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Too many workers are injured or suffer ill health due to hazards in the workplace. Robust health and safety practices, as well as a workplace culture, that uphold and respect the legislation and guidance that exists to protect workers, help to reduce this number significantly.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s leading governing body on health and safety matters, in 2019/20, an estimated 38.8 million working days were lost to work-related ill health and non-fatal injuries at work. This can place financial pressure on businesses, cause significant physical and mental distress to employees who suffer as a result of workplace injury or illness, damage productivity and can decrease staff morale.
Business owners also leave themselves open to prosecution and fines if they fail to mitigate risks and expose staff to avoidable hazards.
It is vital that both the employer and the worker understand exactly what their roles and responsibilities are where health and safety is concerned, who they can report concerns to and what legislation there is out there to protect them.
Who is legally responsible for health and safety at work?
Health and safety in the workplace is a collective responsibility. Whilst the burden for workplace health and safety falls on the employer, the responsibility for health and safety within the workplace needs to be shared by everyone.
The specifics of how health and safety is implemented within your workplace might depend on:
- The industry you work in.
- The size and scope of operations.
- The structure of the business.
For some businesses, health and safety will be fairly straightforward. Keeping staff and end-users of the service safe will generally require common sense and a working knowledge of any legislation that affects the industry the business operates in.
For businesses that have managed to foster a culture where health and safety is upheld and respected, it will largely become second nature to employees. Simple acts such as keeping fire exits clear, displaying a wet floor sign when the floor is wet and could be slippery, maintaining good housekeeping and attending regular fire training all become part of the day-to-day procedures of the workplace.
For some industries, especially those who deal with complex operations or hazardous situations such as mines, nuclear plants or asbestos removal, the management of health and safety operations has to be far more in depth, stringent and with significantly more checks in place.
Employer health and safety responsibilities
The law requires managers to assess and manage risk as far as is practical. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 outlines the duty of care that all employers have to their workers.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 sets out more specifically the employer’s responsibilities, i.e. the steps they take to ensure health and safety need to correspond with each activity happening within the workplace, rather than more general rules.
To help them maintain health and safety within their businesses, there are many aspects employers need to consider:
- Risk assessments – If the business has more than five employees it is necessary to keep a written record of risk assessments that are conducted, including health and safety risk assessments and fire safety risk assessments.
- Health and safety policy – The law requires all businesses to have a health and safety policy. For businesses with more than five employees it must be written down and distributed (although this is useful to do in businesses of all sizes). It must include a Statement of Intent (your general H&S policy and your commitment to it), Responsibilities for Health and Safety (list of names and roles) and Arrangements for Health and Safety (signs, equipment, training etc.)
- Display health and safety law poster (or give out leaflets) – The Health and Safety Information for Employees Regulations 1989 requires employers to display the HSE-approved poster, which can be downloaded, or provide the equivalent leaflet to employees.
- First aid at work – Appoint first-aiders, allow them to attend training, have appropriate first aid kits in stock and in accessible locations.
- Emergency procedures – Provide information and training on what staff need to do in the event of an emergency, who to contact, where fire exits and break glass points are located etc.
- Appoint competent colleagues to help with the procedures – This includes first aid, risk assessments and training.
- Provide information and training to colleagues that is clear and understandable – Things to consider here are language or literacy barriers. Is your H&S policy inclusive, is training regular and is attendance checked?
- Work together with others in the workplace – Communication, as always, is key.
- Report certain accidents to HSE – A list of reportable incidents is available.
- Have the appropriate facilities for workers – This includes toilets, washbasins etc.
- Insurance – Check what liability insurance (and in some cases Public Liability insurance) you are required to have in order to operate as a business.
Employee health and safety responsibilities
Because health and safety in the workplace is a shared responsibility it is important that employees acknowledge that they also have a part to play. Employees are responsible for putting into practice the training that they are given as well as communicating with their peers and managers regarding concerns, ideas or improvements that could be made.
All employees should:
- Attend health and safety training and implement what they learn in their day-to-day activities.
- Report any accidents as well as ‘near misses’, hazards and safety failures that they witness.
- Not engage in practices, or use equipment, that seem unsafe.
- Never interfere with any health and safety equipment (such as fire extinguishers, masks etc.)
- Use the correct PPE in the correct way.
- Take responsibility – Work with their superiors and colleagues to create a safer environment for all, be aware of their surroundings and work safely.
- If in doubt, always ask for guidance on health and safety matters at work, do not guess or ignore anything that seems out of place.
Health and Safety Executive roles and responsibilities
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is an independent, governing body that is responsible for the regulation of health and safety and staff welfare within UK workplaces. They offer advice, guidance, information, templates and tools to employers and employees. They also conduct inspections and have enforcement capabilities.
Some businesses might appoint a dedicated Health and Safety Manager or Health and Safety Executive within the company. This is especially useful in businesses that operate in high-risk areas (such as construction) or that have a large number of employees.
Businesses that decide to employ a specific health and safety manager will benefit from having a qualified, experienced, single point of contact for staff on all levels to approach regarding any health and safety matters.
The roles and responsibilities of a dedicated health and safety professional will include:
- Carrying out risk assessments.
- Training new starters as well as refresher training for existing staff.
- Staying up to date with current legislation and monitoring any relevant changes.
- Ensuring all paperwork is up to date.
- Ensuing compliance within the business.
- Recording incidents, accidents or near misses.
- Improving the health and safety culture within the business, leading by example, and addressing all unsafe behaviour or unmanaged risks they encounter.
What legislation is in place to enforce health and safety?
The main piece of legislation that relates to health and safety in the workplace is:
- Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA).
In addition to this there is:
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
This piece of legislation gives clearer guidance on exactly how risks should be assessed and managed and the steps that should be taken to control them.
There is also a significant amount of industry-specific legislation that might apply, depending on which field a business is operating in such as:
- Manual Handling Operations 1992 (amended 2002).
- RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) 1995.
- COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) 2002.
- Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) 1992.
Employees are also covered under:
- The Working Time Regulations 1998.
This legislation regulates the maximum number of hours employees are allowed to work as well as when they are entitled to breaks. However, in some industries, in particular hospitality, workers are asked to opt out of certain parts in writing (such as the 48-hour maximum working week).
In addition, it is a legal requirement to provide fire safety training in the workplace. Specific legislation that addresses this includes:
- The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
If a worker dies, is injured or becomes ill as a result of their work and the employer has been negligent and failed to protect them adequately, they could be subject to:
- Criminal Law – The HSE or local authority may prosecute the employer.
- Civil Law – The worker (or their family) may sue the employer for compensation.
Either of these possibilities can result in a financial loss for the employer as well as damage to the reputation of their business. Where significant breaches have occurred, employers could be subject to incarceration and a criminal record.
What to do to guarantee workplace safety
Managing risks is an important part of ensuring health and safety within the workplace is at the level it needs to be. One way to do this is by conducting risk assessments. These can be carried out by the employer or another competent person.
Steps to take when conducting a risk assessment:
1. Identify hazards (or potential hazards).
2. Assess risks.
3. Control risks.
4. Record your findings.
5. Review the controls.
It is vital that managers ensure that they always have appropriate PPE in stock, with staff trained to use it.
They must also ensure any equipment, machinery or mechanical aids on site are regularly inspected and fit for purpose and that they are being compliant with any government regulations, such as those for certain electrical equipment to be PAT tested.
A person does not necessarily have to be harmed for an offence to have been committed in relation to HSWA – only a risk of harm needs to be evident. This means that it is important employers and business owners take steps to manage and control the risks within their workplaces.
Audits: Conduct regular audits. Businesses that belong to certain governing bodies or who want to attain certain accreditations (such as ISOs) will have to submit to external audits on a periodical basis. It is also important to conduct regular internal health and safety audits as this helps to identify patterns, recurrences and areas of weakness.
The results of audits should be collated and made available to all departments. Any areas of weakness that are identified should be addressed as early as possible, with additional training and support given to staff who require it.
Technology: Some businesses are choosing to make use of technology to strengthen their health and safety practices and promote the idea of collective responsibility amongst their workforces. Apps and portals that are designed to easily report concerns or risks are often popular. They encourage employees on all pay grades to take responsibility and report hazards that they see on site, in part because it can be done quickly and easily using a mobile phone or tablet, without having to spend time finding a foreman or supervisor, and in part because they allow anonymity.
Clarity: Managers should operate in a way that leaves workers with a clear understanding of what is expected of them, who they should report problems to and the consequences of poor health and safety practice. The consequences for workers who fail to act appropriately should be fair and proportionate, from re-training or having their work directly supervised, to disciplinary action or dismissal, depending on the nature of the breach.
Sometimes, businesses will want to demonstrate their commitment to health and safety to their clients and the general public by getting industry-respected accreditations such as the ISO 45001 or joining a scheme such as CHAS or the CCS.
How to enforce workplace health and safety
Health and safety laws are enforced by both inspectors from the HSE and the local council/local authority depending on the type of business in question.
The role of an inspector is to check how risks are being managed and how health and safety legislation is being put into practice within the workplace to prevent accidents, injuries and work-related ill health.
They may do this by:
- Inspecting a premises (including hotels, leisure facilities, factories, farms, warehouses, building sites).
- Conducting investigations into accidents, injuries and instances of work-related ill health.
- Offering guidance, information and advice to businesses, employees and the wider public.
- Investigating any complaints made about poor health and safety practice, lack of compliance or unsafe working conditions.
- Encouraging people to understand and implement good practice within health and safety and be compliant with legislation/best practice.
When inspectors find, or are alerted to, problems with health and safety within a workplace they have a range of options at their disposal. For the most serious breaches they will look to prosecute those who are legally responsible; they are also able to serve improvement or prohibition notices. Inspectors do have the power to seize items and make reasonable investigations including taking samples, interviewing witnesses or requesting documents.
For minor infractions, an inspector may deal with the issue informally prior to taking a more formal route; however, it is always necessary to make the improvements that they request.
As a manager or business owner it is also important that you use your authority to enforce good health and safety practice and ensure compliance, or that you consult with a competent third party to help you with this.
A commitment to health and safety within the workplace is often led from the top-down, therefore it is crucial that subordinate workers see that their management or supervisors are taking health and safety matters seriously.
For health and safety practice to be upheld on a daily basis within businesses requires commitment, clarity, good communication and a cohesive team effort. Although the weight of the law rests on the employer, minimising risks and avoiding accidents and injuries at work requires everyone to work together for the greater good.
Compliance with health and safety practice does, quite literally, save lives.