Aberfan – what have we learnt?

Shocking images and accounts of the Aberfan mining village disaster that claimed 144 lives were recently revisited to mark the course of fifty years.

In one of Britain’s worst disasters, a National Coal Board (NCB) waste heap that sat above Aberfan collapsed and slid downhill, engulfing the village.

While the tragedy is infamous particularly as 116 children were killed, its impact on Health & Safety is less well known. It informed some key changes to the law.

Public safety
Aberfan sparked huge public anger. The question of public safety was hotly debated in the press, particularly as events emerged as being man-made and entirely avoidable.

NCB chairman Lord Robens was heavily criticised for his response to the tragedy. He initially approved a strategy of complete denial. At a 1967 tribunal into the disaster his lawyers argued it was naturally caused by a “critical geological environment”. They also argued there was no way of foreseeing a slide, despite the fact Aberfan tips had slipped twice before as had one at a nearby colliery causing £10,000 worth of damage.

The tribunal’s report went on to describe:

  • the “bungling ineptitude” of coal mine managers and workers
  • men as being totally unfit for their charged tasks
  • clear warnings being ignored.

Aberfan made the dangers of ignoring workplace risks and the catastrophic effects on both occupational and public health and safety all too obvious.

It is debateable whether the NCB was liable for negligence. There was though no legislation on tip safety and no-one was punished or even held to account. Britain in the 1960’s was a very different world in matters of law!

A wholesale review of the risks of tip-heaps quickly followed, as did the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969. This Act required steps to be taken to make sure tips were absolutely safe and did not become a threat to people.

Controlling risks to the public
The 1969 Act specifically referred to public safety. Aberfan was to blur the traditional divide between Health & Safety in the workplace and that of the wider public.

Aberfan wasn’t the first disaster in which the public was affected by workplace activity. A 1964 crane collapse on a London construction site killed 7 and injured 32 when falling on a passing motor coach. Nor was Aberfan the last time occupational risks affected the public. A 1974 explosion at a Nypro chemical plant severely damaged the nearby Lincolnshire village of Flixborough.

Nonetheless, Aberfan added to a growing sense that the risks the public were exposed to by industry had to be controlled. This feeling eventually led to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act (HSWA) 1974 which aims to protect both workers and non-workers from the risks of workplace activities.

Indeed, the HSWA notably requires that employers must safeguard people not in their employment. This includes members of the public, contractors, patients, customers, visitors and students. This may be seen as Aberfan’s legacy.

Unbelievably, the committee which effectively led to the creation of the HSWA was chaired by none other than Lord Robens!

Post-HSWA
Earlier legislation such as the Factories Acts focused on specific industries or workplaces. This meant over 5 million workers had no Health & Safety protection – as well as the generally ignored public. The law was then more concerned with making sure machinery was safe!

One key feature of the 1972 Robens Committee Report that is echoed in today’s Health & Safety is the principle of consultation. The committee identified apathy as the most important single reason for accidents. Accordingly, employers must now consult employees and pay more attention to attitudes.

Regrettably, despite great improvements in Health & Safety, the public still all too often angrily ask why organisations don’t take more care…

The intervening years have seen disasters such as Paddington, Manchester Airport, Bradford Football Club, Zeebrugge, Piper Alpha, Clapham Junction, Lockerbie, Hillsborough, The Marchioness, Southall and so on.

So whilst we can be comforted by the fact that legislation is more demanding and the safety of people is put first, history tells us that we must never be complacent.

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