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Health & Safety

The most important duty of an employer is to take reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of its staff during work. Duties on health and safety are imposed both under legislation and common law. The health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also imposes criminal sanctions on employers that breach their Health and Safety obligations towards their staff.

Under the common law employers are a duty to take such reasonable steps necessary to ensure the safety of their employees. This means that there is no liability if an accident occurs as a result of an entirely unexpected and unforeseeable event. However, in general all the circumstances of an accident would be scrutinised in order to ascertain if the employer had acted reasonably and taken all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the staff. On a practical level this means that employers need to keep up to date with knowledge, technology, and general understanding of the risks and dangers posed by their work, and the steps to reduce and control those risks. The Health and Safety Executive (link to HSE site) provides useful guidance for employers in providing risk assessments relevant to their work.

The common law duties relate in particular to the provision of:-

a) A safe means of access to the place of work,

b) a safe place of work,

c) a safe system of work,

d) providing safe equipment at work,

e) employing competent staff, as well as

f)  protecting staff from any unnecessary risk of harm or injury.

Obviously employers are obliged to ensure that the work premises are safe, adequately maintained and repaired. Even when staff are working at a different site, e.g. at a client or customer’s premises, they are still under a duty to ensure the safety of their staff at those premises. This means that if an employer is aware of a particular hazard or risk at a customer’s site they must take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of staff before allowing them to carry out any work there.

Safe systems of work would include examining work operations and procedures, the provision of relevant safety equipment and necessary supervision. Employers must ensure safe systems are actually implemented, as well as being documented, and that staff are trained in them and trained in any changes to their systems.

The provision of safe equipment is also vital. Employers should regularly test equipment that is used by the staff, particularly equipment which is inherently dangerous, or is subject to regular and heavy use. To protect staff, training must be given on the safe use of equipment. So far as fellow workers, and ensuring their competency is concerned, employers must ensure that only suitably qualified, skilled, and trained staff carry out the work.

The HSE always expect employers to provide adequate risk assessments relating to the particular equipment, and aspects of the employer’s work, and work practices. Even small employers must ensure that they have and implement appropriate Health & Safety Policy for their staff, requiring all staff to be trained in its use (see PAYG Health & Safety Policy). All employees are under duties imposed by law to take reasonable care for their health and safety, and to co-operate with their employer to ensure that relevant statutory duties are complied with.

Directors and company officers have a personal responsibility and liability under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The HSE has publicised guidance on this for directors. This highlights the risks to company directors in failing to deal with these responsibilities seriously enough.

The HSE can, and does, prosecute businesses that have failed to meet their obligations under the relevant health and safety law. Most successful prosecutions result in fines being imposed, but the courts may sentence individuals to prison for the most serious breaches of health and safety laws.

In addition to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, there are numerous regulations on particular health and safety issues. Examples include; on reporting accidents, for construction sites, on display screen equipment, on electricity at work, on noise levels, and on the use of lead. Employers should check with the HSE on the regulations appropriate to their particular types of business, and equipment to ascertain the specific health and safety obligations imposed on them (link to

Enhanced protection is given to employees that have been dismissed for asserting health and safety rights. In particular staff that are health and safety representatives are protected  from unfair dismissal for carrying out their Health and Safety duties from day one (rather than have to have completed a full year of employment before being protected) from unfair dismissal.


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