This year the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the primary piece of legislation covering occupational safety and health in the UK, celebrates its 45th anniversary.
Prior to its enactment, some industries were overly burdened with uncompromising rules whilst others were subject to little or no regulation.
The Health and Safety at Work Act was conceived following consideration by the government that a broader and less prescriptive regulatory regime was required on the basis that ‘those that create risk are best placed to manage it’.
The Health and Safety at Work Act imposes a range of duties on employers, the self employed and employees, as well as others such as designers, manufacturers or suppliers of articles and substances for use at work. It is an important and overarching piece of legislation, as it provides the legal framework to promote and encourage high standards of health and safety in the UK by seeking to reflect the law of the European Union on workplace health and safety. Specific issues that are applicable to particular industry sectors are set out in more detail in subsidiary regulations.
In creating the Health and Safety at Work Act, the government consulted and engaged with employers and employees for the first time in order to develop a health and safety system for modern Britain.
This consultative approach had its advantages – it aimed to simplify the existing health and safety framework, promoted legislation that had real practical application and it helped to raise awareness of health and safety issues in the workplace.
The Health and Safety at Work Act also gave rise to the formation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which was established to absorb a number of different regulatory and scientific organisations. With the help of specific initiatives, most recently the introduction of “Fees for Intervention” which enabled the HSE to recover its costs for carrying out its regulatory functions from those found to be in material breach of health and safety law, the HSE joins in celebrating its fourth decade.
Despite some criticism, the HSE continues to research the effectiveness of relevant legislation by consulting with a number of industry advisory committees to develop its policies and by advising the government on health and safety. This type of collaborative approach should continue to ensure that the HSE policies and health and safety legislation accurately address the issues faced by today’s key industries.
Although the intention to simplify matters may well have been realised in its earlier years, the Health and Safety at Work Act cultivated an excessive amount of secondary legislation, ACOPs and guidance documents.
In 2010, the government finally intervened to reduce the burden that the health and safety system seemed to place on British businesses. There is no doubt that the Health and Safety at Work Act has stood the test of time and is still viewed as the “go-to” piece of legislation by which health and safety is governed.
Between 1974 and 2014 fatal injuries to employees fell by 87 per cent, whilst reported non-fatal injuries have fallen by more than seventy per cent. The UK developed an effective piece of legislation that has subsequently been emulated by countries around the world.
Businesses owe a duty of care to safeguard health and safety at the workplace and they must have an awareness of the main provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act and subordinate regulations relevant to their activities.
The primary purpose of the Health and Safety at Work Act should be to help prevent death, injury and ill-health within the workplace – not simply to prosecute offenders – and this objective should not be forgotten, despite the increased amount of health and safety prosecutions, particularly of individuals, in recent years.
In order to reduce the risk of prosecution and maintain a preventative approach to health and safety, businesses should:
It cannot be denied that Britain has become a safer place for workers since 1974. The degree to which that fact is attributable to the Act versus other factors, such as the general shift away from heavy industry towards a service economy, is debatable.
However, official government figures from the United States, a country with approximately five times the population of Britain, reveal that there were almost thirty times more workplace deaths in that country in 2014 than in the UK.
We should also consider the success of the London Olympic Park, which was constructed without a single fatality, as opposed to the estimated 1,200 workers that have died since Qatar began constructing its 2022 World Cup stadiums.
Although such statistics are of little solace to those who have lost family members, friends and colleagues in the UK, it cannot be denied that Britain has consistently recorded some of the lowest levels of workplace injuries and fatalities in the world in recent years.
The Health and Safety at Work Act has successfully served to raise the consciousness of safety and health issues amongst employers and workers in Britain, although many will suggest that there has been little focus on “health” and more emphasis on “safety”.
Although the Health and Safety at Work Act is used by the HSE and Local Authorities for enforcement purposes, it primarily remains a useful tool to protect employees and the public from work activities, whether faced with prosecution or not.
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