Health and Safety at Work Act

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A brief history

In 1802, the first factories act was passed. Since then there have been many more pieces of legislation passed.

In the 1960’s, health and safety at work was controlled by nine main sets of legislation. These were administered by five government departments, with seven independent inspectorates.

The Robens committee

By this time legislation had become fragmented and complicated. The Robens committee was therefore setup to address three major concerns:

  1. The current regulatory nature was concerned with defining rules for specific situations. While this covered some industries, this method omitted others from the need to comply.
  2. Legislation was failing to keep up with both advances in technology, and the scales at which these technologies were being applied.
  3. There was no downward trend in the rate of accidents.

The Robens committee reported the following:

  • Self regulation could prove more successful in improving work conditions
  • Communication on health and safety matters was emphasised
  • Formal statements on safety policy and the use of systematic hazard assessment was recommended
  • The unification of all enforcing bodies
  • The unification of the legislation

The result was the health and safety at work act (HSAWA) of 1974. The act under which all UK health and safety legislation is consolidated.

All the previous legislation was eventually phased out and replaced by regulations, approved codes of practice and guidance note. All under control of the health and safety at work act.

An overview of the health and safety at work act

Today, the health and safety at work act is an enabling act. Providing a framework under which legislation can be introduced to cover specific areas.

The act is criminal law. Breaching the act may therefore result in prosecution.

“It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.”

Section 2 – Health and safety at work act 1974

This is as prescriptive as the act gets. This is known as the absolute duty of care.


Section 1

States the general purposes of part 1 of the act:

  • To maintain or improve standards of health and safety at work
  • To protect other people against risks arising from work activities
  • To control the storage and use of dangerous substances
  • To control certain emissions into the air

General duties

Section 2

Contains the duties placed upon employers with regard to their employees.


Under section 2 of the health and safety at work act, employers have the following general duties:

  • Ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees while at work.
  • Without prejudice to the above, the matters to which this duty extends include:
    • Provision and maintenance of safe plant and safe systems of work
    • Arrangements for ensuring safe means of handling, use, storage and transport of articles and substances
    • Provision of information, instruction, training and supervision
    • Provision of a safe place of work and provision and maintenance of safe access and egress to that workplace
    • Provision and maintenance of a safe working environment and adequate welfare facilities.

Note: The above general employer duties are all qualified by the term “so far as is reasonably practicable”.

Employers also have the following specific duties:

  • Preparing and revising a health and safety policy.
  • Consulting with employee representatives.
  • Establishing a safety committee when required to do so.

Section 3

Places duties on employers and the self-employed to ensure their activities do not endanger anybody.

Such duties also include the providing of information, in certain circumstances, to the public about any potential hazards.

Section 4

Places a duty on those in control of work premises, to ensure that they do not endanger those who work within them.

This extends to plant and substances, means of access and egress, as well as to the premises themselves.

Section 5

Places duties to prevent dangerous emissions.

The Environmental Agency is predominantly responsible for investigating breaches if this section of the health and safety at work act.

Section 6

Places duties on manufacturers, suppliers, designers, importers. These duties are in relation to articles and substances used at work.

Basically they have to research and test products and supply information to users.

Section 7

Places duties on employees while at work…


Under section 7 of the health and safety at work act, employees are given the following duties:

  • To take reasonable care for the health and safety of themself and others who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work.
  • To co-operate with his employer or any other person, so far as is necessary, to enable his employer or other person to perform or comply with any requirement or duty imposed under a relevant statutory provision.

Note: These duties have been extended by the duties contained in the management of health and safety at work regulations of 1999.

Section 8

Places a duty on everyone not to intentionally or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety and welfare.

Section 9

Provides that an employer may not charge their employees for anything related compliance with a relevant statutory health and safety provision.