Health and Safety at Work Act

What is the Health and Safety at Work Act?

The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act introduced a legal responsibility for employers to protect the health and safety of all those who work for them, or visit their premises.

The Act allowed the government to issue a range of guidelines and regulations for the workplace. It also established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as a regulatory body.

Health and Safety

The Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced by Harold Wilson’s government in 1974.

Why was the Health and Safety at Work Act introduced?

The Health and Safety at Work Act is the most recent and comprehensive of a sequence of laws attempting to ensure a safe working environment, a process which started with the Factory Act back in 1802.

By the late 1960s, the body of existing workplace safety legislation was considered outdated, particularly in the face of developing technology and workplace methods.

Moreover, existing laws all related to very specific working conditions, leaving large swathes of the workforce unprotected in law. There was a lack of general legal guidance that could be applied to all employers,

In the years preceding the introduction of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, a range of deadly incidents, such as the 1968 James Watt Street fire in Glasgow, had generated increased public debate about how to improve regulation with regards to safety at work.

Similarly, the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 in the United States had prompted an inquiry into the need for a similar law in the United Kingdom.

Main Provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act

Notable provisions of the 1974 Act include:

Duties of Employers
The Health and Safety at Work Act’s Section Two tasks an employer with the responsibility ‘to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his or her employees’. This includes carrying out maintenance work, providing training to employees when necessary, and setting up systems to ensure the safe handling of substances and materials.

These precautions must form a written Health and Safety Policy that is regularly reviewed and known to employees. Section Three of the legislation declares that an employer’s general duty also extends to any person who may find themselves in the workplace, including visitors.

An ‘as far as reasonably practicable’ condition allows employers to refuse to carry out adjustments when their cost does not outweigh the benefit of the reduction in risk to health and safety.

Duties of Employees
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act’s Section Seven, employees have a duty to follow employers’ instructions with regards to health and safety regulations, and act in such a way that does not place themselves or anyone else in danger at work.

Duties of All
Anyone, be it employers, employees, or the general public, has a duty under the Act to not interfere with health and safety procedures.

Articles used at work
The Health and Safety at Work Act defines an article used at work as a ‘plant designed for use or operation, whether exclusively or not, by persons at work, or an article designed for use as a component in any such plant.’

Manufacturers and suppliers are responsible for minimising risks to health and safety in the design and manufacturing stage, as are erectors and installers in the installing stage. The employer is responsible for the maintenance of such articles.

Substances used at work
It is the manufacturer’s duty to identify and reduce risks associated with substances used at work. This includes ensuring safety during transport, storage, and use, as well as providing adequate information to anyone who needs it, about how to protect their own health and safety with regards to the substance.

Health and Safety Inspectors
Health and Safety Inspectors have wide powers under the Act to enter workplaces and perform tests deemed necessary to ascertain compliance to the law.

Health and Safety Inspectors may take photographs, recordings, and samples, as well as take possession of articles, and question people. Inspectors can give employers improvement notices and prohibition notices. An improvement notice directs the receiver to make changes in order to comply with the Act. A prohibition notice orders activities to cease until an issue has been remedied.

Health and Safety Executive
The Act originally created two bodies, which merged in 2008 to form the current Health and Safety Executive. As well as its duties in relation to enforcing the Act, the Health and Safety Executive is tasked with conducting health and safety research, training, education, and with proposing regulations to the Secretary of State. The Health and Safety Executive can also hold a public inquiry into workplace accidents.

Crimes under the Act
There are 15 distinct criminal offences identified by the Health and Safety at Work Act which can lead to prosecution. These offences include the failure to follow regulations, not obeying a notice, and obstructing inspectors.

It is not necessary for there to have been an actual incident resulting in injury for an employer to be charged with breaching the legislation or its regulations.  The fact that someone was potentially exposed to risk is a sufficient justification for a case to be brought.

Health and Safety Regulations

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Secretary of State can introduce new, legally binding workplace regulations, as well as Approved Codes of Practice.

This has led to the passing of a number of statutory instruments (specific secondary legislation provided for under the auspices of the main Act) targeted towards more specific issues in the workplace.

Amongst some of the most notable regulations that have been subsequently passed are:

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 introduced rules for appropriate workplace conditions including heating, lighting, and ventilation.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 governed health and safety in manual handling, defining it as ‘the moving of items either by lifting, lowering, carrying, pushing or pulling’.

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 regulated the use of display screen equipment such as computers. They include a duty for the employer to ensure employees take regular breaks from screens and provide a free eyesight test when asked for.

The Personal Protection Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 regulate the use of Personal Protective Equipment or so called PPE in the workplace. Personal Protective Equipment must be provided by the employer in a suitable way and be effective. Employees must have access to information about how to use protective clothing, and they have a duty to do so when necessary.


Regulations around Personal Protective Equipment were enhanced in 1992.

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 set out rules for recording and reporting workplace accidents.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 made employers responsible for the maintenance and safe use of work equipment.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 specified maximum working hours and rules for compulsory breaks.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 introduced the need for a risk assessment and for the provision of a named health and safety representative in a workplace. It also requires health surveillances in areas where staff are repeatedly exposed to conditions like noise, or to a dangerous substance that may cause harm.

Success of the Health and Safety at Work Act

The Health and Safety at Work Act has generally been considered to have greatly reduced workplace accidents and improved workplace health.

Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent and the number of reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent. Recent statistics show that the number of accidents has continued to fall. In 2018 there were 147 fatal injuries in the workplace compared with 651 in 1974. Similarly, non-fatal accidents are now 21% of the 1974 figure.

Read the Health and Safety at Work Act in Full

The full text of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act can be read here.