First published on Christchurch Transport Blog
One of the topics that is often raised in groups which deal with historical material is the difference in safety culture evident over an extended timeframe. For example it is often remarked upon that the people working in transportation systems such as railway networks would not be seen in earlier generations using safety equipment or working practices or wearing (high visibility) safety clothing.
To understand this we need to look at the current safety culture that has been developed in industrial contexts in advanced nations within approximately the past 60 years. In our modern era this has become “Occupational Safety and Health” and similar descriptions such as are used worldwide. The historical approach to health and safety problems has been to assume that individuals with proper training and education would have the information necessary to ensure that they carried out work or activities in a safe manner. The problem where this has fallen down is through lack of accountability for actions that result in death or injury. There have been gross remedies possible through the application of general criminal law where possible but this has not been a great deal of assistance in the case of lesser situations where the high standard of proof needed to prosecute a criminal case cannot be reached.
In advanced nations worldwide this has resulted in the gradual development of health and safety regulatory regimes through the passage of laws that create specific requirements for accountability through the development of health and safety focused culture within organisations and prescribed offences, penalties and remedies for failures. This is driven in part or whole by public demand for increased safety and reduction in preventable death / injury rates in occupational activities.
The issue is often being approached in historical discussion as a negative effect where the loss of “common sense” is widely decried. It is clearly implied in comments of this type that H&S in this context is impinging upon the rights of an individual person to choose their own actions. However, the rights of a collective must always be superior to those of an individual. In this case, the greater benefit to society and groups within it, such as families, are superior to those of individuals, such as business owners or contractors. Hence the latter must bow to the collective good and implement more effective safety measures.