How health and safety is saving the world

leaded petrol history of health & safety

Along with ‘political correctness’ and paying your taxes, health and safety has always been a bug bear of every free thinking individual. Lots of people don’t like being told what to do, especially when the rules that are being enforced seem obvious or trite. On the other hand, you have the culture of safety in the United States, where every missing sign or ‘Warning: Coffee is quite hot’ label is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Tragic incidents like Grenfell, however, have the capacity to give us pause for thought. The frequent blogs full of safety concerns from residents about exposed pipes, evacuation advice and a lack of fire escapes proved to be sadly prophetic, and have prompted worries about similar oversights around the country.

If it all felt like a return to Dickensian levels of mismanagement and oversight, it more or less was. The history of health and safety shows us that most of the rules affecting our everyday lives are there for good reason, and that the cautious voice is often the correct one. It’s arguable that they’ve even saved the world.

The history of health and safety

Grenfell isn’t the first occasion where a disaster could have major repercussions in policy terms, leading to the prevention of further deaths. Perhaps the most famous example is also a shockingly relevant one. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in New York in 1911, remains one of the country’s deadliest industrial disasters. Poor safety standards and a policy of locking the factory doors between breaks lead to a deadly blaze, which killed 146 workers. The resulting outcry drove the women’s suffrage movement forward, and led to a revolution in worker’s rights.

While this made ripples across the world, the case of Thomas Midgley had truly global ramifications on the history of health and safety. A brilliant chemist and inventor, Midgley happened to work for General Motors in the period after World War 1. His research into the addition of chemicals to petrol discovered that tetraethyl lead stopped the loud knocking that afflicted current car engines, making them more powerful and more efficient. Unlike some equally potent alternatives like ethyl alcohol, it was also uniquely his, and so the company could patent it.

This brilliant discovery was quickly put to use by GM, who began producing the liquid lead on an industrial scale. The problem, as many preeminent scientists quickly chimed in with, was that everybody knew lead was dangerous. The Romans knew it, as Vitruvius noted in his observation of the effects of lead pipes on water. The aristocracy knew it, after observing the effects of lead decanters on wine and the kings who drank it. And Midgley knew it, as his work had already given him lead poisoning.

Lead balloon

Midgley however, not to be denied his major breakthrough and embarrassed by the community, persisted. He held a public demonstration where he poured the lead over his hands, in a bid to prove its safety (he suffered from lead poisoning again afterwards). America’s leading authority on the effects of lead, Dr. Alice Hamilton, argued that lead poisoning was an inevitable consequence of using the chemical.

This was fairly obvious to anyone working at GM, where the tetraethyl research building was called the ‘loony gas lab’, and where 40 of 49 workers at the production plant died or were hospitalised. Yet after voluntarily ceasing production for a year, the car and oil companies won out, funding studies that played down any risks. Leaded petrol was not prohibited in most countries until the 1990s and 2000s.

Midgley wasn’t done yet, however. GM’s refrigeration division was looking for a coolant that was not flammable, explosive or toxic, and appointed Midgley to lead a team of chemists. Before long they had produced the compound Freon, the first of what would come to be known as CFCs. Despite believing that the stability of the compound would prevent it from breaking down, they didn’t do enough research before going to market. We now know that CFCs are extremely destructive to the Ozone layer, causing a dramatic rise in incidents of skin cancer.

Inherent vices

We also now know the extensive environmental and health damage done by tetraethyl lead. Thanks to the work of public health advocates, scientists and the courts, the additive was banned worldwide by 2000 (with a few exceptions). The United Nations now believes that the banning of leaded petrol has led to a major reduction in violent crime, with children having been particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead on the brain.

The number of smokers has also fallen dramatically in many nations, thanks to the battling of doctors and health advocates against industry lobbyists. Even the ancient indulgence of alcohol has taken a hit, with the proportion of ‘binge drinkers’ falling, and a broader awareness of the dangers of drinking. But time and again, health and safety concerns have been ignored or downplayed in the pursuit of miraculous new inventions.

Take for instance the discovery of radium. For around a decade after the first world war, the radioactive element was touted as a panacea, or cure-all. As well as being added to tonics and foodstuffs, it was used to make glow in the dark watch faces, makeup and even underwear. When the creators and workers from all of these radium companies mysteriously started dying a few years later – many of them with their jaws falling off – investigations began. By the mid 1930s radium had all but vanished as a marketing force.

The early 20th century was something of a boom period for science overtaking sense. Another unfortunate example in the history of the health and safety is the synthesis of several potent drugs. You may be aware that heroin and cocaine are brand names, originating from a range of cures and treatments for common maladies. Companies in London would send bespoke drug packages to soldiers on the frontline, while heroin was available on prescription in the U.S. between 1914 and 1924.

A safer world

Without health and safety laws, we would be in danger of swinging back to this kind of scientific carelessness. The rules may overreach sometimes, but they’re designed to keep standards high, and form a barrier against unscrupulous enterprise. We’re likely to see this in effect when driverless cars start appearing in earnest. Health and safety rules should ensure that these new technologies are safe to use before they circulate, prioritising people over profits.

Preempting the power of tech and auto companies, some authorities have already begun to clamp down. San Francisco has been very particular about not allowing prototype driverless vehicles on its roads, and has threatened legal action against Uber. Here at least, the history of health and safety has led to tangible improvements.

Meanwhile, everyone from CEOs to scientists is joining the debate on robots, with famed entrepreneur Elon Musk and Alphabet chief Mustafa Suleyman calling for a ban on killer robots. There is still work to be done, but the world seems more willing to look before it leaps when it comes to health and safety precautions.

There is one last story about Thomas Midgley. Struck down by the effects of polio in his middle age, the inventor devised an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys to help him move around, and winch himself out of bed. True to form, he didn’t exactly consider the safety implications of this incredible device, and was strangled. The only thing more powerful than a health and safety inspection is a bit of cosmic irony.