As part of our on-going celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974, we're publishing a short series of articles highlighting the history of health and safety practices, the people who helped shape them and a look at what challenges the act still faces, starting with a review of the act itself.

A background

The Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974 (“HSWA”) has now been part of UK law for 50 years. It not only consolidated existing laws, it also established the Health and Safety Executive and provided for secondary legislation to be implemented where required.

The purpose of the HSWA was to provide a single piece of health and safety legislation that would be easy to understand, flexible enough to apply to all kinds of workplaces and modes of works, and that would firmly place the responsibility for keeping workers safe in the hands of employers. Arguably, 50 years on, these features of the HSWA are still its greatest strengths and the immense success of the Act is clear to see in the results. Reviewing the performance of HSWA in 2008, Lord Grocott observed:

“Between 1974 and 2007, the number of fatal injuries to employees fell by 73 per cent; the number of reported non-fatal injuries fell by 70 per cent. Between 1974 and 2007, the rate of injuries per 100,000 employees fell by a huge 76 per cent, and Britain had the lowest rate of fatal injuries in the European Union in 2003, which is the most recent year for which figures are available. The EU average was 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers; the figure in the UK was 1.1.”

Such a decline in workplace injuries and fatalities is a sure sign of the Act’s positive impact and, in this article, we will briefly look at what it is that has made the Act such a success, and how the Act itself has adapted to the changing nature of work in the UK through the introduction of Approved Codes of Practice (“ACOPs”) and secondary legislation.

What has made the Act a success?

Prior to the Act, a major complaint was that it was difficult for both employers and employees to understand their duties in relation to health and safety. However, HSWA clearly set out ‘general duties’ that applied to both employers, directors / managers and employees, and even to persons concerned with premises and manufacturers.

These general duties represent the ‘goal-oriented’ approach of HSWA, which required employers to be proactive and take accountability for identifying risks and ensuring measures were in place to guard against harm.

To ensure that these duties were adhered to, the HSWA set out clear consequences for failing to comply, making it a criminal offence to breach the general duties. Local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive were made responsible for enforcement and inspectors were given extensive investigative powers and could serve enforcement notices and bring prosecutions for health and safety offences.

How has the Act adapted to new challenges/moved with the times?

An innovation of the Act was to enable the government and the HSE to create new health and safety regulations and ACOPs on an ongoing basis as the world of work changed, and our understanding of the accompanying risks evolved. More than any other, this feature of the Act has ensured its continuing relevance for half a century.

An example of the HSWA's adaptability is The Asbestos (Licencing) Regulations 1983, which were introduced once the potentially devastating health effects of asbestos became clear. Although the regulations have since been updated, the original regulations meant that work could not be carried out with asbestos insulation without having obtained a licence from the HSE.

Additionally, the Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 sought to guard against the health risks associated with display screen equipment, reflecting the increasing need to protect workers from the new and widespread use of computers in the workplace. 

Many of the new regulations were made to comply with EU law; however, HSWA was the vehicle by which such secondary legislation was introduced, signifying its continuing relevance.

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