Sorry for the Weight! How to Lift a Box in the Past and Today – Source of the Month (January 2023)

RICHARD BACON: ‘The other day the BBC sent me on a health and safety away day where they taught me how to carry a cup of coffee’.

PETER MANNION: ‘This is exactly what I mean. That makes no sense. That is nonsense. We need to say no to the Nanny State. Boo to Nanny, and claw back some personal responsibility in the name of common sense.’

With campaigns on wellbeing and mental health on the rise, many internal communication professionals today find themselves conveying health messages to an organization’s employees. In fact, a number of people have made the case that bad communication itself contributes to poor mental health among employees. A challenge of running such a campaign is to distance it from ‘health and safety’, an element of employment relations that has attracted mockery.

These two extracts from The Thick of It and The Office satirize a perceived rise in over-the-top health and safety in the workplace. They are based on a widespread belief that an obsession with health and safety is something that has arisen in recent decades. Being trained on how to lift a box has become an iconic symbol of a culture that is ridiculed in Gareth Keenan’s training session. The implication is that this stands in contrast to a past culture where people were made of tougher stuff and just got on with things.

Peter Mannion’s comments associate this culture with the ‘nanny state’. State involvement in health and safety began in 1969 when the Labour MP Barbara Castle set up a committee headed by Alfred Robens to look into workplace health and safety. The committee’s report led to the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act which required self-regulation of these matters by employers.

Fascinatingly, though, health and safety campaigns have actually been a feature of internal communication since its earliest days. This month’s source comes from the Industrial Welfare Society, founded in 1918 under the name the Boys’ Welfare Association. This organization was composed of managers who argued that the most effective means of increasing productivity was improving welfare standards. Matters of health and of safety not only appear in the first issues of the society’s journals but are an obsession of its members.

At this point, you may be thinking that the crucial difference was that there were far more serious health and safety issues in the 1920s to be communicated to the workers. Up to a point, this was the case. The 1920s editions report on hair and clothing being caught in machines, electrocution from damaged cables, and lead poisoning from paint and pipes. Yet there was also a concern for the health and safety matters with which we are familiar today. In 1929, a certain Christopher Lee showcased his factory’s procedure of carrying out a workstation inspection for new employees:

First, there is the question of the worker who stands to his work. If the factory is properly equipped it is likely that all the benches or machine tables will be set at a uniform height. To determine the correct height, the tallest worker should be considered. It is a terrible handicap to work over a bench that is too low and involves continual stooping. Next each worker should be studied in relation to the height of the bench and should be supplied with a platform to stand on, suited to his or her height. In many factories I have seen people working in positions that must be continual torment and a serious menace to health, and the solution is so simple, and of such great benefit to the worker, and consequently to the production of the factory, that I cannot understand why everybody does not apply it.

(Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, Oct 1929, pp. 331-32)

Employees might even find themselves being trained on how to lift a box in pre-World War Two Britain. Even as negotiations with Adolf Hitler were failing and war seemed increasingly likely, some managers were still making a priority of communicating safety messages relating to day-to-day workplace tasks. An article from April 1938 looked into the matter in great detail:

From Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, vol. xx no. 4 (Apr 1938), pp. 136-40. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/20.

When an internal communication professional runs a campaign for an organization, one goal may be to challenge ingrained attitudes. An obstacle that must sometimes be overcome is ‘rhetorical history’, where people have told a version of the past to suit their goals in the present. Health and safety is one example of how popular contemporary attitudes have rested on an imagined tradition in which people in the past made less of a fuss. It allows for a narrative in which this imagined tradition has been lost due to the rise of the ‘nanny state’.

Ignoring the long history of health and safety in internal communication weakens the legitimacy of contemporary campaigns on health in the workplace. Studying the history of internal communication could offer the opportunity to tell a revised historical narrative. Internal communication itself has a much longer history than many people realize, with company magazines originating in the late nineteenth century. Throughout this history, messages relating to health and safety have been a high priority for employers.

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