series event

The Rise of Risk: The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Risk Management in Twentieth Century Britain

Chris Sirrs
(Centre for History in Public Health, LSHTM)

Since 1974, risk assessment has become a cornerstone of British and European health and safety regulation. Under British health and safety law, employers are required to evaluate the risks generated by their systems and processes, and take commensurate steps to protect their workers against accidents and disease. In recent decades, risk assessment has become the sine qua non of health and safety, a requirement of the largest and most complex workplaces, such as nuclear power plants, to the smallest and most straightforward, such as shops. Only the very smallest employers are exempt from the requirement to write risk assessments down. As risk assessment has become increasingly central to our work lives, however, it has also become a totem for a perceived culture of bureaucratic and regulatory excess, a rhetorical stick to beat regulators, such as Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Where did this compulsion to identify, assess, record and communicate health and safety risks stem from? This paper examines the evolution of risk-based ideas in British regulatory discourse, from implicit assumptions and beliefs in pre-1974 health and safety regulation, to the explicit and formalised approach to ‘risk management’ that emerged in the late 1980s. It highlights how in response to political and economic pressures, HSE officials formalised concepts and practices which were previously ambiguous. In so doing, they enshrined various assumptions, such as that cost is a valid concern when deliberating control measures. Risk management provided a tool not only to encourage employers to regulate their own behaviour (self-regulation), but a convenient way to shield regulators against political and reputational risks arising out of the policymaking process. Risk assessment thus lay at the heart of a fundamental transformation in role of the British state in the twentieth century, the emergence of the so-called ‘regulatory state’.

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