Health and safety law

Last updated: 10 Jan 2024

In this article we explain how the law protects health and safety at work including your employer’s responsibilities to safeguard you in the workplace.

What is health and safety law?

Criminal health and safety law places duties on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees and others, such as contractors, visitors and members of the public. This means they must identify, evaluate and control anything arising from work that may cause harm.

Under health and safety law, your employer must:

  • identify things in your job that could harm you and take steps to stop that from happening
  • tell you about those risks and what has been done to protect you, in a way you understand
  • train and inform you of how to work safely and without risks to health
  • consult you or your representative on any new measures which may affect your health and safety
  • tell you how to get first aid treatment and what to do in an emergency
  • provide you with protective equipment, such as boots or eye protection, when necessary and free of charge, and ensure it’s properly looked after
  • provide toilets, washing facilities and drinking water
  • report certain injuries, dangerous incidents and cases of ill health to the authorities

You also have responsibilities under the law. You must:

  • take reasonable care not to put yourself and others at risk
  • follow the training you have been provided with
  • don’t interfere with or misuse anything that your employer has provided to protect people’s health and safety
  • co-operate with your employer’s arrangements for ensuring health and safety

Download our guide on health and safety at work


Civil vs criminal law

There are two separate branches of the law operating in the United Kingdom – civil law and criminal law. In the arena of occupational health and safety, both shape acceptable practice.

In simple terms, criminal law relates to offences that negatively affect society as a whole. It is shaped by acts of parliament, which outline what is acceptable conduct. Criminal cases are usually filed by the state with the aim of punishing offenders.

On the other hand, civil law deals with or involves disputes between individuals or organisations, and relates to offences that harm their rights or property. Civil law cases are filed by private parties with the aim of seeking redress.

Civil law can be broken down further into different areas. A key one is tort law, which addresses wrongs that unfairly result in loss or harm to another. This includes negligence, which maintains that people and organisations owe others a duty of care.

If someone is injured at work, the employer could be both:

  • prosecuted by the state under criminal health and safety law, which could result in them being punished with a fine or, if they are an individual, sent to prison; and
  • sued by the individual for the tort of negligence as part of a personal injury claim, with the aim of securing compensation for the infringement of their rights.

Advice concerning the civil law issue of personal injury is provided under the union’s legal advice scheme. The remainder of this guide addresses criminal health and safety law.


Employers’ responsibilities under health and safety law

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

The primary law concerning occupational health and safety in Britain is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. It sets out the general duties which employers have towards employees and others who may be harmed by work activities, and employees have to themselves and to each other.

Northern Ireland has a very similar law, the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978.

The act states that employers must ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees, and others who are affected by their operations, “in so far as is reasonably practicable”.

Various regulations elaborate on this general duty, imposing more explicit duties around certain hazards, processes or groups of workers. Regulations are supplemented by Approved Codes of Practice (ACOPs) and guidance, which give practical advice on how to meet the general duty.

Regulations cover a range of issues, such as the use of computers, working with chemicals, work equipment, lifting operations, manual handling, radiation, personal protective equipment (PPE), and the working environment.

The Health and Safety at Work Act also places a series of more explicit duties on employers, including:

  • producing a written policy that explains how they intend to manage health and safety;
  • consulting with staff or their representatives;
  • providing safe plant and systems of work;
  • ensuring the safe use, storage and movement of articles and substances;
  • provision of adequate welfare facilities;
  • providing appropriate information, instruction, training and supervision; and
  • ensuring safe access and egress from the workplace.

Health and safety risk assessment

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out a risk assessment, which is the cornerstone of an employer’s management of health and safety. This is a process where anything arising from work that may cause harm is identified, assessed and controlled.

The employer must:

  1. Identify all hazards that could cause harm.
  2. Work out who might be harmed by the hazards and how.
  3. Consider how likely it is that someone will be harmed, and how serious the harm might be. Based on this information, introduce measures to control the risk “in so far as is reasonably practical”.
  4. Employers with five or more members of staff are required to record the significant findings in writing.
  5. Keep the risk assessment under review to ensure that control measures continue to be applied and to take account of any changes, such as new working practices or machinery.

Employees or union safety reps should be consulted during the risk assessment process. This will ensure that any measures will work in practice and won’t introduce new hazards.

Employers must tell staff about the risks identified by the assessment and the measures that have been introduced to control them.

‘So far as is reasonably practicable’

Duties on employers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and many regulations are qualified by the phrase “so far as is reasonably practicable”. This recognises that often it is not possible to completely remove risk. A balance needs to be struck between the degree of risk and the time, cost and physical difficulty of taking measures to control the risk.
Measures to reduce risk should always be taken, except where the sacrifice is grossly disproportionate to the degree of risk. Guidance and Approved Codes Of Practice (ACOPs), where they exist, provide advice on what is reasonably practical.

Training in health and safety

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to train staff so that they know what hazards and risks they may face, how to deal with them and any emergency procedures. Some employees may have particular training needs, for example new recruits, or young employees.

Employee consultation

Employers must consult their workers on health and safety matters. This should be a dialogue that enables employees or their representatives to raise concerns and influence how the employer develops, maintains and promotes measures to protect health and safety.

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 allow recognised unions to appoint reps to represent members on health and safety issues. Reps are entitled to inspect the workplace, have access to relevant information, and take paid time off work for training and carrying out their functions.

The regulations, their ACOP and guidance are all contained in the health and safety reps’ bible, known as the Brown Book.

Find out more about the Health and Safety Rep role.


Who enforces health and safety law?

There are two main agencies for enforcing, regulating and encouraging health and safety in Britain: the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities. Which regulator is responsible for enforcement depends on factors like the location, sector, work activity or hazard.

Other bodies, such as fire services, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are responsible for enforcing the law in particular sectors or with certain hazards.