Beware! Safety watchdog with fearsome bark

In 1978, the Financial Times published a piece written by James Tye, the British Safety Council’s founder and driving force for its first 40 years, entitled “Safety watchdog with fearsome bark”, urging the dangerous and unsafe to ‘Beware!’.

Nothing better sums up the British Safety Council’s approach to its core mission, to reduce deaths, injuries and ill health, by raising concerns, lobbying for change and showing firms and people how to improve.

At its 60th birthday, it was time that some of the British Safety Council’s work was made better known – and so working with colleagues at the British Safety Council, I have been writing a book about its past. The aim of this book is to showcase some of the British Safety Council’s rich visual history, put in a wider context of British life since 1957, drawing on the organisation’s archive.

However, for years the archive wasn’t just available, waiting to be used. It had disappeared.

Rediscovering the archive

The process of finding the material on which the book is based is something of a detective story – and it is central to my involvement with the British Safety Council over the past eight years.

In 2009, I put in a speculative telephone call to the British Safety Council, hoping to find someone who knew something about its past – and in particular, where I might find its archives. I wanted to use them in a project I was about to run, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK, looking at accident prevention in twentieth century Britain. I explained what I was after, and after a pause, the slightly uncertain switchboard operator – who hadn’t faced this sort of a call before – put me through to Neal Stone, recently appointed head of policy and communications, presumably on the basis that I was a member of the public. This, it turns out, was one of those chance happenings that shaped everything that followed.

After I’d explained what I wanted, Neal’s response was characteristically forthright: ‘Which shitbag put you on to me?’ I took this as a good sign: it was said in good humour, and this was someone I could work with. And so it proved. Fortunately, Neal had the instincts of a historian, and being interested in the past, promised to find out what he could.

Initial enquiries weren’t promising – nothing remained. It was thought that everything not in immediate use had been disposed of a few years previously. Neal kept on digging, however, and eventually turned up a stash of material, held in deep store at a warehouse in Nottinghamshire. A trip to see the warehouse suggested there was some interesting material, but it was virtually inaccessible and in danger of being lost to the elements: a leaking roof and pigeons roosting above the material don’t really meet archival standards!

Having rediscovered the archive, there was a problem: what to do about it? Having both Neal and Matthew Holder, head of campaigns, championing the cause was crucial. They showed the trustees and others at the British Safety Council that the archive was important and should be preserved, even if this meant spending money. So all of the documents were examined, moved into better conditions, and – most importantly – scanned. As a result, the archive’s long-term future is secure. This was well and good – handy for me, as an historian.

But then there was the question of its value for the British Safety Council, its members and others. The best possible output was that all the information in the digital archive is free to access to anyone. Neal and Matthew also developed the idea of a book, drawing on the archive, to go through its 60 years of history.

The British Safety Council at 60

With my existing connections to the archive – including using it for some research funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health – I was excited when I was asked to write the book. The brief was deceptively simple – let the archive lead, contextualise what is there, and make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Not much to do then!

So what is in the book? Viewing the archive in person and electronically, I’ve become very familiar with the British Safety Council’s past. Even within its 180 pages, the book can only cover a small sample of the work, giving a flavour of the British Safety Council over the years.

The introduction puts the campaigning work in perspective, charting James Tye’s often controversial and confrontational approach as a means to secure publicity for the British Safety Council. This includes the 1995 poster promoting condom use and featuring an image of the Pope – still one of the most complained about posters of all time in the UK.

The book doesn’t shy away from difficult parts of the past – while still thinking about the present day and how to improve safety and health.

The fact that the British economy changed from manufacturing and heavy industry to more office-based and service sector work has meant that the British Safety Council has had to change its focus to bring in the new areas of work. This is clearly seen in the archive and in the book – from the 1980s, for instance, there is an increase in the frequency of posters and other material dealing with office safety. This shifting occupational structure also led to the creation of the British Wellness Council, a short-lived body – ahead of its time – which tried to promote a more holistic view of health and wellbeing, inside the workplace and beyond.

The bulk of the book is made up of nine chapters, each putting posters and illustrations at its heart, with a short introduction to each of the themes.  We tried to move away from more traditional themes of the industry, such as personal protective equipment or manual handling, and instead make connections across areas and periods. These themes feature celebrities and current affairs – suitably turned, to include a safety or health message – the role of the state and the European Union, shocking or gory posters, ideas about human factors and the role of the individual, and the efforts made to make workspaces safer and healthier. While some themes have specific chapters – gender, health and how the British Safety Council’s work extended beyond the workplace, other issues are to be found throughout the book, as they were found throughout the British Safety Council’s initiatives.

So, that’s a short sketch of some of the big themes found in the book – all lavishly illustrated, in colour, with posters, photos, documents and newspapers from the archive.

The difficulty we faced putting the book together was that there was too much material to include – so a lot has been left out. Because we had the luxury of being able to use colour, we wanted to make this a visual tour through the past 60 years: the posters, in particular, are attention-grabbing and are highlighted in the book.

At the same time, we were guided by what had survived in the archive. As a result, there’s lots from the 1970s onwards, but the earlier years are less well served. This is a shame, as there are some missing gems we know about – the poster of the Queen in mine safety equipment, for example, or some of the more risqué material that grabbed headlines. The minutes of meetings of the organisation survived from the outset, through to the 1990s – frustratingly, though, the volume which would have included the passage of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act is missing, so we don’t know exactly how the British Safety Council responded to this fundamental piece of legislation that the organisation itself had campaigned for.

What we have in the archive and in the book are a series of excellent reminders, not just of the British Safety Council’s work over the years, but of the changing and challenging nature of health and safety in Britain since 1957. Crucially, what we’re left with a strong sense of the need for the British Safety Council today, as 60 years ago.

The book was distributed to guests at the British Safety Council’s film night and fundraising event, held on 23 March at Regent Street Cinema in London.

The digital archive can be accessed at:www.britsafe.org/the-archive