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Understanding the Health and Safety at Work Act

Health and safety laws can be tricky for anyone to navigate, whether they be employers, employees, or self-employed persons. To ensure compliance, legal aid practically becomes a necessity.

If you seek assistance in matters related to health and safety legislation, call our specialists at 0333 305 9375.


Health and Safety at Work. An Overview

Over the past several decades, more and more employment legislations worldwide have become conscious of the importance of preserving optimal workplace health, and the UK is no exception.

Generally speaking, health and safety regulations assign responsibilities to all intervening parties in a working relationship, mainly those who manage personnel (companies and the self-employed). Failure on their part to uphold or comply with these rules usually leads to harsh penalties, especially if this failure results in irreparable health damage.

What is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974?

The Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 1974 constituted a significant milestone in the history of UK labour law. It improved upon the various “Factories Acts” enacted in the early 19th century, all of which were fraught with limitations in terms of enforcement and, what’s more, were circumscribed to specific working environments.

Among the several changes brought about by the 1974 law, we can find more severe sanctions. In addition, the law now governs all workplaces across Great Britain, acknowledging thus the existence of accident and occupational health risks beyond the boundaries of the traditional workshops and factories.

Every business, no matter the economic sector or branch of industry, is subject to the stipulations contained in the 1974 act, notwithstanding the additional requirements set out by other legislation targeted towards specific industries.

Health and Safety Legislation. Statutory Instruments

The HSWA 1974 is the chief piece of legislation on health and safety at work, though it’s not the only normative text on the subject. Numerous other regulations (known as “statutory instruments” or “secondary legislation”) complement the 1974 act, including:

  • Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 – Governs the implementation of health and safety committees and the appointment of health and safety representatives by recognised trade unions
  • Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 – Places the burden on employers to secure appropriate first-aid provisions and equipment in the workplace
  • Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 – Touches upon the proper use of electricity in working areas and the measures that should be adopted by employers, employees, and the self-employed to prevent dangers associated with electrical systems
  • Health and Safety for Employees Regulation 1989 – Contains a series of employer duties such as informing employees of various health, safety, and welfare topics through the use of educational material (e.g., leaflets, posters, etc)
  • Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992 – These require employers to install an appropriate workstation for people who operate with DSE (computer monitors and similar) on a daily basis to prevent health risks linked with the use of these technologies
  • Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 – These establish the obligation to consult employees on certain matters when a trade union is not available
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – Places the responsibility on employers for conducting risk assessments in the workplace
  • Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – Issues instructions related to fire safety management
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Regulations 2018 – These lay out the obligation to provide PPE to personnel in order to mitigate risks in the workplace that can’t be reduced through any other means

In Northern Ireland, the HSWA 1974 provisions were adopted through the Health and Safety at Work Order 1978.

Approved Codes of Practice

The Approved Codes of Practice (ACOP or ACoP) offer further insight into the regulations mentioned above, but they don’t carry the same legal force as their parent instruments. Nevertheless, these ACOPs can serve as evidence in a criminal proceeding.

ACOPs are approved by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) with the assent of the Secretary of State.

Who has Health and Safety Rights in the UK?

A great percentage of employment rights are not shared between the different worker categories, but health and safety rights are a marked exception. These rights extend to virtually all individuals who carry out work in the UK, whether they be contractors, casual/agency/zero-hours contract workers, or similar.

With that said, certain H&S regulations grant special protection to more vulnerable groups of people, such as new and expectant mothers. as well as young workers.

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What Are the Employer’s Responsibilities Under UK Health and Safety Law?

Employers, managers, and self-employed persons in charge of personnel get the shorter end of the stick regarding health and safety responsibilities. However, this is not entirely unjustified, given their supervising roles.

The obligation to minimise risks to employee health is an “implied term” in every employment contract, meaning that it does not need to be expressly stated in the body of the contract or written statement for it to be enforceable.

Among other requirements, employers must:

  • Provide a safe working environment, as well as a safe working system
  • Confect a health and safety policy
  • Perform proper risk assessments
  • Supply employees and workers with safety equipment
  • Ensure that the staff receives health and safety training
  • Consult staff whenever a health and safety issue emerges, either by speaking with them directly or through the respective trade unions
  • Provide health and safety information through proper mediums such as bulletins, internal newsletters, posters, flyers, etc.
  • Set up emergency plans

Furthermore, businesses with five or more employees should possess a written health and safety policy and keep a log of all their risk assessment results.

Employees reserve their right to make several claims – including constructive unfair dismissal claims – if an employer or manager fails to meet any of these obligations.

Examples of Measures to Keep a Safe and Healthy Workplace

To keep a healthy and safe working environment – in compliance with the HSWA 1974 and its complementary regulations – employers should, among other examples:

  • Provide suitable workstations for employees
  • Keep employees and workers protected from dangerous substances and all types of work-related pollution
  • Maintain optimal temperatures across all working spaces
  • Ensure that the workplace is ventilated properly
  • Keep all the areas well-lit
  • Steer workers and employees away from slippery surfaces to avoid falling accidents
  • Make sure that all machinery and equipment are properly maintained and repaired
  • Allow employees to take the necessary rest breaks, leaves, and holiday entitlements
  • Keep work areas separate from rest areas, dining rooms, and similar
  • Install safety devices in doors and windows whenever necessary
  • Furnish adequate welfare provisions (e.g., toilets, washing and changing facilities, clean drinking water, etc.)

Health and Safety Policy

UK Health and safety law obliges businesses to have a comprehensive H&S policy that addresses questions such as how health and safety issues would be managed and by whom.

As stated before, an organisation with five or more employees needs to write down these policies and have them available for consultation by interested parties.

Any H&S policy should contain at least the following sections:

  • Statement of intent: A statement of intent lays out the general goals that the policy plans to achieve, as well as the employer’s commitment towards preserving the health and safety of those under their supervision
  • Responsibilities and roles: This section discloses the names and roles of the individuals entrusted with specific responsibilities in the execution of the policy
  • Health and safety arrangements: Here, the employer should elaborate on the practical arrangements and actions they would take to reach the policy’s goals, such as training employees, performing risk assessments, and making safety equipment readily available.

What Are the Employees’ Health and Safety Duties?

While many are tempted to believe hirers are the only liable party in health and safety affairs, employees also share some of the responsibilities and must work in tandem with their managers and bosses to guarantee compliance with H&S regulations.

Workers and employees have a commitment to, among other things:

  • Look after their own safety and that of their peers while carrying out work
  • Abide by the health and safety policies prescribed by the employer
  • Not interfere rashly or intentionally with any measures or devices meant to protect the health and safety of others
  • Attend health and safety training sessions organised by the employer
  • Operate machinery and workplace equipment according to the instructions and/or training received
  • Report any abuse of the health and safety policies and procedures by anyone, especially when it puts the safety of others in jeopardy
  • Use and store the PPE correctly
  • Maintain reusable equipment in good condition while under their direct custody

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What is the Health and Safety Executive?

In a nutshell, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the national workplace health and safety regulator entrusted by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 with the following functions:

  • Give advice and information about health and safety at work to those interested
  • Raise awareness across workplaces about the importance of following safety regulations
  • Carry out inspections and investigations regarding possible violations of H&S rules
  • Take enforcement actions aimed at preventing further damage and holding infractors accountable

In Northern Ireland, the duties proper to the HSE are assumed by the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI). This body was initially called the Health and Safety Agency until the HSWA 1974 was re-enacted for the province four years after via the Health and Safety at Work Order 1978.

HSE and Local Authorities

The HSE is the primary workplace H&S regulator, though it’s not the only one in existence within Great Britain. Other local regulators, numbering roughly 380, can also tackle health and safety breaches and operate independently from the HSE for their prosecution.

The authority called to intervene will depend on the type of establishment we speak of. The HSE will answer queries and take reports regarding the following workplaces:

  • Farms
  • Mines
  • Factories
  • Building sites
  • Fairgrounds
  • Water, electricity, and gas systems
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Government premises (central and local governments)
  • Offshore premises
  • Schools and colleges

Local authorities, for their part, intervene in these premises:

  • Private offices
  • Shops
  • Hotels
  • Leisure locations
  • Restaurants, pubs, and clubs
  • Nurseries
  • Private museums
  • Places of worship
  • Care homes

How Are Health and Safety at Work Issues Reported to the HSE?

Affected individuals can report any incidents directly from the HSE website. However, you must remember to check first whether the HSE is the right body to report the issue to.

“Responsible persons” – employers, the self-employed, and people charged with workplace supervision – would have to report using the RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences) system.

To report under RIDDOR, the “responsible person” should complete the corresponding online form. Different forms are available to report injuries, disease cases, flammable gas incidents, hazardous gas fittings, or other dangerous occurrences.

Alternatively, they can call the Incident Contact Centre (0345 300 9923).

What Are the Health and Safety Committees?

A health and safety committee is a collegial forum where both employee and management representatives meet to discuss health and safety concerns and which must be consulted by the employer whenever an H&S problem needs to be addressed.

Two or more trade union representatives on health and safety matters can request employers to install a health and safety committee in the company. Upon receiving this request, employers must set up the committee within the next three months.

While creating the committee is not mandatory (provided that the employer already consults with employee-elected representatives), it’s always good practice to arrange one to allow both union-appointed and employee-elected representatives to perform joint analyses and arrive at a consensus.

When assembling a health and safety committee, it’s recommended to agree on the following:

  • The principles under which the committee will operate
  • Who will be its members
  • The frequency by which the committee shall meet
  • The actions the committee will take
  • How the committee will reach all the decisions, and how it will tackle disagreements
  • How the decisions would be communicated to the rest of the staff
  • The resources that committee members will need

The committee should have a written constitution that recapitulates all these agreements in an orderly fashion and can be consulted by all members.

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There are no conclusive rules on how many members an H&S committee ought to have. Nevertheless, the number should be reasonably proportionate to the size of the business.

What’s more, while not legally required, it’s ideal to involve people from a variety of groups. Apart from employee, management and union-appointed representatives, employers may invite professionals in the health and safety field who can provide more insight into the more technical elements of the discussions.

How Can IAS Help?

Health and safety at work is a dense subject that could prove difficult to handle without the necessary academic background and experience. Even employment lawyers may find this subject challenging, given the overly technical elements it covers and the vast legislation that touches on it.

If you are struggling to keep track of all the UK health and safety demands, maybe you should consider contacting a team of legal practitioners with specialised knowledge in health and safety at work.

Suppose you are an employee, worker, contractor, or self-employed person seeking compensation for a work-related injury or health problem. In that case, you can count on the assistance of a legal specialist who can walk you through all the possible actions you may take at your local authorities, the HSE, or even the courts.

If you are an employer or self-employed person in charge of staff, you’d want to secure the help of an employment solicitor well-versed in H&S topics to draft a compliant H&S policy, perform correct risk assessments, report incidents, deal with the HSE or local authorities, create a H&S committee, and carry out a plethora of other H&S duties.

To learn more about our services, call our employment firm at 0333 305 9375.

We offer immigration advice sessions as face to face appointments at all of our UK offices, or via the phone.

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Frequently Asked Questions

PPE stands for “Personal Protective Equipment”.

A working environment could be fraught with multiple employee health and safety risks from contaminated air, contact with dangerous substances, extreme temperatures, sharp objects, working at height, and other factors. To counter these risks, employees must wear the appropriate equipment (e.g., footwear, masks, gloves, coats, harnesses, headgear, goggles, and many other similar items).

These pieces of equipment must be provided by the employer.

The “six-pack” refers to the six most essential European H&S regulations ratified by the UK.

This “six pack” is comprised of the following regulations:

  • The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations
  • Manual Handling Operations Regulations
  • Display Screen Equipment Regulations
  • Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations
  • Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Regulations

Paraphrasing the definition given by the World Health Organisation (WHO), occupational health is a public health area that focuses on maintaining the highest level of physical, mental, and social well-being of people in all occupations.

In other words, it refers to individuals’ general well-being and protection against illnesses and injuries while carrying out workplace tasks.

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