What is the Health & Safety at Work Act?

By Tim Cooper

5 Feb 2021

What is the Health & Safety at Work Act?

As the Covid pandemic continues, companies need to increase their focus on protecting worker health and safety. As part of this, you should make sure you understand and keep updated on your legal obligations.

This article covers

What is the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974?

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) is the main law covering health and safety legislation for UK companies.

The Act sets out the general duties that employers have towards employees and members of the public. It also covers the duties of employees and certain self-employed people towards themselves and others. The Act has seen several revisions since 1974 and led to an extensive system of provisions for specific industries, disciplines and risks.

It has also established a robust enforcement structure, led by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities. This is backed by criminal sanctions, including imprisonment for up to two years and unlimited fines.

Who enforces health and safety law?

Under the Act, you as an employer are responsible for protecting the health and safety of workers and others. Whether the HSE or your local authority enforces this depends on the main activities of your business.

In general, local authorities enforce retail, wholesale distribution, warehousing, hotel and catering premises, offices, and the consumer and leisure industries. You can check who enforces health and safety law for your workplace here.

Non-compliance and penalties

You can commit an offence under HSWA even if no-one is harmed – there need only be a risk of harm.

Paperwork alone does not prove your compliance with the law. How you manage and control risk in practice is most important.

If you do not comply with a relevant regulation, that usually means you are committing a criminal offence. You could get verbal or written advice; an improvement or prohibition notice; or be prosecuted.

If HSE has to help you put things right, you must pay for their time, with a so-called ‘fee for intervention’ (FFI).

How to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act

The first step to basic compliance is to appoint a competent person who will help you manage health and safety in your business. It is not usually essential for them to have formal qualifications or training, though it can help.

You could appoint yourself, one or more of your workers, or someone from outside your business. Usually, managing health and safety is not complicated and you can do it yourself with help from your workers.

Your next legal obligation is to prepare a health and safety policy. This sets out your firm’s general approach, stating clearly who does what, when and how.

If your organisation has five employees or more, you must write your policy down. You must also share your policy, and any changes to it, with your employees.

The next step is to do a risk assessment, which should be straightforward for most small, low-risk businesses.

Assessments must, at least, identify what could cause injury or illness in your business; and how likely these hazards are to harm someone and how seriously.

Your assessment must also act to eliminate these hazards, or if this is not possible, control the risks. You should also involve employees in assessments by discussing health and safety and the work they do; and how you control risks.

Allow employees to raise health and safety concerns and influence decisions. Monitor your controls, investigate accidents and take corrective action.

By law, you must also inform and train staff on health and safety and provide the right supervision and workplace facilities. The latter range from simple things such as toilets and washbasins to more specific work-related safety equipment, and facilities for disabled people.

If there is a risk that you cannot avoid or otherwise control, you must also use safety signs to warn people.

By law, you must have first aid facilities in your workplace, appoint first aiders and train workers in first aid. You should also have emergency plans and procedures.

You must display the health and safety law poster where workers can read it easily, or give workers an equivalent leaflet.

Another requirement is to get employer’s liability insurance. If an employee is injured or becomes ill from the work they do for you, they can claim compensation from you. Insurance will help you to pay any compensation.

Finally, the law also requires you to report certain accidents, injuries, near misses and work-related illnesses to HSE.

Find out more about laws on specific industries and topics at the HSE website; and read the full HSWA.