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Health and safety law

Health and safety law

Essential information for members, reps, branches and staff.

scales of justiceThis covers:

The law

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

The primary legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK is the Health and Safety at Work Act. It imposes general duties for health and safety on employers, employees and others such as landlords, manufacturers, suppliers and designers.

Employers (including individual directors) have the main responsibilities. They must:

  • ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their employees
  • produce a written policy statement explaining how they intend to do this
  • consult with union to reps
  • protect others such as their contractors and visitors.

Employees have duties to:

  • take care not to put themselves and others at risk
  • co-operate with the employer's arrangements for ensuring health and safety.

If you are a manager or supervisor, you will have additional health and safety responsibilities. Make sure your employer has provided you with the necessary health and safety management training and resources to fulfil those responsibilities without being vulnerable. 

If you have concerns speak to your H&S rep, section rep or branch to push for better support.

Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 

This is the law that allows unions to appoint H&S reps to represent their members on health and safety issues. It is essential that safety reps are familiar with this law: the regulations themselves, the approved codes of practice and the guidance. All of these are contained in the H&S reps' bible known as the Brown Book.

Additional law

There are many other regulations, making explicit the implied duties in the Health and Safety at Work Act. These include:

"So far as is reasonably practicable"

Duties on employers under the Health and Safety at Work Act and many of the Regulations are qualified by the phrase "as far as is reasonably practicable". It recognises that a balance needs to be achieved between the degree of risk in a particular job or workplace against the time, cost and physical difficulty of taking measures to avoid or reduce the risk. Except where these factors are grossly disproportionate to the degree of risk, the measures should always be taken.

Your opinion of the balance between the cost and the risk may be different from your employer's. If your employer tries to argue that it is not ‘reasonably practicable' to do something about a health and safety problem, discuss it with your Branch and make up your own minds. Stand your ground on matters you think are important.

Remember: unions don't have to be legal experts though safety reps do need to know the SRSC Regulations. It is your employer's duty to know which laws apply and to ensure compliance. If you need further advice on any health and safety law contact your health and safety rep. They can seek help from the branch or negotiator if needed. The negotiator will contact Prospect's Research and Specialist Services H&S Officer Sarah Page if specialist help is required.

Rights, responsibilities and employment protection

Your rights:

  • You have the right to work in places where all the risks to your health and safety are properly controlled
  • stop working and leave the area if you reasonably believe you are in serious and imminent danger
  • inform your employer about health and safety issues or concerns
  • be a Prospect H&S representative
  • if you are a safety rep, paid time off work for training and carrying out your functions.


You must:

  • take care of your own health and safety and that of people who may be affected by what you do (or don't do) and
  • co-operate with others on health and safety, and not interfere with, or misuse, anything provided for your health, safety or welfare.

Your employer must tell you:

  • about risks to your health and safety from current or proposed working practices
  • about things or changes that may harm or affect your health and safety
  • how to do your job safely
  • what is done to protect your health and safety
  • how to get first-aid treatment
  • what to do in an emergency.

Your employer must provide, free of charge:

  • training to do your job safely
  • protection for you at work when necessary (such as clothing, shoes or boots, eye and ear protection, gloves, masks etc)
  • health checks if there is a danger of ill health because of your work
  • regular health checks if you work nights and a check before you start.

Your employer must provide you with the following information:

  • their health and safety policy statement
  • an up-to-date Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) certificate visible in your place of work.

Employment protection

Employment law protects all employees from suffering any harm (detriment) because of any reasonable actions they take on health and safety grounds* . This applies regardless of their length of service. Employees, including H&S reps, should not suffer harm for instance by being victimised, denied a promotion or being dismissed because they:

  • carry out or propose to carry out activities expected of them in connection with preventing or reducing risks to health and safety 
  • perform or propose to perform functions they have as union-appointed safety reps or H&S committee members
  • took part, or proposed to take part, in consultation with the employer under the H&S consultation regulations, or for taking part in an election under that law
  • bring to their employer's attention by reasonable means a concern about circumstances at work which they reasonably believe are harmful, or potentially harmful to health and safety 
  • reasonably believe a situation to be of serious and imminent danger and because they could not reasonably be expected to avert it, they leave or propose to leave the workplace or any dangerous part of it, or if they refuse to return while the danger continues
  • reasonably believe a situation to be of serious and imminent danger, and take or propose to take appropriate steps to protect themselves and others. This is to be judged by reference to all the circumstances including knowledge, facilities and advice available at the time
  • made a disclosure that the H&S of any individual has been, is being, or is likely to be, endangered (the disclosure must be made in good faith and to the employer or in some circumstances to another appropriate person).

Claims for unlawful detriment or unfair dismissal in these circumstances can be brought to an Employment Tribunal. There are strict time limits for presenting claims. You should seek advice from your Prospect Full Time Officer for more information as soon as possible. Workplace and other legal assistance is offered at the discretion of the union and is decided on the facts and merits of each case.

* Employment Rights Act 1996 (as amended)

H&S management - what should your employer be doing?

It helps to know what the regulator expects of your employer. Here we expand on employer duties and mention new initiatives introduced to try to push employers to improve health and safety performance.

  • Health and safety leadership - Effective health and safety performance comes from the top. Your Board has both collective and individual responsibility for health and safety. Directors and boards need to examine their own behaviours against the leadership checklist and, where they see that they fall short, change what they do to become more effective leaders in health and safety. You can use the list to check how they shape up.
  • Health and safety policy - setting out the general approach and management arrangements for health and safety, ie who does what, when and how. The policy should describe how health and safety controls are implemented and monitored and should be reviewed regularly. A policy will only be effective if acted upon and followed.
  • Risk assessment - this is a legal duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. Risk assessment must involve staff and/or their H&S reps to be sure that risk management solutions will work in practice and won’t introduce any new hazards.
  • Resourcing health and safety - dedicating adequate resources to the task and obtaining competent health and safety advice.
  • Training staff - so 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
    • people changing jobs or taking on extra responsibilities
    • young employees who are particularly vulnerable to accidents
    • health and safety representatives.
  • Consulting staff - the law says that employers must consult their workers on health and safety. Consultation does not mean telling workers about health and safety. It means discussing health and safety with them, or their safety reps, allowing them to raise concerns and influence decisions. Companies can use checklists to measure how well they are planning worker involvement and reviewing it. Top tip: you can use the lists to assess them.

HSE provides a leaflet on consulting workers and a useful 10-point list on what employers MUST DO to comply with health and safety law.


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