Work injury claims and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974

The Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974 (HSWA or sometimes HASAWA) is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK.

The Act's purpose is to protect employees and members of the public from sustaining injuries and illness in the workplace by laying down wide-ranging duties on employers.

The detailed responsibilities cover every aspect of health and safety from avoiding manual handling injuries, to managing stress, and handling hazardous substances. Compliance with the Act should reduce the risk of avoidable injury, from minor slip and trip accidents to serious falls from height and accidents involving dangerous machinery.

The duty to comply with the Act applies to everyone involved in workplace activity, including employers, employees, and manufacturers, suppliers and importers of workplace equipment.

The Act contains powers for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which was set up under the Act, to enforce these duties and impose penalties for non-compliance.

What are an employer’s duties and responsibilities?

The Act stipulates that employers must protect the health, safety and welfare at work 'so far as is reasonably practicable' of all their employees as well as visitors to the site and the general public

Employees include temporary, casual and part-time workers and anyone working on the premises in a self-employed or contractor capacity.

Employers must provide employees and visitors with a safe workplace environment including:

  • Making sure that risk assessments are carried out and safety policies written
  • Ensuring employees receive health and safety training, information and supervision where required for safe work processes
  • Provision and maintenance of safety equipment
  • Safe storage, safe handling, usage and transport practices for workplace materials

Failing to provide a safe workplace environment means an employer may be found liable for any personal injury caused by his negligence.

However although an employer may argue that the cost of implementing a particular safety measure is not justified by the reduction in risk that the measure would deliver, it does not mean that an employer can avoid his responsibilities by claiming he cannot afford to take the necessary steps.

In addition, employers cannot charge employees for the essential health and safety equipment they provide, nor the cost of implementing the health and safety measures.

Do employees have any duties or responsibilities under the Act?

As well as employers, employees must also take responsibility for their own health and safety, and that of their co-workers and visitors.

Employees’ responsibilities include:

  • Complying with workplace safety practices
  • Completing safety training
  • Ensuring that health and safety related items are left where they should be. For example leaving a safety guard in place on a bacon slicer, or replacing it properly after cleaning; or not removing operating instructions from a piece of equipment.

Enforcing health and safety legislation

With its powers in the workplace to enforce legislation the Act gives HSE Inspectors the right to enter a workplace without prior appointment to investigate and examine those premises and the equipment. If necessary the HSE may also request assistance from the police force who may ask questions under caution.

Equipment and substances may be removed for further investigation and any items or substances thought to be imminently dangerous may be seized.

Larger businesses such as large industrial sites and manufacturing plants are usually inspected by Health and Safety Executive Officers, whereas smaller business types are examined by local authority Environmental Health Officers.

Taking action for breaches of health and safety legislation

Following an inspection by the HSE there are several courses of action, depending on the findings of the inspectors.

An improvement notice may be served, which details anything that is currently wrong. The notice may provide advice on how to make improvements and there is usually a set time limit for the improvements to be implemented.

Where the health and safety breach is more serious the inspector may impose a prohibition notice, banning the use of unsafe equipment or working practices.

In the most serious cases the HSE may decide to prosecute either the employer or employee.

Depending on the severity of the breach and the personal injuries sustained, if found liable the Defendant may face penalties from a maximum 5,000 pounds fine in a Magistrate’s Court, to an unlimited fine and jail sentence if the case is heard in the Crown Court.