28 April 2023 is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. In this week’s article Jessica Clough and Emma O’Connor in the Employment team consider the employment impact of Health and Safety at Work.
What is World Day for Safety and Health at Work?
Hazards at work can come in many forms: physical, ergonomic, biological, chemical, or even psychological. They result in millions of work-related injuries and chronic conditions per year, and in extreme situations can result in loss of life. COVID-19 changed the way we worked and focused on the importance of having adequate safety measures to prevent accidents and diseases at work.
World Day for Safety and Health at Work was created last year by the International Labour Conference following its declaration that having a safe and healthy environment at work should be worldwide fundamental right.
Health & Safety in the UK workplace
The primary legislation containing Health and Safety rules at work in the UK is the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. Under this legislation, Employers have a responsibility to, as far as reasonably practicable, protect their workers (and others using their premises) from risks to their health, safety and welfare.
This protection is limited to measures which are “reasonably practicable”, meaning employers do not have to take measures which are technically impossible, or which would require so much time and cost as to be inordinately disproportionate to the level of risk. Employers are; however, required to put in place measures to control health and safety risks and to plan, organise, monitor and review these protective measures on a regular basis.
Why is it important to take H&S duties seriously?
In the event that an employer fails in its duties, there can be both civil and criminal consequences for the employer in the form of fines and/or awards of damages following civil or criminal prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive and/or Local Authority. For the most egregious breaches resulting in loss of life there can be personal criminal liability for the directors in the form of corporate manslaughter charges, which can entail a prison sentence.
As well as Personal Injury claims, staff who are injured in the workplace may also seek to bring claims in the Employment Tribunal. Possible claims include: disability discrimination, automatic unfair dismissal, and constructive unfair dismissal claims stemming from health and safety breaches of trust and confidence.
During the pandemic we also saw a rise in claims for automatic unfair dismissal under s.100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This previously overlooked law was used by employees who were dismissed for raising legitimate H&S concerns about their lack of workplace Covid-19 protections (such as lack of PPE, safe distancing, protective screens), or for taking appropriate steps to protect themselves (such as a clinically vulnerable employee refusing to attend work) if doing so would place them at undue risk of harm (i.e.. contracting Covid-19). While the risk of Covid-19 has largely passed now, this section of ERA 1996 has been rediscovered and can equally be used in other contexts where staff are dismissed or disciplined after raising health and safety concerns.
Practical steps employers can take
1. Assess the risks and have the right measures in place
The Employer should risk assess any specific risks presented by the work environment, the work itself, or any specific requirements of the employee. For example, a pregnant employee should be risk assessed to see if there are any workplace hazards which could affect her health and to consider any measures which should be put in place to protect her while pregnant (for example, no heavy manual lifting).
Where a risk is identified, the Employer should assess if it has the right measures in place to minimise the risks, such as having a trolly available so heavy lifting is not required. For disabled employees, it could be that reasonable adjustments are required under the Equality Act 2010 to assist them, such as providing a specific desk and chair, or a wheelchair accessible parking space.
2. Have a policy
Having a Health & Safety Policy in place is a requirement for all employers with 5 or more staff. This policy should include a statement of the employer’s duty to protect their staff’s health and safety, including the duty on staff to report any concerns they have. The policy should be reviewed regularly and should set out (or refer to) any emergency procedures the employer has in place and who staff should report any Health and Safety concerns to.
Employers should also involve their staff in health and safety matters, to encourage a compliant culture where everyone follows any safety rules and reports non-compliant situations or behaviour as this will discourage unsafe practises from developing.
3. Provide appropriate training for staff
Companies should provide training to staff as part of its approach to mitigating potential risks. The training which is appropriate will vary depending on the type of work involved. However, most companies should provide training on basic manual handling, slips, trips and falls, fire safety, and (for desk-based work) assessments for screen working. For best effect, training should be refreshed regularly.
4. Taking ownership of the risks
First and foremost, make sure you have employer’s liability insurance in place for if something does go wrong and display your insurance certificate on the premises – this is a legal requirement.
It is also important to have designated people to turn to in the event of any issues, so make sure to appoint a Health & Safety officer and trained first aiders, and making sure everyone knows who they are. Have appropriate safety signage and emergency procedures in place for situations such as fires or accidents in the workplace. Have an accident book to record injuries in the workplace. Be aware that it is required to report certain injuries, near misses and work-related illnesses to the Health and Safety Executive.
Speak to us
For more information or assistance with H&S workplace training, policies, or advice for your workplace, please contact the Employment Team on [email protected]
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.