Nation-builder Series: James Tye (Safety Evangelist)

 The Nation-builder series is a category of articles that focuses on ordinary citizens who felt pained by a problem and then committed their lives to doing something about it. The objective is to showcase, through these examples, the qualities that enabled these people succeed.

As we admire these people, it is hoped that we too will adopt the qualities and lifestyle they exhibited. In doing so, we too will not only identify our area of particular pain but we will also commit our lives to doing something to solve the problem.

The feature for this series is a man called James Tye. He was not only a leading authority on accident prevention, but probably Britain’s best-known, most articulate and fearless safety champion.

James Tye was born in London on December 21st, 1921. Educated at Upper Hornsey LCC School, he served in the RAF from 1940 to 1946 before becoming an advertising agent and contractor. He was Executive Director from 1962-1968 and Director-General from 1968-1996 of the British Safety Council, an organisation he founded as a platform to undertake his crusade against poor safety standards.

Tye passed away in July 21st, 1996 at the age of 75 but the transformation he led in the safety sector in the UK lives beyond his days.

What are the nation-building lessons from the life of James Tye?

Responsibility for a national problem: With over 1,000 workers being killed at work each year in the 50’s in Great Britain, James felt the pain of lives being lost but he did more than complain about it – he took responsibility for the generation of the solution to this national problem.

The change he desired wouldn’t have been possible without him taking responsibility instead of waiting for government to act. I have said repeatedly, we may not be responsible for how Nigeria got to where it is today but we certainly are responsible for what happens to Nigeria today and in the future.

Radical for his cause: James Tye needed a lifestyle to match such a daunting challenge. Government wasn’t doing anything about it, the Royal Family didn’t care as much and most citizens didn’t see what the fuss was about. For James Tye, the lives being lost or fatally injured were of great personal pain to him and that made him a radical for his cause.

As a result, he was not intimidated by the authorities, didn’t allow strong criticisms deter him nor the threat of arrest hinder his commitment. When the Queen was photographed riding a horse without a safety hat, James Tye courageously criticised this wrong example set by such a high profile figure. He also chided the Princess Royal for allowing her son Peter to sit on the front passenger seat of a car without a seat-belt, and Prince Charles for letting his young son Prince Harry sit behind the steering wheel of his Land Rover whilst driving through his Sandringham estate.

He also regularly criticised prominent business leaders and politicians when they didn’t give proper attention to the safety of those in their charge or care. It is important to note that James Tye didn’t criticise for the sake of it but considered these as opportunities to highlight how the country could do things differently to improve safety.

James Tye’s radicalism was built on a life of integrity so what he said and what he did were one. This purposeful lifestyle enabled many to be converted into his message but also, his critics couldn’t question his work.

James Tye reminds me of the late Chief Fawehinmi and how desperate our nation is for more radicals with a cause for the various sectors in need of development in Nigeria.

Single focus: From 1957 when he founded the British Safety Council to 1996 when he died, James Tye spent nearly 40 years solely focused on the vision of making Great Britain safer which resulted in saving more lives. This was his life assignment and he wasn’t distracted by getting involved in other ventures however laudable. He dedicated his time to this work and as a result was known for this one thing.

This is a key reason for the impact he made.  His campaign against unsafe working practices paved the way for the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974. He served on 12 government committees, compiled reports on everything from safety at work and on the roads, in fairgrounds and on holidays, through to first aid, risk management, asbestos, product liability, safety training, life jackets, flammable nightwear and vehicle recall procedures. His report on seat-belts was a powerful influence towards change in the law and the massive saving of life on the roads.

We need more nation-builders with a single focus on an initiative in order for significant and transforming impact on our nation to be attained.

Sought innovative ways to propagate his message: James Tye had an advertising background and he used that to create captivating scenes to raise awareness of his message. For example, he publicly demonstrated how poorly made life jackets led to the drowning of people who wore them. This led to more effective life jackets being made.

According to Allan St John Holt, Chairman of the International Committee of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, “James Tye is the sort of man who will throw himself off a cross- Channel ferry to demonstrate the poor design of the life vests then in place, resulting in a change in government policy.”

Nation-builders must be reminded that they don’t only have the responsibility for generating solutions but also the responsibility to get as many people converted into their message or initiative.

Produced content to equip people: To convert workers and individuals into safety conscious people, he had to produce materials that would equip them. He wrote many books and handbooks, from Communicating the Safety Message to the Management Guide (1968) to Product Liability (1979); from Skilful Driving (1952) and the Industrial Safety Digest (1953) to the International Nautical Safety Code (with Uffa Fox, 1961).

James Tye also educated people about risks at work through training, mass public campaigns, audits and conferences. He created the International Safety Awards to recognise the best safety practitioners and also promoted the safety message.

For Nigerians to change, particularly in our area of most pain, we need to develop well –researched content and equip them with it. It is a critical step required to convert more people into our vision.

He was evangelistic: As a ‘Safety Evangelist’, James Tye used every opportunity, every platform, every relevant incident (private or public), every contact he knew to evangelise the safety message. Even his criticisms were an evangelistic tool to increase the profile of his work.

His evangelistic approach enabled vibrancy and urgency in his message causing many to pay attention and become converted.

We need more citizens evangelising with total abandon, their message and solution that will lead to the building of a developed Nigeria.

Legacy: James Tye was careful not to make it about him but about the vision and the organisation leading it – The British Safety Council. Under his leadership, the council became one of the most influential Occupational Health and Safety organisations in Europe.

Through the efforts of this organisation, today’s Great Britain has since a reduction in fatalities by 85%. Incredible achievement! His legacy is plain to see not only in the legal framework created by the 1974 Act but also in something like the massive London 2012 Olympic building project where for the first time no worker was killed.

Today, the British Safety Council based in London provides training in over 50 countries, including Nigeria. The culture of wearing seat belts in Nigeria for safety reasons probably got its origin from James Tye’s work.

This is the impact of one ordinary citizen on not just his nation but the rest of the world. It is essential for nation-builders to insist on making it about the vision and the nation, not themselves, in order for their impact to last beyond their lifetime.


James Tye has been named World Safety Person of the Year by the World Safety Organisation and became one of the first Europeans included in the American Safety and Health Hall of Fame International.

He didn’t start out looking for awards or recognition. He saw a problem that grieved him greatly and decided to commit his life totally to solving this problem. He was not a leader with a title but a leader with influence and with significant and lasting impact.

Nigeria’s greatest need is for a critical mass of ordinary citizens to commit to solving a problem in their area of most pain. Now we know it is possible, what sector in Nigeria are you most pained about and will you commit to solving the problem there?

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