Prior to the mid-1970s, workers in the United Kingdom essentially operated without any clear legal protection in place in the workplace. While higher end positions came with benefits and company-specific benefits to protect valuable employees, 8 million workers in regular work and lower level had no protection whatsoever. This was the genesis of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in the UK.
Today, the modern workplace expects that employees and the public are protected from how the company operates and its activities that may impact the work environment as well as the public in general. These protections are in the form of laws, and they require specific duties on employers today. However, employees and even the self-employed are incorporated in the laws as well.
The Employer’s Role
All employers in the U.K. under the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 have a general, broad duty to make sure that their employees operate in a manner that is reasonably healthy and safe. To prove compliance under the Act, all employers are expected to do the following:
- Install, confirm the presence of and maintain safety protection equipment and related systems for the workplace.
- Ensure any materials used in the course of the workplace are handled, stored and utilized properly.
- Provide regular education and training to workers on how to handle materials and equipment used in the workplace.
- Provide a general safe place to work.
- Provide a safe environment for working.
- Have a risk assessment and safety policy/plan in place.
- Have a concern and watch out for the safety of the public.
- Regularly communicate with safety representatives.
Under the same Health and Safety At Work Act 1974, employers are also barred from passing any of these requirements’ costs to employees as a reduction of their wages or as extra fees like a uniform cost.
The actions above are not stand-alone in and of themselves. For compliance to be passed successfully, an employer’s efforts in meeting the above requirements also needs to be documented regularly, showing both an effort and a maintenance of safety protective and preventive systems. The documentation also includes distributing and making available the company’s safety policy/plan to all employees within the organization, regardless of level.
Maintenance and ongoing compliance doesn’t happen by itself, however. So employers have to make sure that they have hired and have working a sufficient number of skilled and competent employees who, with appropriate schedules and equipment, can enforce safety policies and planning regularly. This includes both legal requirements as well as being able to run emergency responses as well. If outsourced, the contractor needs to be qualified and proven as a competent safety resource replacement, capable of professionally helping the company client stay in compliance with the Health and Safety Act.
Risk testing is also another requirement that has to happen regularly in practice. It is not a speech-only requirement. Instead, a regular risk assessment that actually tests the employer’s workplace for any hazards that should be addressed and fixed when found. And the risk assessment needs to ensure that controls are in place when a safety risk does occur.
There needs to be an active or proactive approach to identifying risks before they cause injuries and harm to workers or the public. That means regularly walking the office environment and removing or eliminating any risks or potential risks.
Where an employer is not the sole entity or owner of a facility but shares it with other business entities, the employer is responsible for coordinating and working with the other entities to ensure Act requirement for health and safety are met. The burden is on the employer to deal with challenges or resistance; they are not off the hook if a facility neighbor doesn’t want to be cooperative.
If company knows or is aware that its employees are exposed to hazardous agents, it has a duty under the Act to reduce or eliminate that exposure as much as possible. This includes exposure to gases and fumes, radiation, harmful levels of noise, dust, dangerous organisms, and hazardous substances that become apparent during work, like asbestos dust freeing up during a renovation.
The employer also has to ensure that monitoring occurs to keep track of impacts to workers as well as documenting the results of that monitoring as well.
Any equipment that workers and employees use has to be reviewed by the employer to ensure that it is safe to work with. This includes confirming manufacturer documentation of how to use the equipment, training staff how to use it correctly, and also making sure legacy rules on specific equipment are still followed in addition to the 1974 Act.
If there is a risk that requires exposure, the employer is responsible to provide and make available personal protective equipment and gear without any new cost to the employee.
Any types of materials, supplies, stock materials, and consumables need to be labeled, clearly marked, tested for safety, packaged safely, and made available clear instructions on use and appropriate disposition. The boxes should also include directions on how to store the materials safely.
Where there are special working conditions such as height or confined spaces or heavy lifting, for example, the employer has to make sure that businesses processes and practices are done in such a manner that workers are kept safe from harming themselves. This includes any kind of automated systems and exposure to them when they involve pressure, leveraging or lifting.
Where emergencies may occur, employers are required to have appropriate emergency systems in place. This includes incorporating and providing easy-access systems for reporting and communicating immediate dangers and ongoing incidents. Employers are specifically requirement to ensure that necessary steps have been taken to prevent fires or explosions, as well as creating easy escape paths and access to firefighting equipment.
The Self Employed
While the sections covering the Self-Employed are far more concise and shorter than that of employers, it’s basically because many of the requirements on the self-employed are assigned by attribution. In most cases, the Self-Employed are under the same requirements already listed as requirements for employers. So there is a huge impact hidden in the brevity of the Self-Employment requirements.
Employees do not get to rely on employers as their safety providers by default. They too are responsible to take reasonable efforts to protect their own safety and health in the workplace. They cannot act arbitrarily and negligently. Intentional or reckless behavior shifts the burden onto the employee and away from the employer under the Act. Under employees responsibilities, workers are expected to cooperate and work with their employers to maintain safety and prevent risks or dangers that become apparent. This also includes not misusing or causing problems with workplace equipment, tools, supplies and similar.
Manufacturers and Suppliers
Any outside parties that work with an employer in the form of supply, manufacturing support, equipment installation or repair, and distribution are responsible for helping support the safety of the workplace as well. Any machinery supplies have to test their equipment and produce it at the levels certified by European Community or EC standards for safety.
Enforcement of the Act
Where violations do occur or a party is found to be out of compliance with the Health & Safety Act of 1974, as determined by regulators, the party will be cited and corrections will have to be made. Enforcement of these conditions are regularly followed up on by enforcement officers who can enter facilities without prior permission, sample and collect evidence, review and audit documentation, interview workers and related personnel, and distribute notices of improvement required, deferred violations and flat out shutting the facility down. Enforcement agencies also have the ability to sue entities. Where a conviction occurs, the business or entity can be responsible for a financial penalty reach as much as 20,000 British Pounds and/or up to a year in prison at the magistrate level. If the case goes to the Crown court level, the amount of fines is unlimited and prison terms levied can reach as much as two years.
The Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 has been updated regularly, with efforts to keep up with changes in technology, the workplace environment, labor laws affecting other aspects, and political swings back and forth within government. Further, the regulation side that operates as layer underneath the Act’s authority is updated and revised even more frequently, adding new burdens and requirements on employers, employees and third parties working with both.
For example, with heightened security associated with anti-terrorism efforts, businesses and persons who manage explosive materials are under an entire litany of new regulations and requirements on the handling of materials, explosives, supplies and related equipment. This efforts and increased scrutiny is not just to keep the workplace safe, it’s also intended to keep the public and nearby communities safe as well.
Various events and workplace disasters also happen occasionally. Despite an increasingly safer trend in the modern workplace over history, mistakes and bad situations still occur and injure people, even killing them in some situations. When these incidents happen, new regulations and rules spring up to prevent a similar situation from occurring, to close loopholes, or to increase regulation on areas that are already covered but have been deemed not screened or monitored enough to prevent an accident that did occur.
The Act passed in 1974 was a complex body of legislation that established the ground floor for workplace safety. This package of policies were wide-ranging and covered all types of industries in the U.K. They established protections for over 8 million workers previously on their own when injured in the workplace. Today, the Act’s health and safety legislation in a modern form still continues to protect, influence and shape workplace safety in the U.K. While some feel the Act has created an expensive layer of bureaucracy on private industry, others argue the Act was instrumental in providing workers protection from workplace injury that would otherwise leave them disabled and stuck on government support to survive and pay their bills. Interestingly, while employers have a significant burden under the law, so do the self-employed. And employees still need to be reasonably safe in their own actions as well. As a result, the Act impacts almost everyone, no matter where they work or have a career.