25 Sep 2013 Conference Report: Accidents and Emergencies: Risk, Welfare and Safety in Europe and North America, c.1750-2000 - Mike Mantin
The 'Accidents and Emergencies' conference at Oxford Brookes University in September 2013 brought together historians and professionals alike to discuss the complex history of a ubiquitous but comparatively under-studied feature of human experience, the accident. Elaborating on previous key work such as Cooter and Luckin’s collection on Accidents in History and Ulrich Beck’s thesis of the emergence of a ‘risk society’, the three days of panels and plenaries created a vibrant discussion about the concepts of risk and safety with a number of distinct themes and comparisons emerging. The excellent work on show here revealed that accidents – often either ignored or dismissed as ahistorical or an unpredictable occurrence – can reveal the values and anxieties of societies and institutions.
An early panel looked at the ways in which technology affected the rates of and attitudes towards industrial accidents. Richard Biddle (Oxford University) examined the introduction of steam and iron into the nineteenth-century shipbuilding industries, finding that these new work methods brought with them an increased risk of damage to the upper body and eyes. Mia McCabe (Northumbria University) continued this theme with a study of the Davy Lamp, which emerged amidst complaints of poor illumination and ventilation in the mines of north east England, but its design created new safety issues of its own.
Arwen Mohun (Delaware University)’s plenary lecture brought together many of the key ideas and themes of the conference and prompted a vibrant discussion about these afterwards. Mohun argued for the importance of power, gender, marginal groups and the central position of people to the history of risk. The talk was an effective manifesto for risk history and touched on many ideas which were to reappear throughout the conference.
[First aid kit from the early 20th century. Many papers at the conference concerned the history of health and safety in the workplace. Medical Photographic Library. Wellcome Images, Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial version 2.0 licence]
An excellent panel on the final day discussed occupational health and safety regulation from the 1960s onwards. Christopher Sirrs (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) looked at the context of the 1972 Robens Report – which recommended a self-regulatory model of health and safety – by exploring the social and political climate in the years leading up to it. The other two papers continued this chronology. The effects of the subsequent 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc. Act were discussed by one of the key figures, the former Director-General of the UK Health and Safety Executive John Rimington, whilst Paul Almond (Reading) brought the issue up to the present day by questioning why public attitudes have shifted to questioning the legitimacy of health and safety legislation.
With the clear policy implications and contemporary relevance of that panel in mind, the final session of the conference was a concluding roundtable featuring Rimington and several representatives from organisations such as the British Safety Council and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. All of the participants were keen to stress the importance of constructing these links between academic histories of risk and policymaking in this area, and this formed the basis of a discussion about building these links and presenting this history to the public. The session also once again brought together the central ideas of the conference, showing that safety and accidents are themselves terms with meanings that change over time and were a canvas for wider issues.
The organisers, Tom Crook and Mike Esbester, did a sterling job of putting this conference together, and have laid down a discussion which will be continued with further study and more events to discuss this important area of history.
An extended version of this report will be featured in the Society for the Social History of Medicine Gazette no.63 (November 2013), available online at www.sshm.org/content/gazette
Podcasts from the plenary sessions of the conference are available via the Pulse Project: http://www.pulse-project.org/node/568