Timeline of the History of Occupational Health and Safety Laws

The early history of Occupational Health and Safety Laws and significant historical events that helped to shape current laws


The first HM Factory Inspectorate was formed in the UK. The major goal of the Inspectorate was to inspect factories and workshops to prevent injuries of child textile workers (Factories and Workshops: Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops, 1842, p. 9).


Priestly vs. Fowler case in the UK was used to establish occupational health and safety as part of common law. In this case, a butcher’s assistant sued his employer after he fell from the overloaded cart and was injured (Bohle & Quinlan, 2000, p. 319).


A Royal Commission in the UK published the findings on the state of working conditions in the mining industry, documenting the appallingly dangerous conditions for workers and high rate of accidents (including fatal ones) in mines. This case led to the public outrage and the adoption of the Mines Act of 1842. The Mines Act led to the establishment of an Inspectorate for mines and collieries to improve safety environment and prosecutions. Under this act, inspectors had the right to enter and inspect premises at their discretion by 1850 (Lavalette, 1999, p. 101).


One of the first voluntary standardizing bodies, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was established . Actually, the creation of ASME was connected with a reported “50,000 fatalities a year caused by explosions” that occurred in pressures systems both on land and at sea (Metcalfe & Metcalfe, 2004, p. 11).


Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of the German Empire, adopted the first government mandated social health insurance program in 1883, which followed with the creation of the first worker’s compensation law in 1884. This legislation triggered the establishment of similar acts in other countries, partly because of a series of labor unrest (Settersten & Angel, 2011, p. 565).


The Employer’s Liability Acts were adopted by the parliaments of both Britain and Australia to reflect the growing public concerns on industrial safety. In general, according to the law, “an employer would be liable, if the employee could show that his injuries resulted from a defect in the ‘ways, works, machinery, or plans, or from the negligence of his supervisors, or those to whom his employer had delegated responsibility and control’ (Ho, 2013).


Donoghue v Stevenson case is considered to be a foundational case for many countries, as it led to the creation of the modern concept of negligence. This case, also known as “snail in the bottle” case, set out general principles according to which one person would owe another person a duty of care.


Mrs Donoghue sued the ginger beer manufacturer Mr Stevenson because of a snail in the bottle. The Court ruled that the manufacturer owed a duty of care to Mrs Donoghue, which was breached in that situation. It was foreseeable that the manufacturer’s failure to ensure the product’s safety could lead to harm of consumers.


Hamilton vs. Nuroof case in Australia affected the creation of occupational health and safety legislation. A group of workers hoisted buckets of hot bitumen to the roof of a five-storey building, when one of the buckets spilled hot bitumen onto the worker. The injured worker sued his employer in the High Court of Australia. The worker won the case. The High Court ruled that the employer had a duty “… to take reasonable care to avoid exposing the employee to unnecessary risk of injury” (Hamilton vs. Nuroof (WA) Pty Ltd, High Court of Australia, (1956)).


The current status of Australia Work Health and Safety Legislation, including the harmonization process and the rationale behind this


The general OHS Acts were developed and enacted by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments in Australia. The acts were based on the 1972 British report on Safety and Health at Work, the so-called Robens Report.


Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1989 was established in Australia to promote and improve standards of occupational health, safety and welfare and for related purposes. This act include the proper information on health and safety issues, such as duties relating to occupational health and safety, workplace arrangements, inspections, and other issues. The act helps to “promote an occupational environment for employees that is adapted to their health and safety needs and to foster a co-operative consultative relationship between employers and employees on the health, safety and welfare of employees at work” (Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1989).


Occupational Health and Safety (Manual Handling) Regulation was established under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1989 to ensure that employers and employees take measures to ensure that “plant, equipment and containers that may be manually handled are safe when manually handled; and that work practices involving manual handling are designed to be safe; and that the working environment is designed to be consistent with safe manual handling activities” (Occupational Health and Safety (Manual Handling) Regulation of 1997).


Occupational Health and Safety (General) Regulation made under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1989 ensures that all risks are minimized or illuminated if working requirements are fulfilled. This regulation covers such areas as Facilities, Particular safety measures, Training—health and safety representatives, Injury and dangerous occurrence reporting and records and other areas (Occupational Health and Safety (General) Regulation of 2007).


February 2008: WRMC agreed to use the model legislation as the most effective tool to achieve harmonization of work health and safety laws. The majority of ministers supported the initiative of the Australian Government to review the development of model legislation (Decision Regulation Impact Statement for National Harmonization of Work Health and Safety Regulations and Codes of Practice, 2011).

April 2008:  the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations announced a national review to provide the optimal structure and content of model work health and safety legislation to be adopted in all jurisdictions (Decision Regulation Impact Statement for National Harmonization of Work Health and Safety Regulations and Codes of Practice, 2011).

July 2008: the Australian Government committed to organize effective work with all states to harmonize work health and safety legislation by 1 January 2012. The ASCC was replaced with Safe Work Australia (Decision Regulation Impact Statement for National Harmonization of Work Health and Safety Regulations and Codes of Practice, 2011).


In keeping with the Work Safety Act 2008 commitment to the national harmonisation of health and safety laws, the Legislative Assembly of Australia passed a new Work Health and Safety Act 2011, which replaced the previous Work Safety Act 2008 and set out the overall framework for effective work safety procedures and established the proper duties specially designed to ensure work health and safety (Work Safe Act, 2011).


The formation of various international and national bodies (e.g. the WHO, ILO, OSHA etc.) and the historical events that lead to their formation



The International Labor Organization (ILO) was created in Geneva as an international body to improve working conditions and standard of living. The constitution of the ILO states that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice” (International Labor Organization, Official Website, 2013). The major goal of the ILO is to promote employees’ rights at work, encourage the appropriate employment opportunities, enhance social protection to solve a variety of work-related issues.


The World Health Organization (WHO) was established in Geneva as a specialized agency of the United Nations. WHO is considered to be “the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system”(World Health Organization, official Website, 2013).  The WHO provides leadership on a variety of global health issues, shapes health research, setting the proper norms and standards, “articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends” (World Health Organization, Official Website, 2013).


The first session of the Joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health was held to define the role of occupational health.


The US President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), which led to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971. The mission of this organization is to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance” (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Official Website, 2013).


The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work was founded to collect and analyze the relevant information on occupational safety that can serve the needs of employees and employers involved in safety and health in the workplace.


The ILO published ILO-OSH 2001, knows as the Guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems, in order to provide assistance to all types of organizations with OSH management systems.



Bohle, P. & Quinlan, M. (2000). Managing Occupational Health and Safety: A Multidisciplinary Approach. South Yarra: Macmillan Education AU.

Decision Regulation Impact Statement for National Harmonization of Work Health and Safety Regulations and Codes of Practice. (2011). Overview of current work health and safety arrangements. Work Health and Safety Codes of Practice 2011.  Retrieved from: http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/F2011L02804/Supporting%20Material/Text#_Toc308163344>

Factories and Workshops: Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops. (1842). Great Britain. HM Factory Inspectorate.

Hamilton v Nuroof (WA) Pty Ltd, High Court of Australia, [1956], 96 Commonwealth Law Reports (CLR) 18, 25.

Ho, G. “Module 1: Introduction to Legal Concepts.” Occupational health and safety law. Lecture conducted from Edith Cowan University. 2013.

International Labor Organization, Official Website, 2013. Retrieved from:<http://www.ilo.org/global/lang–en/index.htm>

Lavalette, M. (1999). A Thing of the Past?: Child Labour in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Liverpool University Press.

Metcalfe, P. & Metcalfe, R. (2004). Excel Senior High School: Engineering Studies. Pascal Press.

Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1989. Australian Capital Territory. Retrieved from:http://www.legislation.act.gov.au/a/1989-18/19930701-36840/pdf/1989-18.pdf

Occupational Health and Safety (Manual Handling) Regulations 1997. Australian Capital Territory. Retrieved from:< http://www.legislation.act.gov.au/sl/1997-32/20040825-16015/pdf/1997-32.pdf>

Occupational Health and Safety (General) Regulation of 2007. Australian Capital Territory. Retrieved from:<http://www.legislation.act.gov.au/sl/2007-36/20091001-40953/pdf/2007-36.pdf>

Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Official Website, 2013. Retrieved from:< https://www.osha.gov/.

Settersten, R. A. & Angel, J. L. (2011).Handbook of Sociology of Aging. Springer.

Work Safe Act. (2011). Office of Regulatory Services. Retrieved from:<http://www.worksafety.act.gov.au/page/view/2798>

World Health Organization, Official Website, 2013. Retrieved from:<http://www.who.int/about/en/>

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