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Posted on: 09 January 2019

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act (“HSWA”) was brought into UK law to ensure workers’ health, safety and welfare within the UK by establishing the structure and authority required for regulation, enforcement and support. 

Since its enactment in 1974, the HSWA has generated an extensive system of specific provisions for various industries, disciplines and risks. These are backed up by the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which were then merged in 2008.

In addition to being responsible for promoting the cause of better health and safety at work, the merged single national regulated body was granted extensive enforcement powers, allowing them to prosecute those that are found to have committed health and safety offences, with sentences including unlimited fines and imprisonment.

The HSWA is an enabling act. This means that other legislation, such as the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER), are introduced into UK law through it, and add specific requirements to its aims without having to change the Act itself.

The HSE prepares and lays before parliament Statutory Instruments (Regulations) which are, subject to formal consultation, passed into law. These are then supported by the provision of ‘Approved Codes of Practice’ (ACoP) which contain guidance based on current best practice and technical knowledge.

The HSWA makes it the responsibility of everybody to not put themselves or others at risk of injury or illness, though the Act also identifies specific duty holders. Some of these duty holders and their respective duties and responsibilities are briefly outlined below:

Section 2 of the HSWA places a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees.

This duty includes the responsibility to provide/arrange:

  • safe plant and systems of work and their maintenance;
  • assessments to confirm that articles and substances are used, handled, stored and transported safely and without causing health risks;
  • information, instruction, training and supervision for employees to ensure their health and safety at work;
  • premises are safe for all work activities and other commercial uses;
  • a working environment for all employees that does not pose risks to health and safety and offers suitable welfare facilities;
  • the preparation, periodic review and distribution (to employees) of a written health and safety policy stating what arrangements are in place; and
  • consultations with employees on health and safety matters and the appointment of safety representatives (union and non-union) and establishment, where required, of a health and safety committee.

Employers are prohibited (by Section 9) from demanding or requesting payment (or allowing such demands or requests by others in the organisation or third parties) for anything done or provided as part of fulfilling their duties under this Act and related regulations, such as training courses, literature, equipment and facilities.

Section 3 of the HSWA places a duty on every employer and self-employed person to conduct their undertaking in such a way as to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that people who are not in their employment but may be affected by it, are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. 

This duty is intended to protect an employer’s contractors and subcontractors (and their employees), his or her customers, members of the public — in fact, anyone affected by their work activities. 

Relevant health and safety information needs to be provided to non-employees if a hazard cannot be eliminated.

Here are a few examples of giving this information:

  • A warning sign is fixed to the wall next to taps that can issue hot water, to prevent users accidentally scalding themselves.
  • Signage is erected at the entrance to a construction site to inform they should go no further without appropriate personal protective equipment and that non-workers must report to the site office and be supervised.
  • Customers about to begin a recreational activity are not permitted to enter a certain area or start using equipment or apparatus until they have been given instructions (whether that’s verbally, via reading material, by watching a video, etc.) on what they should and shouldn’t do to avoid injury.

People who fall under this category of dutyholder include commercial landlords, managers of serviced office accommodation and maintenance contractors. They have a duty to ensure that people who use the premises for work aren't exposed to health and safety risks within their control and also to prevent the emission to atmosphere of any noxious or offensive substances.  

The duties (set out in Section 4 and Section 5 of the HSWA) therefore include providing appropriate and safe means of entry and exit, maintaining plant and installations so that they don't pose a danger, and having systems in place to preventing, or rendering harmless/inoffensive, emissions into the atmosphere from the premises.

In addition to the above, the HSWA (Section 7) imposes duties upon all employees while at work to:

  • take reasonable care for the health and safety of him/herself and of other persons who may be affected by his/her acts or omissions at work; and
  • co-operate with employers or other persons so far as is necessary to enable them to perform their duties or requirements under the Act.

Section 8 puts duties on all people so that:

"no person shall intentionally or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety or welfare in pursuance of any of the relevant statutory provisions."

In other words, it is an offence for any person to deliberately disregard, tamper with or misuse measures, equipment, facilities, etc. that have been provided or put in place to keep themselves and other people safe.

While not covered in detail here, these other sections of the HSWA should be of interest in connection with the recommended reading referenced below: