The Aberfan Disaster – Changing Our Attitudes to Risk Management

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Anyone who has been watching the news this week will know that tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most devastating disasters of modern times.

On the 21st October 1966 a coal spoil tip perched on a mountain above the village of Aberfan in South Wales collapsed, engulfing a farm, over 20 houses and the local village school.  144 people were killed in the disaster, 116 of those children. Many locals rushed to the scene, spade in hand, desperate to help but this only hampered rescue efforts and it took over a week to recover all the victims.

The subsequent tribunal revealed that a spring underneath the tip had caused a slow build-up of water which eventually caused the tip to slide down the mountain.  The blame was squared solely at the National Coal Board for the disaster, which was described as:

“…a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted… Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination.”

The inquiry contributed significantly to the beginning of a sea change in Britain’s attitude towards health and safety. The resultant creation of the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 mandated employers to proactively protect their workers in everyday job roles. It has had a powerful effect. The total number of work injuries has fallen by 77% from 336,701 in 1974 to 77,310 in 2014, with fatal injuries tumbling from 651 in 1974 to less than 150 in 2014.

Of course, it can be easy to view health and safety as something that happens in a ‘bricks and mortar workplace’, but what about your colleagues out working in the field?

A proactive attitude towards health and safety is as critical on the road as in the office or factory.  Screening and assessing drivers for their risk profile is the first key step in reducing the risk of accidents before they occur, followed by ongoing training and assistance to ensure that knowledge and skills are constantly maintained.

Sadly, many of the rules and regulations that millions of us now take for granted in our everyday working lives have been the result of tragic events. If the disasters of the past teach us anything, it is that ignorance is no excuse for a lack of an effective risk management system.

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