Health & Safety at Work Act 1974
An employer’s guide

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 is a piece of legislation you can’t afford to ignore.

During the 19th century, the UK developed health and safety laws in response to the particularly dangerous employment conditions in factories and mines.

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

However, it was not until the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) that the UK implemented comprehensive health and safety legislation to cover:

  • Employment generally; and
  • Members of the public affected by work activities.

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General Framework    

The HSWA sets out a general framework of legal duties. It also provides for health and safety:

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes health and safety duties on employers, self-employed people and others either through:

  • Its general provisions; or
  • More detailed provisions in other health and safety legislation – the HSWA is supported by more specific regulations that apply to 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; and
  • Bring prosecutions for health and safety offences.

Health & safety law is partly enforced through inspector notices but in more serious cases by criminal prosecution. With a Health & Safety Consultant on your side, you can reduce your risk of fines and prosecution.

General Duties

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

  • Ensuring employees’ health, safety and welfare at work;
  • Protecting non-employees against health and safety risks from work activities; and
  • Controlling the keeping and use of explosive or highly flammable or dangerous substances.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 applies (with a few exceptions) to everyone “at work”.

Part 1 sets out the general duties of:

  • Employers;
  • Employees;
  • Self-employed people;
  • Those in control of non-domestic premises; and
  • Manufacturers and suppliers of articles and substances.
H&S writing a health and safety policy

Further Requirements

These 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 of employees while at work;
  • Employers to ensure their activities, so far as reasonably practicable, do not expose non-employees (the public, visitors, contractors, etc.) to health and safety risks;
  • The self-employed to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that they do not expose others to health and safety risks; and
  • Employees to take reasonable care of their own health and safety while at work, as well as the health and safety of others who may be affected by their activities.

Breach of Duty

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

Health and safety offences may only be defended if you can prove that it wasn’t “reasonably practicable” to take measure to remove the risk of injury or the risk to someone’s 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 imposed on you by the Act.