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Overview of Health & Safety at Work Act 1974

September 12, 2017 1:51pm All News Stories  Health & Safety News  HSWA 1974

During the nineteenth century the UK developed safety laws in response to the particularly dangerous employment conditions in factories and mines.

Laws also regulated activities that affected public safety such as railways and shipping. Sector specific legislation was extended to cover employment in shops and offices.

But it was not until the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act (HSWA) 1974 that the UK had comprehensive Health & Safety legislation covering:

  • employment generally
  • members of the public affected by work activities

General framework    

The HSWA sets out a general framework of legal duties. It also provides for Health & Safety:

  • regulations and codes of practice to be made
  • laws to be enforced by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) or local authority inspectors

The HSWA imposes Health & Safety duties on employers, self-employed people and others either through:

  • its general provisions
  • more detailed provisions in other Health & Safety legislation – the HSWA is supported by more specific regulations on particular work activities or specific sectors

Under the HSWA inspectors are given extensive investigative powers and can:

  • serve enforcement notices in the form of prohibition and improvement notices
  • bring prosecutions for Health & Safety offences

Health & Safety law is partly enforced through inspector notices but in more serious cases by criminal prosecution.

General duties

Part 1 of the HSWA regulates workplace health, safety and welfare. It aims to protect people from risk of injury or ill health by:

  • securing employees’ health, safety and welfare at work
  • protecting non-employees against Health & Safety risks from work activities
  • controlling the keeping and use of explosive or highly flammable or dangerous substances

The HSWA applies with a few exceptions to everyone ‘at work’.

Part 1 sets out general duties of:

  • employers
  • employees
  • self-employed people
  • those in control of non-domestic premises
  • manufacturers and suppliers of articles and substances

The duties apply in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland including a general duty on:

  • employers to ensure so far as reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare at work of employees
  • employers to make sure their activities so far as reasonably practicable do not expose non-employees (the public, visitors, contractors etc.) to Health & Safety risks
  • the self-employed to so far as reasonably practicable not expose others to Health & Safety risks
  • employees to take reasonable care while at work of their own Health & Safety as well as others who may be affected by their activities

The duties may be breached if someone is exposed to a risk. It is not necessary to show actual injury or ill health.

Health & Safety offences may be committed if someone cannot show it was not reasonably practicable to avoid a risk of injury or lack of safety.

NB many duties are qualified by a requirement to achieve a result so far as is reasonably practicable.

It is a criminal offence to fail to comply with the general duties.

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