What was Health & Safety in the 1800’s?

The 1800’s saw the continuation of the Industrial Revolution, a period of massive change and upheaval for the vast majority of the British people.

Traditional manufacture and agriculture, focusing on small-scale production and cottage industry, were gradually eroded by the greater adoption of labour and time-saving devices such as the steam engine, spinning jenny and the seed drill. These devices not only meant goods could be produced faster and more uniformly, but also that less individual labour was needed.

Individuals were therefore required to leave their original homes and move to find employment wherever they could. This meant a huge population migration to city sites, where the industrial revolution was also creating factories in increasing numbers. The combination of vast hordes of displaced workers and the need for cheap labour to fuel Britain’s booming industrialisation created the grim Victorian reality of urban child workers, hazardous factory conditions and minimal official legislation for health and safety.

Health and safety as a concept was born out of this industrial situation, and the gradual public change in opinion that individuals require protection and safety during their employment. It was a slow change, and one that began in a situation that seems harsh to modern sensibilities, but understandable when considering both the changes undergone during industrialisation and Victorian attitudes towards the lower classes.

Initial government developments during this expansion of the 19th century set the tone for interaction with the working class of urban centres: the 1834 Poor Law set the ‘work or workhouse’ idea categorising Victorian England’s attitude, one of individual responsibility, severally restricted state help (designed to be far worse than the worse possible enterprise) and a reliance on the private sector to provide the vast majority of any services.

The Poor Law replaced earlier parish-based systems of help for the injured or disabled, and meant that if a worker was hurt at work, the only available options were either the workhouse or prison. Employers were not required to provide much at all in the way of safety for their employees, and due to the huge number of rural workers pouring into the cities, it was easy to find those desperate to take on even the most dangerous jobs.

Callidus Health and Safety through the Ages

The initial acts that could be seen as the start of health and safety in Britain were fairly limited in scope. 1802’s Factory Act gave the first limits to the amount of time that apprenticed children could work for, meaning that they were only supposed to work for a maximum of 12 hours a day. However, this was for a fairly limited portion of the work force and it wasn’t until 1832 that all under eighteens employees in factories gained the same maximum working day. It is important to remember that this was in a period without a centralized police force and the sheer number of people desperate to work whatever the cost meant these acts were difficult to enforce in reality.

1833 saw the introduction of the first factory inspectors, working under the authority of the crown. This act gave authorities the power to enforce previous legislation, primarily concerning the potential overworking and injury of child workers. The first group of inspectors only had four members to cover around 3,000 mills and factories, meaning that their ability to operate was reduced in a time when local authorities and industry groups held significantly more power than today.

However, these factory inspectors, helped by a growing public interest in worker’s welfare spurred by popular writers like Charles Dickens, grew in number and power. 1868 saw their number increase to 35 inspectors, with later increases to the variety of workplaces they had the power to enter and investigate.

Callidus Health and Safety through the Ages

In 1837, a landmark case was won establishing a common law that is the basis of modern health and safety principles. In the case of Priestley v. Fowler, it was decided that employers owed their employees a duty of care. This principle meant that later legal action could be taken if the employer was demonstrated to have neglected their obligations.

1842 saw the Coal Mines Act introduced which prohibited women and children working directly in underground mines alongside the appointment of a coal mines inspector to maintain the law. This act was inspired by a Royal Commission into accusation of appalling conditions, which sparked a public outcry, highlighting changing Victorian class attitudes.

The established practice of children being used to clean and maintain moving machinery within factories, often resulting in maiming or death, was brought to a close by the Factories Act of 1844. The Act, building on the idea that an employer was obligated to provide a safe working environment, required safeguarding of moving parts and mill gearing. An extension of the act in 1867 meant that all industrial factories with more than 50 employees became subject to the requirements of preceding acts, including 1847’s restriction of women and children’s weekly work to 63 hours.

Child labour was severely reduced by 1878’s Factory and Workshop Act. Children under the age of ten were not allowed to be employed in factories and those between ten and fourteen were reduced to half days. Children were used to reach hard to access areas around machinery but, due to increasing sophistication and public appreciation of the need for safety, this became seen as a barbaric practice. Women were also restricted to a maximum work week of 56 hours.

Callidus Health and Safety through the Ages

Health and safety came to be established both as a necessary legal right for workers and as the responsibility of employers. 1878 saw the first steps outside of the industrial sector, with agricultural threshing safety equipment requirements established. The Employers’ Liability Act of 1880 gave employees legal protection against accidents in the workplaces caused by employer negligence, strengthening the idea of a reasonable exception of safety.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of workplace based compensation with 1897’s Workman’s Compensation Act. This act gave limited finical payments from employers to those injured during work, cementing the principle of monetary payments.

Many of the aspects of health and safety legislation guaranteed today evolved from the industrialisation of the nineteenth century. Dangerous factory conditions were nearly universal, as seen in many industrialising societies during the initial period of urban growth. Much of Britain’s modern identity came to be established during this period regarding the state’s obligation to the workforce, such as poor relief, social housing and health and safety. Changing attitudes to social class were propagated by writers, artists and the first social campaigners, putting pressure on the government to provide for the new urban working class.