2023-08-25 10:28

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Some Things Are Worth Fighting For - Union Health And Safety IS A Matter Of Life & Death

Unionsafety has the pleasure in presenting an article submitted by an individual CWU Safety Rep which expresses a view which is no doubt shared by many in the current debate about the future of Health and Safety in the CWU.

The author's name has been withheld by request:

Given that the recent CWU re-design document was devoid of a simple ‘Mission statement’ on the continued pursuit of HEALTH & SAFETY PROTECTION for members.

It became a worrying reality that the possibility of a department merger and also a ‘cull’ of H&S expertise was looming large. Because of this a number of NW CWU proud H&S reps came together to ensure prime focus was given to the SOS ‘Save our Safety’ campaign and remind EVERYONE in the CWU that the birth of the trade union movement was born from early H&S activists back over 200 years ago.

Sometimes a ‘gentle reminder’ needs to be more of a ‘wake up call’. We created an evaluation survey in which over 300 CWU HS reps took part in an and the results showed an overwhelming level of support for a stand - alone CWU H&S department with a dedicated national officer.

Also over 800 CWU members signed a 38 degrees petition urging all Trade Unions to put prime focus on H&S with the ‘Brexit freight train’ heading non-stop in our direction. The 38 degrees petition was started by the SOS campaign and was endorsed by Hugh Robertson of the TUC.

What the wider CWU safety community has shown in their feedback is that there is an immediate desire from the membership to urgently prioritise H&S protection now and future proof it with an ample amount of dedicated resource, we cannot allow it to become an afterthought. We must also remember the early H&S Pioneers and Philanthropists and early humanitarians from over 200 years ago paved the way for trade unions to exist in this country. To weaken our collective stance and our deep principles on trade union health & safety would add insult to future injuries!

Trade union Health and Safety is in our DNA.

The History lesson below is a stark reminder of just that fact.

What were the main factors that influenced the development of health and safety laws in the nineteenth century?

Health and safety law in the United Kingdom has been over 200 years in the making.


Responding to calls for remedial action from philanthropists and some of the more enlightened employers, in 1802 Sir Robert Peel, himself a mill owner, introduced a Bill to Parliament with the worthy aim of improving their conditions. Generally believed to be the first attempt to regulate conditions of work in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 was deemed a failure, despite this apparent ‘failure to achieve its purpose it clearly demonstrated the need for further reform.

That ‘Act’ sometimes called the first ‘Factory Act’ applied only to cotton textile mills. It required employers to keep mill premises clean and healthy by twice yearly washings with quicklime, to ensure there were sufficient windows to admit fresh air, and to supply ‘apprentices’ with ‘sufficient and suitable’ clothing and accommodation for sleeping.

A bed was to be shared by not more than two. Their work was to be limited to twelve hours per day and night work was forbidden. They were to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic and receive religious instruction.
Fines for failure to observe these statutory requirements ranged from £2 to £5 but there were few prosecutions. Enforcement was entrusted to ‘Visitors’ appointed locally by Justices of the Peace, many of whom were mill owners themselves. Some Visitors were clergymen and mill owners were their local parishioners. This flawed system soon proved quite ineffective. Visitors were reluctant to confront their neighbours, enforcement was feeble and the law was widely evaded.

Attempts were made to strengthen the legislation in 1819, 1825 and 1831 but the Visitor system remained too weak for the law’s requirements to become the norm.


Public concern about factory working conditions continued to grow as more and more women, children and young people were drawn from conditions of poverty in London and the countryside into the mills. Dissatisfaction was also mounting over a wider range of social issues and particularly over lack of representation of the major industrial towns in an unfair political system biased towards the influence of a few landed property owners. As unrest grew, concerns about maintaining law and order in London led to the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829.
By 1831 the Prime Minister, Earl Grey, judged the pressure for Parliamentary reform to have become irresistible and he persuaded King William IV that a Bill to widen the franchise should be introduced into Parliament. Although the Bill was passed by the Commons, it was defeated in the Lords, whereupon serious rioting broke out in several towns. The worst of the riots occurred in Bristol with many deaths exacerbating the angry public mood.

1833 - The Factory Act 

The first Factory Inspectors were appointed by King William IV in 1833. Inspectors’ reports in the long Victorian era that followed contain many insights into the politics surrounding the changes in society, at the same time chronicling in detail the legal and technical developments needed to improve protection of workers’ safety, health and welfare.
The story of the United Kingdom’s industrial development is closely entwined with the story of HM Factory Inspectorate and the development of Factory Law. The Poor Law of 1601 was not reformed until 1834, when the Poor Law Commission’s recommendations were implemented by the Poor Law Amendment Act. Parish Overseers were replaced by local Boards of Guardians (the ‘Guardians of the Poor’) that later also became Rural Sanitary Authorities under the Public Health Act of 1875.

In spite of reform, the perceived humiliation of the destitute in the workhouses continued to be hated during the Victorian era, however The Act of 1833 enabled a fresh start on the long journey towards the present day’s more civilised working conditions. Unsurprisingly, the Act’s restrictions on employment were unpopular amongst most mill owners. It prohibited employment of children of less than nine years of age, required those between nine and thirteen to work no more than nine hours a day and those between thirteen and eighteen no more than twelve hours a day. They were to have an hour long break for lunch. 

While the 1833 Act dealt principally with restrictions on the employment of children and young person’s less than 18 years of age, it was also remarkable in spelling the beginning of England’s compulsory education system, in which Factory Inspectors played a significant part during its early years. As children between the ages of 9 and 13 were required to attend school for 2 hours on six days of the week, 

Safety - The Factory Act, 1844

In 1841 Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, succeeded Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister. Peel’s father was one of the wealthiest textile manufacturers in Lancashire and had been politically influential in the early years of the century. The younger Peel’s landmark Factory Act of 1844 extended the law’s coverage to all textile factories (except lace-making) and took a first significant step towards improvement of workers’ safety. Under Section 20, children, young persons and women were prohibited from cleaning shafting and other transmission machinery.

Section 21introduced requirements for ‘secure and continuous fencing’ of fly-wheels, water-wheels, wheel-races, hoists and teagles (lifting machinery) near to which children and young persons were liable to pass or be employed. Inspectors were authorised to appoint ‘Certifying Surgeons’ to whom, under Section 22 of the Act, any accident preventing the injured person from returning to work by nine o’clock the following day had to be reported. 


1847 - The Ten Hour Day

Between 1844 and 1847 the desirability of reducing the maximum length of a working day for women and young persons employed in textile factories was being fiercely debated (the ‘Ten Hour Movement’ had been pressing for a shorter working day in woollen mills since the early 1830s). Parliament eventually settled on a 10 hour day in 1847. However, lack of clarity in the drafting of the law created difficulty for Inspectors attempting to enforce the standard. Wily mill owners evaded this perceived restriction on production by employing their men for longer hours while bringing women and young persons back and forth to work in an impenetrably complicated ‘relay’ system.

The law was clarified in the Ten Hour Act of 1850, by when employers’ animosity towards the restriction had begun to subside.

The Factory Act, 1867

The Factory Act of 1867 significantly altered certain aspects of safety regulation contained in earlier Acts, for example transferring some responsibilities from factory occupiers to the owners of factory premises or owners of machines. The powers of inspectors were also extended.

The 1867 Act further extended the law’s cover to some other specified trades and to ‘any premises in which fifty or more persons were employed in any manufacturing process’

The Factory and Workshop Act, 1878

As well as consolidating previous Acts, in passing the 1878 Act Parliament took a long stride forward in the development of Factory Law, for which history gives the credit to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. By bringing almost all of manufacturing industry within scope of the law, in three clearly defined classes of Textile Factories, Non-Textile Factories and Workshops, protection of workers’ safety, health and welfare was greatly advanced.
Factory Inspectors’ workload increased considerably as a result.

Non-Textile Factories included certain specified premises such as shipyards for the first time. Greater protection was afforded to women and children: from now on children under the age of ten could not be employed anywhere and between the ages of ten and fourteen they could be employed only for half days (and must attend school). Women were allowed to work only up to 56 hours per week.

1880 - The Employers’ Liability Act

In the past it had been necessary for Factory Inspectors to uphold the right of a person injured at work to compensation. The Employers’ Liability Act 1880 gave a worker the right to sue the employer, but the worker had to prove that the injury suffered was the employer’s fault. However, under the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897 it became necessary for a worker only to prove that the injury had occurred at work.

The Factory Act, 1891

The amending Factory Act of 1891 tightened several aspects of existing safety law. Powers were given to the Secretary of State to certify machinery or processes as dangerous and make Special Rules. Twenty two ‘codes’ followed, mostly dealing with dangers to health, but three covered Chemical Works, Explosives Works and, perhaps incongruously at first sight, the Bottling of Aerated Water (a process accompanied by high risk of injury from flying broken glass). Significantly, the first requirements were introduced for provision of adequate means of escape in case of fire.

Women were not to be employed before four weeks after confinement, and the minimum age at which children could be employed was raised to eleven. The criterion for reporting accidents changed yet again, now being any that prevented a worker from doing five hours’ work on any day during the next five days.

Lady Factory Inspectors, 1893

Conscious of support in Parliament for the campaigns for the appointment of women being pursued by the Women’s Protective and Provident League and the London Women’s Trades Council. In 1893 the first two female Inspectors, May Abraham (based in London) and Mary Paterson (in Glasgow) were appointed with salaries of £200 a year. Soon there were four and later more.

The Factory Act, 1895

The 1891 Act was soon followed by another in 1895 making further amendments to fencing provisions, provision of fire escapes and reporting of accidents. Accidents had also to be recorded in a register kept for inspection at the factory (known colloquially as ‘the accident book’). Eighty years later Inspectors would still be concluding inspections by examining the register, always a useful opportunity to discuss their findings with the employer.

What role did trade unions play in the development of health and safety laws in the nineteenth century?

As bodies of associated workers trade unions were never regarded in law as 'incorporated', i.e., as having a legal personality and status, separate from their individual members, unlike shareholders' and companies' limited liability status. Legally, they were in a twilight zone.

For a quarter of a century the Combination Acts had kept unions illegal and small unions had almost become a secret society. There were about 30 small unions, most trades such as-
 coach makers, brush makers, mechanics and so on.

This could not be ignored and unionism was becoming a more dangerous force an illicit movement. A campaign to abolish the anti-union laws succeeded in 1824. Once the lid was off, many groups of workers acted and a wave of strikes took place to win better pay and conditions. Unions began to try to win things, causing a big fight back from the masters, as the bosses were then called.

Courts could award damages from their funds for breaches of contract or 'tortious' acts during disputes. The significant immunities finally secured in the 1870s were not the gift of legislators, but a result of a powerful craft-union campaign and the findings of a Royal Commission about the need for such protection from the common law of 'restraint of trade' and criminal conspiracy.

After the extension of the male suffrage in 1867 and the creation in 1868 of the Trades Union Congress to lobby effectively, middle-class and parliamentary opinion had also softened towards extending union legal 'rights'. This was the first 'Charter of British Trade Unionism'.

The TUC was founded in 1868 initially as an ‘umbrella’ organisation and tiny at first. In 1871, a new Trade Union Act gave unions recognition in law.

The 1870s were a boom time and unions began to grow. The TUC formed a special committee to liaise with MPs and was able to win more legislation giving union rights within only a few years. Unions would now become a force even amongst the unskilled working class. There was even a name for this new trend - `New Unionism’. 

New Unionism  is a term which has been used twice in the history of the labour movement, both times involving moves to broaden the trade union agenda. New unionism is also about being able to move and react to any threat. With Brexit looming isn’t it about time for a new dose of forward thinking New Unionism!!

Source: name witheld by request.

See also: TUC's Frances O'Grady Pays Tribute To Union Safety Reps

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