screen Equipment Regulations (DSE) – 1992

Despite computers being relatively new at the time, it’s surprising that these regulations appear as early as they do.

DSE regulations meant that employers had to assess all computer workstations to ensure health and safety risks are identified and effectively minimised.

It also provided for employees who use DSE in their work to be able to periodically take adequate breaks or changes of activity from using DSE.


Fast forward to current times and The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 still forms the basis of workplace safety law in the UK.

Each year, more regulations, laws and acts are passed, and no doubt others will follow, and as an industry, Health and Safety is constantly evolving to cover more aspects of the workplace and beyond.

Does it work?

Whilst we all have, at some point, been guilty of thinking it’s “Health and Safety gone mad”, The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 has done more than any other piece of legislation from the past 50 years.

The Future?

Changes in technology, industry and scientific advancements mean that Health and Safety will continually need to evolve. One recent example of the new challenges we face is stress, anxiety, depression and mental health issues.

Latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) show that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/19 was 602,000.


As a result, we have already begun to offer clients Mental Health First Aid training.

In fact, The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) now actually suggests organisations include mental health into their Health and Safety strategy.
Here at Acorn, we have 20 years’ experience in Health and Safety and we specialise in a wide range of industries.

With experience comes a practical approach and importantly the recognition that health and safety needs to complement day to day business activities.

As a result, we pride ourselves in our grounded and pragmatic approach and work with businesses to keep them and their staff safe.

If you are interested in finding out more about what Acorn Health and Safety can do for your business, give us a call on 0117 958 2070, or you prefer e-mail email us: