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Health and Safety at Work Legislation


Risk reduction or control measures rely for their effectiveness on knowledge of risk and a willingness to take action to reduce it. This alone is insufficient, unless it is covered by legal sanctions in the event of negligence leading to injury or illness. Thus, most countries have a framework of health and safety law, backed by a system of enforcement, analogous to those parts of the criminal law seeking to protect citizens from other forms of violence. In addition, people injured as a result of their work generally have the right to sue their employers in the civil courts for negligently causing such injury, the onus being on the injured party to prove negligence. 

Almost all countries have their own legislation, within often widely differing court systems. In this page the British system is discussed, set in the context of the European Union, whose laws take priority over those of the member states. 


The Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act, 1974 

Prior to 1970, British health and safety law was a mess, with some 500 separate pieces of legislation covering a multitude of dangerous substances and situations at work, and administered by nine separate Government departments. It was gradually realized that rigid enforcement of the law would be impracticable, leading to reduction of industrial competitiveness and overload of the court system. The mass of legislation was therefore reviewed by the Robens Committee, which concluded that in spite of this law, there had been no significant reduction in the numbers of people killed and injured at work. A new Act was therefore framed, intended to cover all eventualities by putting a general obligation on employers to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their employees. This Act is known as the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act and the primary responsibility for its enforcement falls on the Health and Safety Executive which is part of the Department of the Environment etc.  

Some of the essential features of Act are as follows: 

  • It requires all employers to provide, as far as is reasonably practicable, a healthy and safe workplace.
  • It requires employers to take care not only of their employees but also of other people visiting the worksite. This of course includes contractors as well as visitors and paying customers.
  • It requires site operators to prevent, as far as practicable, emission of toxic substances into the general atmosphere.
  • It requires manufacturers to ensure that their products are reasonably safe, and to provide information on safety precautions to be taken in their use.
  • It requires employees to take reasonable precautions for the safety of themselves and of others.
  • It makes provision for the appointment of trade union or employee safety representatives and requires employers, if requested by such representatives, to set up safety committees.
  • It established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This has responsibility for enforcing the law, having taken over the various original Inspectorates. These include the factories, chemicals, agriculture, offshore oil and gas, nuclear and railways inspectorates. Although HSE does much good, it needs to strive harder to improve its effectiveness and efficiency.
Regulations under the Act 

All the Regulations, take roughly the same practical form, namely 

  • assess risk
  • implement controls to reduce those risks, and make sure that they work
  • educate and train the workers
  • provide personal protection only when all other appropriate measures have been taken
  • if necessary, provide environmental monitoring and/or surveillance of exposed workers.
These regulations include the Manual Handling Operations Regulations, and other regulations such as those dealing with Noise. It can be seen, for example, with respect to noise in the workplace that the objectives would be to control the level by using quieter machinery or by soundproofing the process and, if this were not wholly effective, to provide ear protection to exposed workers. In such noisy workplaces, it would be wise to monitor levels regularly (a requirement under the Noise at Work Regulations with levels over 90dBA) and to provide audiometric screening of the workforce. All these steps are intended to reduce the risk of noise induced hearing loss. 

There remain also number of Regulations specific to certain particularly dangerous substances, including lead and asbestos, situations, such as underground mining, or physical dangers such as noise and ionizing radiation. Any person involved with Health and Safety in an organisation or industry in which these hazards arise must be very familiar with the relevant Regulations, which give specific guidance on control, monitoring and so on.  

Otherwise the law has been much simplified by the introduction of the general Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, 1988, widely known by the acronym COSHH. These cover all substances (other than those few, notably lead and asbestos, covered by specific Regulations) with the potential to cause harm in the workplace. The workplace is anywhere where a person might work, and substances include micro-organisms. These Regulations may be summarized quite simply: 

  • They require an audit of the workplace to detect any potentially harmful substances in use.
  • The employer or a representative should then review the use of that substance and decide on whether its use may constitute a significant risk to individuals. If not, a note is simply made of the assessment.
  • If a risk appears possible, appropriate steps to reduce the risk should be taken, and a note of these should be made. Regular review of compliance with these procedures is necessary.
  • In such circumstances, the employer must consider whether environmental monitoring or surveillance of the workforce is necessary. If either is, again records must be made and kept for up to 40 years.
In general, the emphasis is on control of substances at source, so that workplace monitoring is only required infrequently and worker surveillance very rarely. The latter needs to be considered when there is a reasonable likelihood, in spite of the precautions taken, that workers will develop harmful effects, and that there are valid techniques for detecting the condition when it does occur. 


Regulations issued by the Health and Safety Commission with the approval of the Secretary of State are part of the law and their provisions are mandatory, breach being an offence. However, for the purpose of giving practical guidance, the HSC also issues Approved Codes of Practice covering and explaining the Regulations. These are written in relatively simple language, and are obtainable from HSE Books. The publication of these documents is usually preceded by a consultation process, and comments are invited. Some of the responses are occasionally included in this website. 

Law is of course useless unless it is seen to be enforced - witness the widespread lack of observance of speed limits in Britain. The role of enforcer of safety and health legislation falls to the Inspectorate of the HSE, and to Environmental health officers in local authorities. Inspectors have wide powers to enter workplaces, to inspect them and take samples andto require premises to be sealed off. If necessary they can obtain the help of the police. They are able to issue enforcement notices of improvement requiring matters to be put right within a specified time, or of prohibition of further activity where circumstances are thought to be particularly dangerous. Employers have the right of appeal against these. 

Much of the work of inspectors involves routine inspection of workplaces and education of employers. They may, however, be contacted by workers, trades unions or others concerned about safety and health hazards at work. In cases of serious breaches of the law, inspectors may take employers or site owners to court, where fines or even imprisonment may be imposed. There has been a welcome tendency in Britain recently for the courts to take such offences, often resulting in loss of life, more seriously and to impose severe punishment. Nevertheless, it sadly remains true that the consequence of killing an employee at work is generally less severe than that of killing someone by dangerous driving. 

Legislation in other countries 

The European Union has embarked on a series of Directives in the field of health and safety, all of which when agreed by the Council of Ministers and the Commission become binding on all the member countries. They have proceeded on the basis of individual hazards, setting standards which are then enforced by the appropriate national agencies. Recent ones include Directives on noise, visual display units, the manual handling of loads, carcinogens and biological agents. European Directives are arrived at by consensus between representatives of the national governments and their experts and, once promulgated, give a time limit within which member nations must comply. 

You may wish to refer to commentaries on the consultative process leading to the evolution of legislation or its application. 

Acknowledgement: Part of this page has been adapted, with permission, from Practical Occupational Medicine (Copyright) - Arnold publishers.