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Why every business needs to know all about the Health and Safety at Work Act

Accidents can and will happen and lives can be changed forever – or even be lost unnecessarily.


Accidents can and will happen and lives can be changed forever – or even be lost unnecessarily.

All too often we hear in the media about the much criticised “health and safety” culture in the UK which its critics claim is responsible for everything from stopping schoolchildren from playing conkers to hindering businesses from operating as they want.

But behind these headline-grabbing messages, the truth of the matter is very different indeed. In a fast-changing world more and more risks are emerging and people need to be protected from them, nowhere more so than in the workplace.

Without these measures being taken, accidents can and will happen and lives can be changed forever – or even be lost unnecessarily.

The main piece of legislation that’s in place to ensure that businesses take their responsibilities seriously is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, often referred to as HASWA, and here we will tell you a little about the Act and the importance of knowing all about it.

What is the HASWA?

Up until 1974 there was a great deal of different legislation governing the ways in which businesses and industries should ensure the safety of employees as well as visitors to their premises and members of the general public. The main legislation that was repealed was the Factories and Workshops Act 1901 and 1929. 

So the aim of introducing the Act was to unite many of these under a single banner to outline the general responsibilities of employers to care for the health, safety and welfare of anyone connected with their business.

It was intended that underneath this general level of protection there should be other specific regulations for different industries and areas such as the handling of hazardous materials and the use of personal protection equipment.

So the HASWA is a general legal framework that governs the way businesses must operate to ensure that the danger of accident and injury is minimised.

The main areas it covers

The HASWA is one of the most extensive pieces of legislation that employers need to follow and runs to a total of 85 different sections. You will find the full wording of the Act here and the key areas that it covers are as follows:

• The need to ensure that all the plant, equipment and systems in a workplace are fully maintained and can be operated safely by employees.
• The provision of safe entrances and exits at the workplace.
• The use of appropriate measures for the safe storage and use of potentially dangerous and hazardous substances.
• The provision of sufficient health and safety training for staff.
• Ensuring that there are enough welfare provisions for staff.
• The need for a full and up-to-date written Health and Safety Policy which has been created in conjunction with the Act and in consultation with employees and/or their representatives such as the relevant union or trade organisation.

Why it’s so important to follow

The obvious answer is because it’s the law and there are some serious penalties when breaches are discovered. But, equally importantly, there is the moral and ethical duty of employers to do all that they can to keep employees, customers and visitors safe as well as ensuring their welfare.

For businesses that rely on tendering to get new clients and projects it’s also generally essential to have a written Health and Safety Policy to show that they are committed to best practices.

Who oversees that the Act is being followed?

When the Act was introduced in 1974 it also saw the creation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and this is the body that can enforce the terms of the Act.

The HSE is also in charge of seeing that the Act remains relevant as working practices change and evolve. So, rather than being regarded as a kind of enforcement agency, it’s more helpful to see the HSE as a helpful organisation which can ensure that businesses keep abreast of their commitments and responsibilities under the Act.

The HSE also has inspectors who come and visit workplaces, sometimes unannounced, to check that the proper procedures are being followed and who can impose certain sanctions and penalties if they find standards aren’t being met.

The penalties for non-compliance

When accidents at work do occur it’s the law that they must be recorded and serious ones need to be reported to the HSE who then may launch an investigation. If they find that the law has been broken this can lead to a fine or, in extreme cases, even to imprisonment for those responsible for the accident.

Following standard inspections of premises, when failings are discovered HSE inspectors can issue an improvement notice stating what needs to be remedied within a certain period of time. For more serious failings, they can issue a prohibition notice that will forbid a certain type of work or activity from being carried out with immediate effect. Failure to comply with either of these sanctions can also result in prosecution.

How successful has the HASWA been?

Given that the whole purpose of the Act was to make the working environment safer, the best way to assess its success is to look at accident figures since it was introduced.

These show dramatic decreases in both reported non-fatal and fatal injuries over the period with the former dropping down from 337,000 in 1974 to 69,000 in 2018/19 and from 651 deaths to 147 – still far too high but a significant reduction nevertheless.

It has also been successful in adapting as working practices have changed over the decades, for example by introducing effective protection for employees who spend much of their working day in front of screens – something that was virtually unheard-of back in 1974.

As you’d expect, there’s a great deal more to the HASWA than we have time or space to go into here and it’s a very complex area for businesses. As Sentient we have a great deal of experience of giving health and safety help and guidance to all kinds of organisations in all kinds of sectors.

So if you’d like to find out more about how we can help you navigate this potentially very complex area, just get in touch today.

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