HC Deb 07 June 1957 vol 571 cc1625-37

1.48 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

I welcome warmly this opportunity of raising a subject which I believe will be of interest to the House and to the country—the methods and precautions taken to prevent accidents and to reduce industrial injury and disease. That is certainly a wide enough topic to be getting on with.

The main issue and theme of what I want to say is that the public are not safety-conscious. There is a great need that it should be made far more safety-conscious. It is conscious that it has to cross the road carefully for fear of being run down by a motor car, but quite unconscious of the need to take elementary care in day-to-day work. This nation is strike-minded, but safety-blinded. The nation should be safety-conscious in factory, in the home, on the road, in the air, by the sea and on the land, but it is not.

There is a loss of productivity which is well known as being due to strikes. About 2½ million man-days per year have been lost through strikes, but the Ministry knows full well that through accidents more than 18 million man-days are lost, or seven times as great as the number lost on account of strikes. That I am sure the nation does not want, or at any rate does not appreciate. If, therefore, measures that I will indicate could lead to a reduction by one-seventh in the total number of man-days lost through accidents, we would wipe out the days lost in a whole year by strikes; and what a great objective that is.

I wish to say a few words about the causation of accidents. An admirable booklet called "Safety and Health in Industry" has been issued and to the 1956 edition an admirable foreword was written by Sir George Barnett, Chief Inspector of Factories. He indicated in that booklet that approximately only 15 per cent. of the accidents in factories are attributable to machinery. Six-sevenths of all the accidents in factories are attributable to other causes and there are five main causes, five 'main groups. They all arise from lack of education and thought.

The first is personal faults; the second is falling articles; the third, slipping or standing on objects; the fourth, use of hand tools; and the fifth, the handling of objects and materials. These five groups of causes result in two-thirds of all accidents in factories. Sir George wrote: Training and education are basic and essential features of any work accident prevention organisation. I agree with every word of that.

There are 218,000 factories and workshops in this country and 80,000 to 85,000 of them employ 30 or more workers. The reported accident rate, involving three days or more absence from work, is 180,000 to 200,000 a year. There has been a welcome reduction, but it is small because the figures do not include minor accidents, to which I am devoting attention this afternoon. A vastly greater proportion of accidents are unreported.

There is only one organisation of this kind in existence. It has a membership of approximately 1 per cent. of all the factories in the country, a mere 2,000 members from at least 80,000 effective factories and workshops. The Annual Report of the Chief Inspector, admirable as it is in its own field, does not touch on education or deal, therefore, with the need for being safety-conscious by management, by men, the trade unions, insurance companies, or national organisations.

I want to compare the position of this country and other countries and will take America by way of example. In the United Kingdom, there is one accident every year to one person in every 31. In America, there is one accident every year to one person in every 33. Therefore, our rate is slightly worse, but not much worse, than the American rate. Why is that? This country leads the world in all the regulations designed to secure safety—that is to say, in mechanisation— by the use of guards and such facilities. Frequently, the Americans do not use guards. On the other hand, they undoubtedly lead us in education and being safety-conscious. That is the difference.

Take, for example, the iron and steel industry. In this country we have four-and-a-half times as many accidents in the iron and steel industry as America has. In 1951, the British Productivity Team which visited America came back and said: Accident prevention is a matter of considerable importance in any steel works. The United States companies have established a good record. Their lost time accident frequency rate per million man hours worked for the year 1949 is reported as 7.2, whilst the British frequency rate is 32.6. Those are unfortunate figures.

Look at the position with reference to accidents on the roads. There are three-and-a-half times as many accidents at work as on the roads. We have a great deal of ballyhoo about road accidents, but none about accidents in factories. On the roads there were 216,000 accidents last year, and 5,000 people were killed, but there were 725,000 accidents at work. What measures are to be taken to meet what I hope the House will agree is a proved need?

There is an admirable Report on the matter, published by the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation. On page 15 its arguments for the prevention of accidents can be summarised thus: first, the necessity for a national organisation as there is in the United States. There is the National Safety Council, the focal point of an accident prevention movement covering industry, transport, agriculture, home and factory accidents. Its function is the publication of all types of documents, posters, films, broadcasting, consultation and lectures.

Secondly, in the specialist field there is the American Society of Safety Engineers working as specialists in accident prevention. Thirdly, and this is a most important matter, in America insurance companies point the way by participating in the safety programmes of their policy holders and, through their inspectors, influence policy on the promotion of accident prevention. Fourthly, executive management co-operates effectively with the trade union movement and the men in the factories, who set up works accident prevention programmes. A result, or a by-product, of that is that industrial relations are improved because there is an attempt to take care of the men at their places of work.

The results of this have been seen over recent years, particularly in the case of certain big firms. I take one example, the very well-known Esso firm. Esso Standard Oil, with 4,000 employees, had an accident frequency rate of 13 in 1930, it dropped to 7 in 1935, to 5 in 1940, and, in 1954, it was down to 3.8. That is one example of what can be done in this matter, irrespective of the existence of guards, in the general field of the need for being safety-conscious.

What should be our objectives? First, I think that there should be a national accident prevention policy for the purpose of achieving this and additional objectives, which are greater production with increased productivity, improved industrial relations and a close co-operation, in particular, between the Government, the safety organisation, the insurance companies, the employers and, through them, the workers and the trade union movement.

I will quote one final passage from page 41 of the O.E.E.C. Report: At national level it would be advantageous in each country to create an organisation which could initiate an exchange of experience, organise meetings, give technical and organisational advice on safety matters, inform industry about safety publications, compare and evaluate safety statistics, distribute material for publicity, education and training. It is time to form a national organisation, a safety council, for the purpose of achieving these objectives, with specialists chosen in these various fields in order to achieve them so that we may promote a safety-conscious state of mind by publicity, posters, films, displays, articles, broadcasting, and the whole medium of modern public relations. This will succeed only if it has the encouragement and support of the Government and the backing of the employers and the trade union movement, and of the insurance companies, which I hope will also take a keen interest in the project.

I should like the Minister to consider whether he can give an assurance that we shall have the co-operation of Her Majesty's Government in a movement of this nature, to try to secure a really safety-conscious outlook on the part of our workpeople. If it succeeds, the movement will increase productivity, prevent a good deal of human misery and pain, go a long way to improve industrial relations, and raise the country's output.

2.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Robert Carr)

I must, first, ask for the leave of the House to speak again, as I replied to another subject earlier this morning.

My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) has served a most useful purpose in initiating this debate. I am sure that he has not over-emphasised the importance of the subject or the need for giving it greater attention. On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has the chief responsibility in this field, I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject.

As my hon. Friend said, the figure of the loss due to accidents in this country is not generally known, and it is about time it was. We give it publicity in a number of ways. In speeches during the last eighteen months my right hon. Friend and I have taken all possible opportunities to put the figure across, and we welcome the opportunity of drawing attention to it again today.

Twenty million man-days a year lost as a result of industrial accidents is a tremendous figure. Even when we allow for the fact that that figure includes not only accidents in factories but accidents in the mines, in transport and agriculture—in industrial employment in the widest sense—it is still a tremendous figure and much too high.

I am particularly glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to the comparison between this figure and the figure of our loss through strikes. As he said, the figure is seven times greater than the loss last year through strikes, and it is four times the loss due to strikes in the worst post-war year.

The figure not only represents a most serious loss to our national production. It also represents a great sum total of individual suffering and hardship. Undoubtedly, one reason why the figure is higher than it need be is because people are not sufficiently safety-conscious. If we could make them more so, it would be a most important contribution to reducing the accident rate. Any initiative which will serve this purpose is to be welcomed, and we do welcome it.

It is illuminating to look, as my hon. Friend did, at some of the details of industrial accidents. In 1955 there were no fewer than 188,403 reportable accidents in premises covered by the Factory Acts, and of these 703 were fatal. Complete statistics for 1956 are not yet available. It is known, however, that there has been a welcome decrease, probably of the order of 2 per cent., and the number of fatal accidents has fallen to 687. It should be noted that those totals cover only reportable accidents; that is, those which have led to death, or caused disablement for more than three days. If one had the figures of the lesser accidents which do not come within this definition, the total loss due to accidents would be seen to be much greater even than the enormous figure which I have already quoted.

It is certainly true that one fact which is not sufficiently well known—I am glad that my hon. Friend brought it out so clearly—is that machines are not the main cause of accidents. In 1955 27 per cent. of all accidents in factories happened while workers were handling goods. Another 14 per cent. were accounted for by falls. Only 16 per cent. were caused by power-driven machinery. Moreover, it is notable as a result of all our activities over many years that the proportion of accidents caused by machinery is decreasing. In fact, there were 13 per cent. fewer accidents due to power-driven machinery in 1955 than in 1950. On the other hand, falls and accidents due to striking against objects, objects dropping on people and all the other myriad causes mentioned by my hon. Friend, have been on the increase.

That fact underlines what my hon. Friend has said, that it is to safety-consciousness together with what has been called "good industrial house keeping" that we have to look to an increasing extent as the means of reducing the accident toll which we are suffering at the moment. The improvement achieved in factories which have given close attention to accident prevention provides practical proof on this point.

My hon. Friend mentioned the case of the Esso Company in the United States. We have knowledge of factories in this country where careful attention to the details of safety and the growth of safety-consciousness throughout the factory indeed bring about results. I hope I have already said enough to encourage my hon. Friend to believe that we are convinced of the value of a well-directed approach in some of the directions that he has suggested.

Before I reply in more detail to some of the points made by my hon. Friend and say something about what is already being done on the lines he advocates, I think it would be helpful for me to sketch the background to our approach to industrial safety in this country. My hon. Friend said that we ought to have a national safety policy. In sketching the background, I hope to be able to show the lines on which that national safety policy, in industry at least, is built up.

Our safety provisions in this country are founded on Factories Acts legislation. This places the major part of the responsibility for the safety and, indeed, the industrial health of workpeople, on their employers. Certain commonsense obligations are also imposed on the workpeople to make sure that the efforts of employers to implement their responsibilities are not frustrated.

The duty to observe the law embodied in the Factories Acts is clear, and it is clear that it rests on the employer, but the Government have always accepted that special action is necessary to obtain reasonable compliance. That is the main function of the Factory Inspectorate. The great contribution of the Inspectorate in securing steadily improved working conditions over more than a century is widely recognised. Certainly, nothing said by my hon. Friend this morning detracts from the work which it has done and is still doing. The Factory Inspectorate has over the years achieved greater compliance by employers with the law.

The standards of work of the Inspectorate are today, I am sure, as high as they have ever been, and it continues to earn respect in industry, and far outside industry, as a unique instrument of social progress. We must, however, be char about the rôle of the Inspectorate. There are more than 200,000 factories, tens of thousands of building operations and civil engineering works, and hundreds of shipbuilding yards, docks, warehouses and other workplaces to which the Factories Acts apply. Whatever the size of the Inspectorate, it is obviously quite out of the question that it could visit all those places at intervals frequent enough to try to ensure 100 per cent. observance of the law at all times. It is, as I have said, the responsibility, both legal and moral, of the employer to satisfy himself that the law is observed. It is the task of the Ministry to see that a well-qualified Inspectorate is used in the most efficient way, not only in carrying out the primary duty to take enforcement action where necessary but also to give employers and workers help in carrying out their responsibilities.

The figures that I have given about the numbers of workplaces involved and the impossibility of covering them by inspection indicates that we must look beyond that method, however important that method may be. We must realise that close supervision is impossible, and too much visiting by Government officials would, in any case, I believe, be undesirable. There are, therefore, limits to what can be done by inspection. But other steps must be taken to raise safety standards in industry and these must be on the basis of co-operation between Government, employers and workpeople.

Certainly I can assure my hon. Friend that it is the Government's policy to develop this co-operative approach to the problem. In fact, considerable progress has been made, and I should like to mention some examples of this policy in action because I think we ought to see the picture as a whole. I hope my hon. Friend and the House as a whole will draw some comfort from the fact that many of the matters that I am going to mention are approaches to the problem which are comparatively recent in origin, showing a greater awareness by both Government and industry, and also because they are comparatively recent in origin we must appreciate that the benefits are yet to come.

In 1954 the National Joint Advisory Council appointed an Industrial Safety Sub-Committee, and as a result of its work a report entitled "Industrial Accident Prevention" was published in the autumn of 1955. I am glad to say that this has had an encouragingly wide circulation and I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree, having studied it, that the principles and practice which this booklet lays down are very much in tune with the recommendations mentioned in the O.E.E.C. booklet which he commended.

Following the Industrial Safety Sub-Committee which has produced this Report, the National Joint Advisory Council has now appointed a Standing Industrial Safety Sub-Committee to review progress in furthering all aspects of industrial safety within the field covered by the Factories Acts. This Committee has representatives on it of the British Employers Confederation, the Trades Union Congress and the nationalised industries. During the early months of its existence it has reviewed the arrangements within industries for consideration of industrial safety at a national level, and also subjects such as safety training, and arrangements for publicity on safety problems. So here is one direction in which we are trying to encourage the sort of safety-consciousness and activity which my hon. Friend wishes to foster.

There are, of course, examples of similar co-operative action in particular industries. A recent one is the agreement of representatives of employers and workers in the building and civil engineering industries. They have agreed to take part in the work of the Standing Joint Advisory Committee to consider how to stimulate interest in the building and civil engineering industries in problems of safety and health with a view to reducing the incidence of accidents and dangers to health. I have quoted the terms of reference, because I think they are important. The Committee will not be advising the Minister on what action the Government should take. It will enable employers and trade unions to examine, in collaboration with the Government, how best they themselves—the employers and the trade unions—can not only carry out their legal responsibilities but go beyond them in improving standards of safety and health.

Then, of course, there are other examples of industries which are cooperating closely with the Government in a somewhat similar way—industries where there are joint standing committees set up on the initiative of Sir George Barnett, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Factories. The industries which have these joint advisory committees comprise quite a long list. They cover iron foundries, steel foundries, non-ferrous metal foundries, drop forging, cotton spinning and cotton weaving, wool textiles, jute and paper manufacturing, and potteries.

There are two other striking examples, different in character, of the initiative now being taken by industry to improve safety. The British Employers Confederation recently organised for its members a national conference on industrial safety and health problems. I am sure that the Confederation is to be congratulated on its initiative. The conference was successful, but it is recognised by the Confederation that the process of improving safety and health has got to be a continuing effort and is not just a matter for one conference of that kind. The matter is, therefore, being kept under review by one of the standing committees.

Another example is this. Employers in the Birmingham area some time ago established on a co-operative basis an Industrial Safety Training Centre. This has proved a most successful venture. Its courses are well booked up. It is beginning to serve larger areas than the area from which it was originally formed, and I hope that this idea may be equally successful elsewhere.

So much for what has been done by this co-operative approach within industry. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me in thinking that these are good developments and in hoping that they will go still further. But equally I would certainly agree with him in thinking that there is room and, indeed, need for this attack on the problem to be supplemented by other action to stimulate safety-consciousness.

Some useful work is being done over the field as a whole, and particularly in the direction of stimulation of safety-consciousness, by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, known as "Ro.S.P.A." My hon. Friend mentioned its small membership. That is true, and no doubt we would wish that it covered a much wider field. Equally it would be fair to say that its influence extends beyond its actual membership. Ro.S.P.A. has a special industrial safety division and under it there are industrial safety groups organised throughout the country. It organises a national industrial safety conference every year. It holds local conferences and exhibitions of safety equipment and protective clothing, and courses for safety officers and the like.

Ro.S.P.A. therefore gives general advice on safety problems by way of general propaganda and also to firms. It issues booklets, posters and so forth. It works in close co-operation, both nationally and locally, with the Factory Inspectorate and other officers in my Department, and I agree that this cooperation, although it is valuable now, should be developed still further. On publicity, for example, we hope that there may be scope for the Government's work to be linked more closely with the work that Ro.S.P.A. is doing.

To sum up, our methods at the moment for dealing with the problems of industrial safety depend on the combination of four factors: first, law, imposing duties on employers and workers; secondly, enforcement of that law through a Government Inspectorate; thirdly, voluntary action by industry itself; fourthly, further action by outside bodies to stimulate a greater awareness of safety and a greater knowledge of the ways of achieving it.

I have outlined this combination of methods, not because I wish in any way to belittle the importance of the fourth, which is what my hon. Friend was speaking to principally this morning, but because I think that all four necessarily go together, as I am sure he would agree. I recognise, of course, that it is in connection with the fourth method, the way of action by outside bodies to stimulate greater safety consciousness, that he is suggesting further action and, in particular, has put forward the proposal for a new safety council which he believes will supplement and invigorate the work already being done.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the practice and experience of other countries. Most other countries adopt the same combination of four methods as we do, although the balance is often markedly different between one country and another. Of course, as regards effectiveness in preventing accidents, it is extremely difficult to make valid comparisons, but what is important is that, even if our own accident rate could be shown to be better than that in any other country, it would still be too high. For that reason, it is right for us to be on the look-out for any useful lesson to be learned from any other country as to how we can reduce it.

Perhaps the country which differs most in its approach to the problem of industrial safety is the United States, to which my hon. Friend referred at some length. Policy and practice in the United States are not, of course, uniform; they vary between States. In some States there is legislation enforced by a State inspectorate; in others, inspection is done by officers of insurance companies. Generally speaking, it is interesting to note, as my hon. Friend says, that insurance companies in the United States play a far more active part than they do here in the work of positive accident prevention. They undertake inspection, and establish public standards of safety; they provide technical information for their policy holders, and also they publish advisory literature.

While there is, to some extent, law on the subject of safety in the United States, for the most part it is much less elaborate and detailed than here, and relies less upon specific requirements about the guarding of machinery. By implication, therefore, Americans rely more than we do on creative and active widespread safety-conciousness in order to prevent accidents. It is certainly interesting to note the work of the extremely active National Safety Council in the United States, to which my hon. Friend referred.

To give an idea of its activity and range of effort, I notice that in 1955 it had a convention on safety which no less than 15,000 people attended. I notice also —while I wish my hon. Friend well in his movement in this country, I hope he will not follow this—that there were no less than 400 lectures at that convention. I feel that 400 lectures would be too much for the digestion of any British audience, and I fear that it might hinder the good cause rather than promote it. But, apart from that, I agree that the greater attention paid in some countries, including the United States, to the need to instil safety-consciousness in the public mind is one lesson which we should definitely take to heart in this country.

The excellent work done by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is pursued, of course, on the same lines as those adopted by the American National Safety Council. As I have already said, we hope that the work of Ro.S.P.A. will be intensified, but, in response to my hon. Friend's suggestion, I would say that all well directed efforts which can be made to increase safety-consciousness will be welcomed by the Government. Sympathetic consideration will be given to ways and means whereby the Government can assist in such efforts, taking account, of course, of the need to avoid overlapping or dissipation of effort.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that the response to his suggestion is a reasonable one. We value his initiative in raising this debate today, and I hope that he will feel confident that we do attach very great importance to this problem. We are ready to welcome any constructive initiative which will bring new forces into the campaign to reduce the immense toll of accidents which we suffer at the moment and which we ought. and must, reduce in the next few years.