Risk, Welfare and Safety in Europe and North America, c. 1750-2000.
A conference report by Peter Itzen, Freiburg
“A conspiracy” – that was how Arwen Mohun described the character of the conference on ‘Emergencies and accidents’ that took place at Oxford Brooks and was organized by Mike Esbester of Portsmouth University and Tom Crook from Oxford Brookes (9th to 11th September, Oxford Brookes University). If it was a conspiracy then certainly a conspiracy which succeeded in bringing scientists and scholars together from many different countries and disciplines whose scientific interests all focused on risks in modern western societies. Among them not only established and prestigious scholars of the subject like Bill Luckin or the aforementioned Arwen Mohun, but also many young researchers that managed to demonstrate into how many fields the research on risk, accidents and emergencies has spread. Interestingly, some of the leading experts and former civil servants that formed policies on health, safety education and risk management in the United Kingdom also took part in the discussions. Their contributions enriched the discussions enormously and opened up perspectives of coming historical and sociological research on emergencies, risks and accidents.
The questions at the core of the conference were diverse: What were typical risks of modern societies? What was, in contrast to this, perceived as a risk? How did modern agencies tried to counter and mitigate these risks? How did social stratifications and class society influence risk perceptions and public countermeasures against them? And, possibly most important, how did risks effect people’s lifes? The conference followed these questions by focusing on different areas, debates, periods and agents, covering Britain as well as on Portugal, Poland, the United States, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, France and Germany, ranging from the early 19th to the late 20th century, dealing with gamblers, surgeons, workers, drivers, engineers and other scientific experts, thus making comparisons and long perspectives possible. Naturally, traffic played an important part in these debates.
It was therefore very fitting that risky behaviour in traffic was at the heart of the first keynote lecture, and it stayed at the heart of many discussions during the following days. Bill Luckin told the story of drink driving in the 19th and 20th century and noticed the importance of continuity and slow change of what was essentially a conservative system of risk management. Partly this conservatism could be linked to the fact that drink driving was a common habit in the equine culture of the 19th century and because of the big role horses played in car accidents around 1900. The dominance of legal criteria and risk management that were developed in a horse culture were difficult to abandon, and it took highly independently thinking judges to prepare the adjustment of law to a motorised society. In the discussion, Arwen Mohun pointed out that in the American debate not only equine criteria were important in shaping new traffic regulations, but also experiences with railroad accidents were crucial in the emergence of new risk regulations.
Luckin’s talk already hinted at one of the most important topics of the conference: successful or failed management of risk always essentially dealt with the perception, regulation and prescription of individual behaviour. Behaviour was also at the core of Arwen Mohun’s keynote lecture. Talking about risks and thinking about the reasons why people choose to take risks also means looking at changes in behaviour, Mohun emphasised. Yet in order to achieve that historians should be aware that sociological risk conceptions that focus on the 20th century do not necessarily reflect historical reality. Risk management, risk avoidance, risk choice and tolerability, Mohun argued, were important facts of life in the early modern age and the 19th century already. Historians will, she proposed, also need to try to reach beyond sources that primarily mirror the positions of experts and look out for the experiences and perceptions of ordinary people as they were forced to take risks or did so voluntarily. This is, of course, also a problem of available sources, but Mohun advised historians to have a look at legal records that often reflect everyday situations.
As already became clear in one of the first sessions answering these questions leads to the involvement of many different sections of the historical and other social sciences. Thus, in the panel on workplace accidents e.g. Richard Biddle presented interesting material that elegantly combined medical history with the history of technology. Analysing the example of shipyard workers in the 19th century, he told the story of rising and worsening accidents that came into being with the introduction of steam and iron technology. Likewise, Mia McCabe linked history of technology with a popular history of an inventor of a safety lamp that turned into a popular hero. Both could demonstrate how technology affected the seriousness of possible injuries and how society tried to find ways to counter these heightened risks – e.g. by resorting to new technology or by new medical methods or an extended system of medical care. Finally, Mike Mantin presented a research project on the triangle of disabled persons in mining regions, emergencies and the poor law in the late 19th and early 20th century. What was regarded as disability, what kind of moral and social obligation followed from disability and how disability could be used as a political argument was dependent upon many different issues – not least the general economic situation. Mantin’s case study was an interesting example of how important not only the perception of risks, emergencies and its results are, but also of how these perceptions are shaped and changed.
Prevention was one of the answers that grew in importance with the advent of new technologies. In a section on traffic history Mike Esbester depicted the history of safety education and the mechanisms of general admonitions and micromanagement by which authorities tried to influence behaviour in order to reduce risks and make them more tolerable at once, using posters, placards, but also lessons in school. Magda Fahrni was interested in the agents of these processes and looked at the white masculine engineers and safety experts that became influential in early 20th century Canada. How a history of risk and risk prevention can also enhance our understanding of political processes was something Mariusz Jastrzab demonstrated in his paper on traffic education in Socialist Poland. Here, an authoritarian and paternalistic state tried to control the effects of traffic risks and followed closely public discussions and debates on the dangers of modern traffic, developing communicative techniques that appealed to children and made them aware of the risks in modern traffic.
Disease management and risk prevention were the topic of an interesting session that dealt with two very different examples – the problems of risk management and public health in 19th century Portugal (Alexandra Esteves) and debates about the dangers of disinfectants in Britain (Rebecca Whyte). In Portugal the picture is particularly ambiguous: The fight against diseases was ambitious and the ideas how the diseases could best be combated were progressive. Yet the comparatively weak state of Portugal, the inadequate provision of health institutions combined with a widespread public distrust towards modern public health measures worked against the success of public health campaigns. Nor could the state and its liberal-minded government count on the support of the influential Catholic Church with which it was in deep conflict. The debate in Britain on the dangers of disinfectants that occurred at around the same time was, by contrast, shaped by ideas of utility and relativity: For many, the positive effects of disinfectants outweighed the dangers of this substance that were sometimes used as a suicide method. Both papers demonstrated how public health measures could trigger discussions, but also how they began to shape individual behaviour and political and cultural debates.
Not behaviour, but how society and its experts interpreted the negative effects of risky behaviour and how they tried to control them were at the centre of the section on ‘Auto-mobility and accidents’. Peter Itzen described how German medical and legal experts discussed car accidents in the early 20th century and how they tried to make sense of the dangers and of the difficult and intricate questions how accidents could be assessed legally and morally. Was car traffic not a consequence of business activity that was of benefit for the whole society so that the whole society should take the responsibility for its negative consequences? The discussions on these questions had not come to an end in the 1930s, but it seems as if German medical experts proposed different solutions from their counterparts in Scandinavian countries (as Bill Luckin emphasised in the ensuing question section). The second paper was presented by Marjan Hagenzieker. Hagenzieker demonstrated how fruitful quantitative research can be for the history of traffic accidents. Using several modern databases she analysed the scientific publications on traffic accidents since the early 20th century and showed how explanations of traffic accidents and proposed solutions changed over time and how these corresponded with other, more general developments. Here, a lot of potential can be found in the future digitalisation of publications in the early 20th century and of the vast amount of ‘grey literature’ that deals with the topic of traffic accidents. While quantitative research may not be the only way to find answers about the history of traffic accidents, it certainly helps to widen the perspective of more conventional historical research.
How the state developed measures to insure public health and safety was the focus of a panel that primarily dealt with the structures of and debates on the British Health and Safety Executive during the post war period. Christopher Sirrs depicted the process of the reform of the health and safety regulation in the 1960s and early 1970s. Sirrs demonstrated that, rather than looking for tighter regulation, reformers debated the necessity to find ways to act against individual apathy by workers – a phenomenon which was singled out as one of the main reasons for industrial accidents. John Rimington, a former Director-General of the UK Health and Safety Executive, described and analysed the framework and institutional, legal and political conditions which shaped the work of the Executive. The changing political background and the political rhetoric of the time contrasted sharply with the day-to-day co-operation between government and Health and Safety Executive. Paul Almond of the University of Reading reflected on the changing public attitudes on health and safety campaigns and measures. Whereas the success of these measures can (on the whole) not be questioned, since the 1980s an increasingly hostile attitude towards the idea of health and safety regulation emerged. It portrayed this kind of regulation as a paternalistic, illiberal and ineffective safety culture. Almond demonstrated that a combination of many factors (among them different political surroundings, a continued economic downturn, the increasing regulative influence of the European Union as well as a changed legal culture and new ideas of self-regulation and risk assessment) led to a declining notion of legitimacy of health and safety regulation in the last couple of years. The ensuing discussion on the three papers laid bare a striking contrast between the importance and effectiveness of regulation and the public and political rhetoric.
How risks were debated internationally and transnationally was at the core of one of the final sessions. What emerged was at the same time a story of institutional success and failure. Isabelle Lespinet-Moret demonstrated how the International Labour Organisation (ILO) functioned as an international platform of knowledge concerning the reaction to occupational risks that influenced risk perception and management by medical experts and technical engineers that read the recommendations of the ILO. While the ILO managed to shape risk management policies Judith Rainhorn depicted a fascinating story of repeated risk ignorance in France, Belgium and the United States. Following the debate on white lead as a dangerous substance in the 19th century Rainhorn discovered recurring periods of risk unawareness or even risk denial – a phenomenon that she described metaphorically as ‘streetlight syndrome’, pointing out that it is the ‘dark’ periods that the historian should be interested in. Rainhorn herself did offer some explanations for this fascinating phenomenon that is typical of many risk debates, hinting e.g. at the role of the industry, the lack of an international scientific debate in the 19th century, the aim of a self-sufficient national economy (that made compromises concerning risk management inevitable) and the late emergence of a working class that was able to fight for its interests and safety.
The conference closed with a discussion among health and safety experts about the history of risks. John Rimington, former Director of the UK Health and Safety Executive, Neal Stone of the British Safety Council, Tim Carter, Chief Medical Adviser to the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency, and David Eves of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents admirably managed to pull the strings of the discussions of the past days together. Tim Carter pointed out that a history of risks always deals not only with different historical background, but also with different types of risks: chosen risks (as in gambling) are possibly very different from imposed risks, absolute risks differ from relative risks. Finally, risk perception might vary enormously and may be very dissimilar from actual risks. A history of risk is, in the end, always a history of many different risks, as values of life and health constantly change and different ways of risk tolerability, acceptance and avoidance even within western societies. Case studies that look beyond the border of national histories are therefore particularly enlightening, the contributors agreed.
Was it, then, a successful ‘conspiracy’ (Mohun) that took place in Oxford? One of the most striking conclusions of the conference was not only the sheer amount of fascinating projects that were being discussed. It was also the diversity of topics of which only some could be mentioned here. Others included the history of trauma, problems of infrastructure, the policing of risk, new environmental risks and the emergence of changed legal environments – to name but a few of the topics of those panels that could not be summarised here. From the perspective of a German historian it was particularly interesting to see how very much alive and even booming the branch of medical history is in Anglo-Saxon contexts. However, despite the diversity of projects (and also despite the different national traditions of writing history) one thing that did shine through was the topic of risky, regulated, imposed or threatened every-day behaviour; a behaviour that astonishingly is often taken for granted even though it often proves perilous. It is this theme that historians that deal with emergencies, accidents and risks share and try to make sense of.
The conference was sponsored and financially supported by Oxford Brookes University, the Centre for European and International Studies Research at the University of Portsmouth, the Economic History Society and the Wellcome Trust. The keynote lectures by Bill Luckin and Arwen Mohun as well as the concluding roundtable discussion are available as podcasts: http://www.pulse-project.org/node/568