Did The Flixborough Disaster Change Health & Safety Forever?

Industry News By Sarah

The year 2024 will mark five decades since the most impactful, groundbreaking and fundamental piece of health and safety was signed into law and a central pivot that rests at the core of health and safety courses regardless of their particular subject focus or level of advancement.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 established not only the Health and Safety Executive but also defined at the broadest level the duty of care everyone in a professional sector, including suppliers, manufacturers, employers, employees and contractors, has when it comes to safety.

Before this, health and safety was defined in a more patchwork, piecemeal form, starting with the Factories Acts, but including the Mines Acts, the Offices Act and the Nuclear Installations Act.

Shockingly, given its influence the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASWA) was at risk of being lost in the tumult of political chaos, and it is possible that one of the most shocking workplace disasters of the past five decades led to its Royal Assent two months later.


Written In Blood?

There is a saying that health and safety rules are “written in blood”, in the sense that laws are written as a reaction to an accident that ultimately should not have happened.

This is technically not the case with HASWA, as the act was first drafted in 1972 and was first introduced on 28th January 1974.

Just ten days later, on 7th February 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath asked Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve parliament, and three weeks later what was described as a “crisis election” took place, in the wake of an oil crisis and the Three-Day Week.

The result was utter chaos, leading to a hung parliament where neither party had a majority and an unstable government which struggled without the votes or power to push through its radical proposals.

The HASWA was a relic of a previous government, albeit from just a month before the General Election, and there was a legitimate risk that it could have been forgotten, were it not for Flixborough.

On Saturday 1st June 1974, the Nypro UK chemical plant near Flixborough, North Lincolnshire, exploded as the result of an equipment modification that had not been adequately designed, although the exact cause has been debated for 50 years.

The explosion damaged houses for miles, was heard from an even greater distance and led to 28 deaths and 36 injuries, both numbers that were unacceptably high but could have been even worse had the accident taken place.

What was known was that the Works Engineer role had been vacant since January, there were no professionally qualified mechanical engineers present at the time of the accident, and the emphasis on a prompt restart of the plant led to a reckless and risky solution that turned out to be deadly.

This disaster did not directly lead to the working of the HASWA, which was formally introduced in the form for which it would pass by Michael Foot on 22nd March 1974, but it would be commonly cited as a reason why it should be passed and it is perhaps no coincidence that on 28th July 1974 HASWA would pass.

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