What is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974?

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, often referred to as the HASAWA, or HSW is the main piece of UK legislation detailing the duties of employers regarding health and safety in the workplace. Its general principle is that employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of all of their employees. It also covers other people visiting the workplace premises such as temporary workers, casual workers, self-employed workers, clients, visitors and the general public.

The primary context of each of the provisions within the HSW is that each duty is qualified by the text “so far as is reasonably practicable”. We will explain this in more detail later on. In addition, the Act provides the framework for the government to issue health and safety related regulations, guidance to employers, and Approved Codes of Practice. These all set out in more detail the specific responsibilities pertaining to employers in different areas concerning health and safety, for example, working with hazardous chemicals, or working with display screens.

The Act also established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It goes on to provide powers for the HSE enabling them to enforce the terms of the Act, and penalties which can be given should employers not meet their responsibilities.

The Primary Points of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is long and detailed. You can download a full copy here. However, the primary provisions of the HSW include:

  • The requirement for safe operation, including maintenance, of the workplace environment including plant, equipment, and systems.
  • Maintenance of safe access, and exits, at the workplace.
  • Safe usage of, including handling and storage, of dangerous and hazardous chemicals and substances.
  • Adequate and appropriate health and safety training for staff.
  • Adequate and appropriate welfare provisions for staff in the workplace.
  • The requirement that employers must keep and update a written Health and Safety Policy, which is formulated in conjunction with the Act, and in consultation with the employees or their representatives.

The Aim of the HSW

The central aim is to ensure that organisations and businesses understand their role in ensuring and supporting health and safety in the workplace – as far as is reasonably practicable.

The Success of the HSW

You only need to take a quick look at the statistics on health and safety in the workplace since 1974 to see the positive impact the HSW has had on safety at work. The introduction of the Act has radically changed the health and safety of British workers. Fundamentally, since 1974, fatal injuries in the workplace have fallen by 86%, whilst non-fatal injuries have fallen by nearly 80%. Looking at the data since 1974 a little more closely, the total number of self-reported work-related illness, most notably musculoskeletal disorders, have also reduced.

The main anomaly to this is asbestos-related deaths because we are unfortunately seeing the result of the time lag between exposure and its health implications. The cases we are seeing now were in fact, generally, exposed to asbestos prior to the 1980s.  We also have witnessed an increase in the total number of stress and associated conditions reported from the 1990s onwards, but this may be due to improved knowledge, more reporting, and changing attitudes.

The UK is now widely regarded as one of the safest places to work compared with the rest of the EU.

Combining Legislation

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 covers a huge amount and many different facets. It brought together and consolidated must of the existing legislation which was ad hoc, and somewhat piecemeal. This situation occurs because as times change, and technology develops, the risks of the workplace change. Now, this is managed through the specific Approved Codes of Conduct – drawing on the framework and intent of the entire Act.

Application of the HSW

Without the Health and Safety at Work Act, we wouldn’t have the other main health and safety regulations which are in force in the UK. The main ones affecting us are:

  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: These cover making risk assessments in the workplace with a view to reducing risk. In addition, they involve nominating a specific person into the role of overseeing health and safety, giving workers relevant information and training, and providing a written health and safety policy.
  • The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992: These regulations cover adequate lighting, heating, ventilation and workspaces, facilities, and safe passageways.
  • The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992: These provide for health and safety provisions regarding the use of display screen equipment.
  • The Personal Protection Equipment at Work Regulations 1992: Ensuring Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is provided where necessary, including adequate training and instruction in its use.
  • Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992: Including removing, where possible, the need for workers to undertake manual handling which is associated with a risk of injury, make assessments of the risks, and provide weight information regarding loads.
  • The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998: Requiring employers to ensure the safety and suitability of work equipment, including its maintenance and relevant training.
  • The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995: Outlining the reporting of work-related injuries, accidents, incidents and diseases to the HSE and the recording within the workplace.
  • Working Time Regulations 1998 (Amended): Governing working hours in the workplace setting maximum working hours, rest periods, rest breaks, and shift work, including additional provision for young workers.

The Future of the Health and Safety at Work Act

Whilst many of the provisions within health and safety legislation in the UK have come from EU directives, they have been written into UK law. We shouldn’t see much by way of fundamental changes as a result of withdrawing from the EU. Additionally, changes to health and safety legislation which arise in order to meet the needs of the changing workplace are introduced by the HSE. Information on anticipated changes is listed here.

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