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Health and Safety At Work Act - Has It Gone Too Far?

"Health and safety gone mad", one of the most printed phrases in British tabloids, is enough to spark heated debates up and down the country, most concluding that red tape is unnecessary, costly and a waste of time. However, is this completely fair? What would happen if, in 1974, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act wasn’t passed – would employee injuries skyrocket? And what, if any, recourse would they have if a company had been negligent, causing them to be severely invalided?

The act was introduced four years after the US brought in a similar legislation, and was aimed largely at employers. The pivotal phrase comes in section 2, when it states that, “it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his/her employees”. In section 3, this goes one step further, and covers, to the same degree, all non-employees – be it visitors, contractors or the general public.

So, reasonably practicable – how does an employer even start to weigh up what they should be doing to ensure safety in the workplace? It’s a simple balancing act between the weight of the risk versus what can be put into place to eradicate the risk as comprehensively as possible. The factors which need to be taken into account are primarily money, time and difficulty of the solution, no matter how big or wealthy the employer. If an issue does arise in the courts, as long as a prosecution can show that procedures which could have taken away the risk were not met, the burden of proof lies with the defence, meaning they need to prove that the measures would have been impracticable.

With the clause of being reasonably practicable, the act sets out guidelines for the employer, meaning they must ensure that plants and articles – which are defined as any component of a plant – are provided and maintained to a standard which are safe and don’t carry any health risks. All articles must be tested and deemed safe during use and cleaning, and employers must be given sufficient training on the use, dismantling and disposal of each article.

When substances and objects are being transported, stored or handled, the arrangements for this must not carry health risks. Employers must ensure that training, information and instruction is given so that employees can carry out their tasks without worry. In certain instances, it may also be necessary for employers to provide supervision, to oversee the correct handling of articles.

In section 7 of the act the focus shifts away from employers, to set out what must be adhered to by employees. It states that all workers must take reasonable care for the health and safety of themselves, as well as for others who may be affected by their acts or omissions. They must also co-operate with their employer to help them meet all of the requirements set out in the act.

The following section, much like section 3, encompasses all people, and states that “no person shall intentionally or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety or welfare in pursuance of any of the relevant statutory provisions”.

While frustration at the sometimes-over-quoted Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is often understandable, imagine a workplace where there weren’t legislative processes to adhere to, so that employers only had to follow a moral code on what they should do to keep their workers safe. There would be fewer lawsuits and injury claims, yes, but no doubt there would be an exponential increase in injuries, resulting from shoddy equipment maintenance, a lack of standard safety guidelines and general carelessness. No employer wants an injury or death on their conscious, and the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 sets out guidelines which mean that this should very rarely happen.

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