The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is a long piece of detailed legislation and the first to address health and safety law in any serious capacity. It’s a fairly old piece of legislation now, but it sets the groundwork for other health and safety legislation to build upon.
The act has 4 main sections, which are as follows:
The Act is more than 100 pages long, so it isn’t a quick read. Even so, a full read can never be dissuaded for prospective employers or anyone who wonders whether their business is compliant with health and safety obligations. However, it is worth noting that there is other legislation to be aware of, such as the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
Working conditions in the 1970s and 1980s had improved a lot from WW2, but were still lacking in clear and established health and safety protocol. Health and safety regulations did exist on a sector by sector basis, but there were no clear mandated requirements for all businesses.
Some crucial events led to the introduction of the unifying, universally applicable HSWA, namely the 1968 James Watt Street fire in Glasgow that killed some 22 factory workers. Poor building standards and lacking safety controls were to blame. This was one of a long line of workplace fires that struck the UK throughout the post-war period. In 1974, the year the Act was written and published, a chemical plant fire in Flixborough resulted in the death of 28 people, injuring 36 others.
A committee scrutinised older health and safety legislation like the Employed Persons (Health and Safety) Bill 1970 and found it to be insufficient to prevent risk and harm both to people on business premises and in the public. The new legislation would place clear obligations on all businesses creating a more unified health and safety environment that ensured accountability across all industries.
The Act describes 4 key areas for health and safety workplace regulation: :
Employers have a general duty of care to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees, and also members of the public, visitors or contracts. This includes:
Employees also have health and safety responsibilities, including:
Health and safety inspectors are entitled to inspect businesses for their measures and protocols. They have various rights and obligations, such as:
Injuries, accidents and ill-health are not necessarily prerequisite to enforcement action being taken against a business. If a business is found to be in breach of its health and safety duty, that is enough to warrant enforcement action. Offences can be defended if the business is able to demonstrate that it wasn’t ‘reasonably practical’ to manage or eliminate the risk. Such is quite subjective - it’ll be down to the courts to work this out.
The Health and Safety Work Act 1974 is broken down into multiple sections, the most important ones being:
Section 2: Section 2 places a duty on employers to manage and ensure the risks they present to employees at work, as far as can be reasonably practical.
Section 3: Section 3 obliges employers to also manage and ensure the risks presented by the business to non-employees, such as members of the public or visitors.
Section 7: Section 7 obliges employees to take duty to ensure reasonable care for their own health and safety. Employees must also assist in the protection of other workers.
Section 33: Section 33 obliges directors and senior managers to adhere to health and safety rules, lest they risk prosecution in the event an incident was committed with their consent, neglective or connivance.
To be broadly compliant with HSWA, a business should be able to answer the following questions:
The HSWA is a defining piece of legislation in the formation of safer working environments across the UK. Without a doubt, we have this piece of legislation to thank for the general downtrends in work-related injury and harm.
HSWA still applies today and although newer legislation has modernised health and safety further, it provides a solid foundation that all employers should be aware of.
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