Fifty years ago, 144 people lost their lives when waste from a mine, precariously tipped on a mountainside above the town of Aberfan in South Wales, suddenly collapsed, burying a school and eighteen houses. The Aberfan Disaster remains one of the worst industrial disasters in British history, and a great irony of that day is the fact that the man widely blamed for his failure to predict the disaster, and his incompetent handling of the relief effort – the chair of the National Coal Board (NCB), Lord Alfred Robens – was later put in charge of the commission responsible for overhauling British health and safety law in the early 1970s. In this piece, I reflect on Robens’ impact on British health and safety regulation following Aberfan – highlighting how the need for employers to proactively assess risk and consider the safety of the wider public remains as relevant today as it did half a century ago.
Fifty years ago, at 9.15am on the 21st October, 1966, one of the worst industrial disasters in British history took place in the mining town of Aberfan, four miles south of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. A spoil tip placed on a mountainside above the town liquified and collapsed, hurtling down the slope at high speed. Comprising a hundred thousand tons of industrial waste, the landslide enveloped two farm cottages, killing its inhabitants, traversed a canal and railway embankment, and buried a school and eighteen houses before finally, terribly, tumbling to a halt. 144 people – including 116 schoolchildren in the local primary school – lost their lives.1
The Aberfan Disaster occurred a time when the television was beginning to creep into British family life as never before. The first televised industrial disaster in British history, the scene was combed over in gruesome detail by a swathe of photographers and journalists. In fact, so many flocked to the site in the aftermath of the landslide that they interfered with relief efforts – efforts which otherwise solemnly brought out the entire Aberfan community. It is perverse that the news reels and photographs taken by these individuals give present-day historians a glimpse of the scale of the disaster. However, even with these audiovisual sources, the full horror of that day is difficult to comprehend. Witnesses recalled hearing a very loud sound – what they initially thought was a low-flying jet, thunder, or a set of runaway railway carriages – followed by a dreadful, deafening silence.2
In the weeks and months following the disaster, public attention naturally turned to finding out what – and who – was responsible. Investigations found that a spring deep inside the tip was the direct cause of the instability that resulted in the landslide. While the authorities denied they were aware of its existence, various other accounts proved that they were, long before the disaster happened. Either way, the National Coal Board (NCB), the organisation responsible for running Britain’s nationalised coal industry, had technology that could have detected the spring, but failed to use it. At the Davies Tribunal, set up to find the causes of the disaster, evidence pointed to a collective failure of risk perception: in short, the tip was not considered a danger by the authorities. As a representative of HM Mines and Quarries Inspectorate – the regulatory body responsible for licensing and inspecting coal mines – declared: ‘While the coal industry has had a high accident rate, until this horrible disaster there is no previous case of loss of life due to tip instability known to the Inspectorate. . . . The problem of tip stability has never been looked on as a safety problem meriting close inspection or recommendation.’3 Indeed, what is striking about contemporary mine safety legislation is the fact there was no legal requirement for mine inspectors to inspect the stability of tips, or for colliery managers to report tip slides to the authorities. While detailed reports were taken of conditions underground – ventilation, the concentration of dust in the atmosphere, and so on – no such attention was paid to safety on the surface. In fact, when it came to the notification of accidents, only those affecting mine employees needed to be reported to the authorities. Hence, since no worker was injured or killed in the fateful events of 21 October, 1966, the colliery manager at Aberfan was not obliged to report a single casualty – despite the horrific death toll.4
Lord Alfred Robens
The person responsible for running Britain’s nationalised coal industry at the time was the former Labour MP, Alf Robens. The son of a cotton salesman, Robens had worked as a clerk for the Manchester and Salford Co-operative Society and an official for the Union of Shop and Distributive Workers before becoming MP for the mining constituencies of Wansbeck and Blyth in Northumberland (in 1951, Robens also briefly succeeded Nye Bevan as Minister of Labour and National Service). Despite Robens’ early socialist learnings, it was a Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who appointed Robens as head of the NCB in 1960, in part due to his experience in industrial relations.5 Robens was delighted; as he wrote in his memoir, it combined his two great passions: ‘mining and men at work’.6 As chair of the NCB, Robens became notorious for his love of the trappings of power, including a flat in the exclusive neighbourhood of Eaton Square in London, a private plane, and a Daimler (registration NCB1). Robens was a champagne socialist, if there ever was one. While presiding over an industry in terminal decline, Robens earned himself the unfortunate nickname, Old King Coal. Naturally, he came under intense political scrutiny following Aberfan. His cause was not helped when, instead of attending the scene of the disaster immediately, he preferred to honour his instatement as Chancellor of the University of Surrey.7 Robens also blithely suggested to a television reporter that ‘it was impossible to know there was a spring in the heart of this tip which was turning the centre of the mountain into sludge’.8 From Robens’ point of view, he was an administrator – a ‘backroom boy’, nothing more – but his critical misjudgements and insensitivity at this crucial time were enough to tarnish his public reputation, and he became the official face of the Aberfan Disaster.
What’s interesting about Robens is that, despite these various professional missteps, he was otherwise a vociferous and passionate advocate for safety. As an MP in the 1950s he had campaigned for the extension of health and safety legislation to non-industrial workers in places like offices and shops. 9 (Partly thanks to these campaigns on behalf of unions such as USDAW, today health and safety is an universal requirement for all employees, whatever their workplace or occupation). As NCB chair, Robens had also led an industry with a fairly well-developed approach to health and safety compared to many other industries of its day – despite the horrendous accident rate among miners.10 In response to accidents, Robens raised the professional status of safety officers, and pioneered a variety of methods to disseminate the safety message: publications, posters, competitions and league tables, as well as shock films, ‘more horrific than any Hammer Films production.’11 Much of Robens’ detailed treatment of health and safety in his 1970 book, Human Engineering,12 and his 1972 autobiography Ten Year Stint13 can be interpreted as a desperate attempt to salvage his professional reputation. Nevertheless, Robens was well known for his views on safety, and he was also seen by the government as someone who could command the respect of ‘both sides of industry’ – employers and workers. Thus, it was not really a surprise when in 1970 Victor Feather, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), suggested Robens as the best person to lead a new inquiry into British health and safety law – the Committee on Safety and Health at Work.
The Robens Committee
The Robens Committee (as it has subsequently come to be known) was a truly mammoth undertaking. Patiently collecting evidence over two years between 1970 and 1972, over 200 individuals and organisations were consulted on their opinion on health and safety law: trade unions, employers’ associations, insurers, safety charities, professional organisations, government departments and inspectorates. The Committee commissioned outside research to aid their understanding of complex topics, such as accident prevention, and in order to see how health and safety worked in practice, they conducted a series of visits to workplaces across Britain, and regulatory agencies abroad (in a series of junkets in 1971, they visited counterparts in West Germany, Sweden, Canada and the USA). Putting forward its recommendations in July 1972, the Committee’s report was over 200 pages in length.14
The Robens Committee’s overriding conclusion was that the existing body of health and safety law that had steadily built up since the early nineteenth century was no longer fit for purpose.15 First and foremost, there was simply too much of it. With nine groups of law and over 500 regulations in existence, the Committee believed that the sheer quantity of law generated widespread confusion among employers, workers and government, thus leading to inertia when it came to tackling important issues.16 In fact, the Committee believed that ‘the most important single reason for accidents at work is apathy.’17 This controversial diagnosis continues to divide academic opinion to this day, since it promoted a subsequent approach to health and safety protection that relied primarily on self-regulation by employers and workers, rather than prescription, or detailed regulation by government. It is important to note that Robens believed that ‘apathy’ was industry-wide: he did not mean to somehow blame workers for their accidents – as has occasionally been suggested – but rather to allocate responsibility to everyone at work, from the boardroom to the shop floor (‘The primary responsibility for doing something about the present levels of occupational accidents and disease lies with those who create the risks and those who work with them.’18) Nevertheless, he strongly believed that existing law inhibited, rather than promoted safety. As he wrote, ‘There are severe practical limits on the extent to which progressively better standards of safety and health at work can be brought about through negative regulation by external agencies. We need a more effectively self-regulating system.’19
A second major conclusion of the Robens Committee was that the existing system of regulation was overly fragmented. Despite the sheer mass of health and safety law, 5 million workers – almost 1/3 of the British working population – received no statutory protection from illnesses and accidents at work.20 These included workers in such important premises as hospitals and schools. As a result, the Committee recommended that there should a new comprehensive health and safety Act, applying to all employees regardless of workplace or occupation. Robens’ recommendation was later enacted as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which continues to be the centrepiece of British health and safety law.
Thirdly, the Committee believed that existing health and safety law was fundamentally reactive, responding to particular problems and hazards as they emerged, rather than taking a considered, proactive approach. This opinion was shaped by the experience of Aberfan: following the disaster, the government passed the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969, empowering local authorities to prevent danger arising from tips.21 This repeated the pattern of earlier disasters that stimulated political concern about hazards – encouraging public outcries and brief flurries of legislative activity, but leaving the underlying, piecemeal structure of the law intact. According to the Robens Committee, as risks became increasingly complex, and threatened workers and the public in new ways, a new, more proactive system of risk surveillance was needed.
The memory of Aberfan lurked in the background of another, far-reaching recommendation: that occupational health and safety legislation should be extended to members of the public, not just workers. Reflecting on the existing system, the Robens Committee remarked how it was ‘as if there were some invisible ring-fence around the occupational safety system, with the general public left outside.’22 The Aberfan Disaster dramatically demonstrated how, not just workers, but entire communities could be devastated by modern industry. The scale of the disaster was unprecedented. Yet, there was no specific statutory requirement for employers to consider the safety of the public, and officials in the British government thought that if workers were sufficiently protected under existing legislation, then members of the public would be protected by default. Aberfan demonstrated the falsity of this argument, and the Committee’s recommendation that members of the public should be brought under legal protection was dramatically vindicated two years later, in June 1974, when the Nypro chemical plant in Flixborough, Humberside exploded. The explosion was described afterwards as one of ‘warlike dimensions’ – 28 workers were killed and almost 2000 properties damaged – and indeed, up until recently, the explosion at Flixborough was the biggest in Britain since the Second World War.23
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
The month after the Flixborough Disaster, in July 1974, the Robens Committee’s recommendations were embodied in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which remains the cornerstone of British health and safety law to this day. The Act requires all employers to take ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to protect the health and safety of all their employees, and crucially, also extends this requirement to ‘third persons’ such as members of the public who can be injured or made ill by work activity. Perhaps most importantly, the Act establishes the requirement for all employers to conduct risk assessments as a means of gauging the level of protection required by workers – a requirement that has been cemented in recent decades via a string of regulations, many stemming from the EU. The basic idea is that by systematically identifying the risks workers and others are exposed to, and taking commensurate steps to minimise or eradicate them (if if the risks are too great), accidents, and disasters like Aberfan, can be foreseen and prevented.
It would be a gross simplification to suggest that the Aberfan Disaster directly resulted in the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the wholesale transformation of British health and safety law that took place in 1974. Yet, an understanding of the disaster – and Robens’ involvement, as both chair of the NCB and Committee on Safety and Health at Work – is crucial if we are to appreciate the subsequent course British health and safety legislation took. Alongside wider changes in the 1960s, such as the nature of the risks confronting workers and the public, and trends in the British economy, politics and industrial relations, the tragedy formed part of a wider landscape of events that promoted a comprehensive revision of health and safety legislation. Today, we take it for granted that members of the public should be protected from the risks of work – indeed, the British media often suggests that health and safety legislation has gone too far, and should be dismantled. However, in part due to the system of regulation brought in after 1974, Britain continues to enjoy an excellent safety record in comparison to many other industrial countries. Fifty years after the Aberfan Disaster destroyed a Welsh community, it is worth remembering how the events of that terrible day continue to shape the way risks are prevented in British society.
If you are interested in finding out more about the philosophy underpinning the British system of health and safety regulation – the so-called ‘Robens philosophy’ – my recent journal article on it is available to view open access. My PhD thesis on the historical development of the British system of health and safety regulation in the late 20th century is also available open access, via LSHTM Research Online.
McIvor, Arthur, and Ronald Johnston. Miner’s Lung: A History of Dust Disease in British Coal Mining. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.
Report of the Tribunal Appointed to Inquire into the Disaster at Aberfan on October 21st, 1966. HL 316/HC 553. London: HMSO, 1967.
Robens, Lord. Human Engineering. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.
———. Safety and Health at Work: Report of the Committee. 1970-72. Cmnd. 5034, 1972.
———. Ten Year Stint. London: Cassell, 1972.
———. “Risk, Responsibility and Robens: The Transformation of the British System of Occupational Health and Safety Regulation, 1961–1974.” In Governing Risks in Modern Britain: Danger, Safety and Accidents, C. 1800–2000, edited by Tom Crook and Mike Esbester, 249–76. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
The Flixborough Disaster: Report of the Court of Inquiry. London: HMSO, 1975.
Tweedale, Geoffrey. “Robens, Alfred, Baron Robens of Woldingham (1910-1999).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Report of the Tribunal 1967, par. 49-57. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., par. 68. ↩
- Ibid., par. 69. ↩
- In the mid 1960s, Robens was a member of the Donovan Commission, appointed to examine the British system of industrial relations, which was under pressure due to the growing problem of official and unofficial strikes. ↩
- Tweedale, ‘Robens, Alfred’, 2010; Robens, Ten Year Stint, 2. ↩
- Tweedale, ‘Robens, Alfred’; Robens, Ten Year Stint, 247-8. ↩
- Report of the Tribunal 1966, 89-92. ↩
- See e.g. Hansard, HC Deb 1 April 1955 vol. 539 col. 757. ↩
- See McIvor and Johnston 2007. ↩
- Robens, Ten Year Stint, chap. 16. ↩
- Robens, Human Engineering, 1970. ↩
- Robens, Ten Year Stint, 1972 ↩
- Robens 1972. ↩
- While health and safety is often considered a recent phenomenon, its historical origins in Britain stretch back quite some way – in fact, to a certain extent, the earliest health and safety law was the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802, which attempted to protect the working hours and conditions of children in textile mills. ↩
- Ibid., 6-7. ↩
- Ibid., 1. ↩
- Ibid., 7. ↩
- Ibid., 12. ↩
- Ibid., 9-10. ↩
- Ibid., 4. ↩
- Ibid., 89. ↩
- The Flixborough Disaster, 1975.