What Is The Legacy Of UK’s First Occupational Health Law?

Industry News By Sarah

Education, awareness and planning are the keys to a successful occupational health policy, with health and safety courses at the forefront of protecting lives and building a future where people do not have to worry about their physical and medical health whilst working. 

Whilst the central legislation governing occupational health in the UK is the Health And Safety At Work Act etc 1974, the very first legislative domino that would lead to its enactment and the infrastructure surrounding it to be creative was formed in 1802 with the very first Factory Act.

This piece of legislation was pioneering at the time, but why was it enacted, what did it aim to accomplish and did it succeed in improving the lives of workers?

Prelude To The Factory Acts

Although there had been writings about occupational diseases as early as the late 15th century, following the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain starting in the 1760s concerns about the potential physical, mental and moral harm to people working in the factory system were starting to be raised.

The first factories in Britain tended to be water-powered cotton mills built around the nearest rivers that flowed strongly enough. 

To provide the labour for these mills during an age with no employment regulation whatsoever outside of the Poor Laws, owners would often reach out to parishes, both local and distant, offering apprenticeship opportunities to feed, house and employ children and young adults.

They were typically subject to appalling treatment, with industrial accidents caused by a lack of safety protocols, the spread of infectious diseases, occupational health hazards and overwork not merely existing but commonplace.

There were calls to fix this almost as soon as the mills sprang up, but the catalyst for change came from a mill owned by Robert Peel, father of the man who would later found the first police force in the UK.

Constructed in 1780 near Radcliffe on the River Irwell, this mill had conditions that the later Sir Robert Peel would admit were “very bad”, with children working 12-hour days, child labour through apprenticeships bound until the child was 21, not enough beds, children locked into the factories and no ventilation.

In 1784, what would in hindsight be inevitable happened when an outbreak of “putrid fever” led to a damning report by doctors and other people of medicine in Manchester.

Whilst several of the suggestions involving ventilation, cleanliness and hygiene were suggested and taken on board by Sir Robert, who was said to be dismayed by the conditions that the managers of the mills he owned had operated.

This eventually led to the introduction and enactment of the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, which required basic cleanliness and ventilation, as well as for apprentices to be provided basic education and clothing. It also limited working hours to fewer than 12 hours a day and no working at night.

Ultimately, whilst it was the first piece of health and safety legislation, it was also an almost universal failure. It was up to local magistrates to choose whether they wanted to enforce the law, inspectors were typically amateurs, and it only applied to “pauper children” as specified by the Poor Laws and had a limited scope.

Its main legacy is being the first, tentative step towards the prioritisation of health and safety in the workplace.


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