What responsibility do employers have under health and safety law?

Last updated: 17 Jun 2021

Under health and safety law, employers are responsible for the safety of their employees and workers. They must also ensure the health and safety of people who don’t work for them, such as visitors, contractors, or members of the public.

Your employer must:

  • tell you about risks to your health and safety from current or proposed working practices and equipment
  • inform you of what is done to protect your health and safety
  • tell you how to get first aid treatment and what to do in an emergency
  • train and inform you of how to work safely and without risks to health
  • provide you with protective equipment, such as boots or eye protection, when necessary
  • provide health checks if there is a danger of you developing ill health because of your work.

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

The primary legislation covering occupational health and safety in Britain is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which makes employers responsible for the management of health and safety. It sets out the general duties which employers have towards employees and members of the public, 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 – which is broadly similar to the Health and Safety at Work Act.

The Act places duties on employers to produce a written policy that explains how they intend to manage health and safety, and consult with staff or their union representatives on this process.

Various regulations sit beneath the Act. These regulations impose more explicit duties around specific hazards, processes or groups of workers. Regulations are supplemented by Approved Codes of Practice (ACOPs) and guidance, which give practical advice on how to comply with the law.

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

Risk assessment

Risk assessment is the cornerstone of an employer’s management of health and safety. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers must make a “suitable and sufficient” assessment of risks to health and safety.

There are five steps to carrying out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment:

  1. Identify all potential hazards that could cause harm. These might be mechanical (involving the moving parts of a machine), ergonomic (posture, repetitive movements or poor lighting) or psychosocial (workload, bullying or unclear job roles), to name a few.
  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 of the risk assessment 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.

Risk assessments must be done following consultation with employees or union safety reps. This will ensure that any measures will work in practice and won’t introduce new hazards.

Employers need to 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 in a particular task or workplace against the time, cost and physical difficulty of taking measures to control the risk.

Measures to reduce risk should always be taken, except where they are grossly disproportionate to the degree of risk. Guidance and Approved Codes Of Practice (ACOPs), where they exist, provide advice on what is reasonably practical.


The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also 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.

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