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What is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and what does this legislation cover?

What is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and what does this legislation cover?

Date: 4th May 2021 | By: Helen Liptrot | Categories: Wirehouse

Almost everyone has heard of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (sometimes abbreviated to HASAWA, HSWA or the Act).  It is the primary piece of occupational health and safety legislation in Great Britain.  The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 details the general principles of occupational health and safety.  Following the creation of this primary piece of legislation, lots of pieces of secondary legislation have also been created which cover specific areas in more detail.  An example of secondary legislation would be regulations such as the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012.

The full details of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 can be found here.  It is a lengthy document with 85 sections.  The purpose of this article is to explore the background of the Act, why it was introduced, its main scope, who is responsible for enforcing it and the potential consequences of breaching it.

Why was the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 introduced?

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 was passed by Parliament in 1974.  It was created in response to a number of serious workplace incidents which occurred over the years which exposed the need for this primary piece of health and safety legislation.  It was described by the HSE’s first Director General as “a bold and far-reaching piece of legislation” and it still is an important piece of legislation today 47 years later.

Since the Act was introduced, there has been a significant decrease in the number of workplace accidents.  According to recent HSE statistics, the number of fatal injuries to employees since 1974 has reduced by 90%.  There has also been a significant reduction in the number of non-fatal injuries too.  This reduction in accident rates demonstrates the impact the introduction of the Act has had on the way occupational health and safety is managed by organisations.

Legal Duty of Care

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places a specific legal duty of care on different groups of people including:

  • Employers
  • Self-employed people
  • Those in control of non-domestic premises
  • Employees
  • Manufacturers

So Far as is Reasonably Practicable

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 uses the term ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ when it put a duty of care onto employers and others but what exactly does this term mean?

So far as is reasonably practicable means that an organisation needs to weigh the risk of injury against the sacrifice needed to further reduce it. The organisation must put measures in place to reduce the risk to health and safety unless it would be grossly disproportionate to the benefits.

Who Enforces the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974?

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 led to the formation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) who still are the primary organisation who enforce the act today.

If someone breaches the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 or any other health and safety legislation, they have broken the law which is a criminal offence, and they risk enforcement action by the HSE or another enforcement authority such as a Local Authority.

Their enforcement powers include:

  • Issuing verbal or written advice.
  • Issuing improvement notices.
  • Issuing prohibition notices.

It is important to note, for an offence to have been committed under the Act, no one has to be harmed.  An offence has still been committed if there is a risk of harm.

Sections 10 to 14 of the Act detail the establishment, function, powers and control of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Health and Safety Commission (HSC).  Sections 18 to 26 detail the enforcement of the Act.

Employer’s Duties

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 Section 2 sets out the general duties of employers which they must follow to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’.

Employers’ duties under Section 2 of the Act include:

  • The provision and maintenance of safe plant and systems of work.
  • The provision of information, instruction, training and supervision.
  • Arrangements for ensuring safe use, handling, storage and transport of articles and substances.
  • Providing a safe working environment with safe access and egress.
  • Providing safe and adequate welfare facilities.
  • For workplaces with five or more employees, employers must keep a written record of their health and safety policy.
  • To bring to the attention of employees the health and safety policy statement and any revisions to it.
  • Consulting with employees (or employee representatives).
  • Where applicable establishing a safety committee.

Section 9 states that employers can not charge employees for anything ‘done or provided that is required by the relevant statutory provisions’.  This means that employers cannot charge employees for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Under Section 37 of the Act, individuals such as Directors, Managers or other similar officers can be prosecuted themselves as individuals if an offence has been committed by the company and the offence has been committed with their consent or is due to their neglect.

Duty to Protect Non-Employees

Employers, self-employed people and anyone else in control of a non-domestic premises have a duty of care under the Act ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’ to protect the health, safety and welfare of people who are not their employees but who can still be harmed by their work activities.  This would include protecting people who are members of the public, visitors to their premises, clients and contractors etc.

Employee’s Duties

It’s not just employers who have a legal duty of care under the Act, employees also have a legal duty of care too.  If employees breach the Act, they can face prosecution and fines.  Sections 7 and 8 of the Act states that employees must:

  • Take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves and others who may be affected by their acts or omissions at work.
  • Cooperate with their employer.
  • Not intentionally or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety or welfare.

Acts of horseplay and violence against people may also come within the scope of Section 7 if they arise out of or in connection with work and put people’s health and safety at risk.

Duties of Manufacturers

Section 6 of the Health and Safety at Work Act puts a duty of care onto manufacturers and others in the supply chain such as designers, importers and suppliers to ensure articles used for work are safe.  It covers articles and substances used for work where more specific product safety law does not apply.

It covers the use, cleaning, maintenance of articles used at work.  As well as providing information and instructions on safe use including providing any revisions to that information.  This section also covers second-hand supply, the hiring out of work equipment, testing / examination of equipment and covers fairground equipment.

Consequences of Breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974

If an HSE inspector visits your business and if in their opinion the business has made a material breach of health and safety legislation, the HSE will charge a Fee For Intervention (FFI).  As of the 1st April 2021 the current cost of the FFI is £160 per hour.  The HSE will charge for their Inspector’s time covering the whole visit and any subsequent visits or office work such as writing letters and e mails.

For serious breaches, the HSE have the powers to prosecute individuals or organisations.  Since the 12th March 2015, the maximum penalty in the Magistrates Court for breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is an unlimited fine and up to 6 months in prison.  In the Crown Court the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and up to 2 years in prison.

When sentencing, an organisation’s turnover is taken into consideration as well as the level of culpability and harm.  For example, after an accident in 2015, the owners of Alton Towers, Merlin Entertainment received a record fine of £5 million and had to pay £69,955 costs for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act when 16 people were injured on their ride.  Two of the injured people had to have a leg amputated.  The Judge stated that the accident could have been avoided if the company had a proper risk assessment and written systems in place to deal with ride faults.

Another consequence of breaching the Act is that it could have a negative impact on a business’s image.  The HSE have an enforcement register on their website and they issue press releases about recent prosecutions.  The negative publicity following a prosecution could be very damaging for a business’s reputation and profitability.

If you would like more information about the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 or any other health and safety legislation, please contact the Wirehouse health and safety advice team today.

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