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Former HSE colleagues reflect on Robens, 50 years later

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A group of five former senior HSE officials have authored three new papers to mark 50 years since the Robens committee published its revolutionary report.


Published in July 1972, and debated in parliament on 19 July of that year, the 272-page report was more than a mere document.

Conceived under a Labour administration, introduced by a Conservative one and finally implemented by an incoming Labour Government in 1974, Robens’ report provides a rare example of bipartisan political effort.

British Safety Council's founder James Tye (left) with Alfred Robens (second from right) and others in the 1960s. Photograph: British Safety Council archives

Crucially, it established the Health and Safety At Work Act which has been responsible for reducing workplace deaths, which at their peak in the 1970s' were over 1,000 a year.

To mark the day the report sprang to life, five former senior HSE officials have committed their own thoughts to paper. Four of the authors are former factory inspectors at HSE: David Ashton, David Eves – who joined HM Factory Inspectorate, pre-HSE – and Kevin Myers and David Snowball. They all went on to hold operational, policy, or strategic roles over the 50 years since Robens and retired as CEOs or deputy CEOs.

The fifth author, Alan Spence, had a long career as a government analyst including HSE’s Chief Statistician and Chief Economist. He sadly died shortly after completing his paper.

Commenting, David Ashton said: “The Robens Report came at a time of crisis. Safety standards were dropping. There was no confidence in the old arrangements which were based on occasional inspections with years of apathy in between. The previous philosophy implied that ensuring health and safety standards were being observed was a government problem and responsibility. Robens realised that this was the wrong approach and beginning to do more harm than good."

David Ashton: "There was no confidence in the old arrangements which were based on occasional inspections with years of apathy in between."

David Eves added: “Effective ways of ensuring the proper control of major hazards have been created on the basis of Robens’ recommendations. Safety of the public arising from work activities – not even considered before Robens – has improved significantly.”

Kevin Myers said the five ex-colleagues wanted to mark the report’s anniversary in a way that encourages people to reflect – particularly on contemporary issues and challenges. “It is likely that the 50th anniversaries of the Act and HSE in 2024/25 will prompt such interest and scrutiny.

"However, we believe that it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what the Robens Report said; and to celebrate the extraordinary and enduring impact it still has on how we look after people in their working lives or when the work activities of others might harm them.” 

Kevin Myers: "We believe that it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what the Robens Report said; and to celebrate the extraordinary and enduring impact it still has."

The three papers are:

  • Why Robens?’ - the genesis of the Report and what it actually said. 
  • ‘Unravelling the Maze’ - whether and how the recommendations in the Report were implemented – and, if not, why?
  • ‘What difference did Robens make? Analysing health and safety data across the decades’ – an analysis of the changes in health and safety outcomes over the last 50 years to provide an evidence base for discussing the longer-term impact of the Report.

The papers can be accessed here

Read our piece in Safety Management on the achievement of Robens here

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