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health and safety at work act 1974

Forklift health and safetyThis article is bys Adam Clarke at Praxis42 who provides an overview of the Health and Safety at Work and examines its impact over the years.

The time has come to talk about one of the big ones: the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HASAWA). It’s a fact that this single act has done more to improve workplace safety and employee health over its (almost) 50-year existence than any other. All employers must comply with the Act. There is only one notable exemption, the Secretary of State for Defence can claim exemption for the MOD, but this has been very rarely exercised.

The beauty of the way the Act was written has enabled businesses and organisations to innovate and develop without the need to constantly change it.

It’s easy to look into the statistics and see its impact. If we compare the number of fatal injuries to employees between 1974 and 2021/2022, the figures show a staggering drop of around 90%, with 81 employee deaths reported in this latest year. Non-fatal injuries and days lost to work-related accidents also show significant reductions.

Although these aren’t direct comparisons as the numbers are adjusted to reflect factors such as the changes to reporting requirements, it still shows the effect that this Act continues to have. Let’s take a look at how this Act has changed workplace health and safety so greatly.

Supporting legislation

The Act is a framework of rules designed to create a safe working environment. As a primary piece of legislation, it’s supported by subordinate legislation which looks to focus on particular work environments, activities, processes or on specific aspects of health and safety.

Between the Act and the subordinate legislation, every employer has details of the steps they must take to keep their employees (including freelancers and contractors) and visitors safe while in the workplace.

Responsibilities of an employer

At this point, the scene is set for me to succinctly summarise the Act and your responsibilities. However, the Act is necessarily detailed, so any summary (including this one) will leave out many important points. I strongly advise you to read the Act for yourself, even as just a refresher to ensure you’re still compliant.

But with the above caveat, these are the key points:

Employees’ responsibilities

Of course employees have their part to play too, being expected to play an active role when it comes to health and safety in the workplace, by:

As always, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is here to help, with some helpful (purchasable) posters and (free) leaflets that summarise every employee’s responsibilities.

Reasonably practicable

One thing to bear in mind is that the key to your duties as an employer hinges on the fact that any measures you take must be ‘reasonably practicable’. This qualifier means the steps you take will be specific to your workplace rather than defined in the Act itself.

This enables employers to assess and evaluate the risks and the costs (in time, trouble or actual cost) to eliminate or control the risk to an acceptable level. For example, it might be impossible to remove all risks from the workplace or prohibitively expensive, but it would be ‘reasonably practicable’ to train employees and ensure risks are regularly assessed and evaluated.

To help further guide employers there are Approved Codes of Practice (ACOPs) and Guidance Notes published by the HSE, which should be taken into account in the decision-making process.

Enforcing the act

The Act also saw the creation of the HSE itself, which as you know, along with local enforcing authorities, is responsible for regulating and enforcing health and safety legislation.

As a general rule, the HSE conducts inspections and enforcement in construction and engineering organisations, whilst (for example) the Local Authority Environmental Health Officer would do the same for offices, hotels and shops.

In order to ensure compliance, these bodies are granted a range of powers which enable them to enter and inspect a site unannounced and:

The penalties for non-compliance range from Prohibition and Improvement notices through to fines and imprisonment in serious cases. These penalties are understandably severe when you consider a worst-case scenario.

Changing perspective

With this talk of legislation, compliance and penalties, I think it’s easy to forget that the Act is a piece of people-first legislation. When it was first introduced in 1974, it was commonly regarded primarily as a series of hoops to jump through in order to avoid prosecution, rather than as a way to protect people as they went about their work.

In the half a century it’s been with us, we’ve seen a big shift however. Now the aims of the Act are understood and embraced, with most employers understanding that keeping employees safe is not only the right thing to do, but it’s good for business too. A safe, well-maintained work environment not only creates a much better place to work, but also helps to attract the best talent to work in it. And from a customer-facing perspective, having an accredited H&S management system such as ISO:45001 could be a differentiator when competing for business.

What of welfare?

The world has changed a great deal in the last fifty years. Where, how and when we work have all seen massive shifts since the Act first came into being, and so has the way we think about health and safety.

As I mentioned in an earlier piece about First Aid Regulations, the mental health of employees should be considered in as much detail as their physical wellbeing. Although not specifically mentioned in the Act, section 2 (1) does state that:

“It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.”

It seems to me that ‘welfare’ should certainly include mental health, whether that’s work pressures (such as hazardous environments or deadlines/targets) or simply external pressures (such as the post-pandemic living crisis) which manifest themselves in the work environment.

In the same way that employers have embraced the physical side of the Act, we should now be taking the very same steps to safeguard the mental health of employees. The HSE reported that in 2021/2022, around half of all cases of self-reported work-related ill health were attributed to stress, depression or anxiety. At 2,750 cases per 100,000, this is an increase over pre-pandemic levels and a sign that mental welfare is something we must continue to include in all assessments, even if the Act does not state it implicitly.

Disclaimer. The legislative information contained on this web site is my interpretation of the law based on many years in the health and safety business. A definitive interpretation can only be given by the courts. I will therefore not be held responsible for any accident/incident/prosecution arising as a consequence of anyone using any information obtained from this web site.

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