Reflections on Robens – fifty years after

It is widely acknowledged that the Robens report[1], published in 1972, led to fundamental change in the approach to the management and regulation of work-related safety and health issues in GB. It is probably fair to say this is a widely shared view – both by those who would applaud and acclaim the changes as being positively transformational as well as those who have criticised the “Robens philosophy” as being naïve and misconceived.

The report led to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) in 1974 and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 1975. Therefore, there are three related fiftieth anniversaries in 2022, 2024 and 2025. All these leading to the development of a health and safety at work “system” (referred to hereafter as the “OSH system”) in GB.

Fiftieth anniversaries can provide opportunities for reflection on developments and lessons learnt. These can be interesting but become of more value if used to consider their relevance and learning in consideration of contemporary issues and challenges. The fact that there are three interlinked anniversaries provides space and an opportunity to for such reflection. It is likely that the 50th anniversaries of the HSWA and HSC/E in 2024/25 will prompt the most interest and scrutiny. However, we believe that the reflections need to start with a clear understanding of what the Robens report actually said and is informed by the evidence of how outcomes, in terms of occupational accidents and ill health, have improved since 1974.

To stimulate that reflection and discussion we[2] have thus prepared or commissioned three papers:

  • Why Robens? sets out the genesis of the Robens report – and what it said. It is inevitable that, with the passage of time since the report was published, some recollections of the report may have become blurred. Indeed many people currently working within the “system” may be unaware of its genesis.
  • Unravelling the Maze seeks to answer an obvious question that emerges from reading Why Robens? as to whether and how the recommendations in the Robens report were implemented – and, if not, why?
  • A third paper, What difference did Robens make? Analysing health and safety data across the decades seeks to look at the changes in health and safety outcomes over the last 50 years to inform any discussions about the impact of the report.

[1] Safety and Health at Work, Report of the Committee 1970-72

[2] David Ashton, David Eves, Kevin Myers, and David Snowball. All joined HSE (and its antecedent in the case of David Eves) as Factory Inspectors and had long careers, together amounting to over 150 years, in a range of operational, policy, strategic and senior leadership roles retiring at CEO or D/CEO level.