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, this time looking at the future and present challenges of health & safety in the workplace.

An ever changing landscape

The workplace is changing at a speed greater than ever before and employers must ensure they stay ahead of the latest challenges in order to keep their workforce safe from harm.

One of the most evident changes since the Covid-19 pandemic has been to the typical office working model. It is now common for people to work from home several days a week, if not fully remote. Whilst hybrid working has many benefits, it also has created new challenges when it comes to health and safety. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (the Act), employers must ensure they ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. But what is “at work” and does it cover working remotely? The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) guidance states that employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for people working at home as for any other worker and that employers must ensure their risk assessments for health and safety covers home workers. However, the nature of remote working makes it difficult to truly assess the suitability of a person’s working environment and have an accurate understanding of the risks each employee may be facing.

What is reasonably practicable for employers to do to ensure the safety of those working from home is however different. Providing advice around DSE, workplace set up, checking electrical equipment etc. would be reasonable, as well as providing certain items of equipment, such as a separate keyboard and mouse in most situations. However, if an employee does not have a suitable home work environment, and subject to any employment law issues around where there contractual place of work is, the reasonably practical step may be to require those employees to work from the office.

Health, safety and mental health

According to the HSE, one in four people will have a mental health problem at some point throughout their life. Work-related issues can cause mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, or aggravate pre-existing conditions. Under section 2 of the Act, employers have a general duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes and has always included mental health. However, the HSE has reported that almost 1 million workers are experiencing work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This appears not to be a gap in the legislation, but how wide it has been interpreted and the fact that mental health has only recently come into the spotlight.

Employers must include in their risk assessment the risks of and ways to control work related stress, depression and anxiety to meet legal requirements but also reduce absenteeism, retain staff long term etc. Employers should consider offering guidance or training to all levels of staff on how to safely work in a way that can benefit their mental health. This can also assist in establishing more reasonable expectations for employees and prevent unhealthy practices. Whilst the legal requirements only relate to work-related stress, depression and anxiety, the first challenge is likely to be distinguishing work-related causes from causes outside of work.

Employers should ensure mental health is considered for anyone working remotely.  One common theme is employees reporting finding themselves called upon to complete tasks outside of the contracted work day. Having access to equipment such as laptops and work phones in their personal space means employees can feel pressure to work longer hours and guilt for stopping work, leading to burn out.

Will the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 remain fit for purpose?

It is not only a changing environment which presents challenges for health and safety management but also a changing workforce. Today, there are almost 11 million workers aged 50 and over in the UK, an increase of 4 million from 20 years ago. The HSE has confirmed that a separate risk assessment is not required specifically for older workers. Its guidance states that employers should consider the activities older workers do as part of other risk assessments and question if any changes are needed. The HSE suggests that employers may want to consider making the following changes:

  • allowing older workers more time to absorb health and safety information or training, for example through self-paced training
  • introducing opportunities for older workers to choose other types of work
  • designing manual handling tasks to eliminate or minimise the risk

The HSE also states that employers should not assume that certain jobs are physically too demanding for older workers and that new technology supporting roles can absorb the physical strain.

Technology in recent years has developed at an unprecedented rate. These developments have many benefits including increases in efficiency, better monitoring, enhanced PPE, the ability to automate and remove workers from risk areas, However, the reliance on technology presents new challenges to health and safety management and care must be taken not to forget the need for employees to be constantly carrying out dynamic risk assessments. Some technologies also inherently high-risk themselves, for example lithium-ion batteries, which can explode when damaged, or the increased use of hydrogen which is highly flammable, raising new challenges.

The Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974 has been drafted widely which allows it to cover all of these developments and which has meant it remains practically unchanged and in our view, still fit for purpose. Where specific changes have been required, this has been done through issuing and amending secondary legislation. This use of secondary legislation puts the Act in a strong position to adapt to continue to protect employees as it has done for so long.

There will always be new challenges that employers will need to overcome in order to keep their employees safe. Employers must keep up to date with change and find ways to make the new working world safe, with safety professionals being business enablers not disablers.

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We'd also like to set optional analytics cookies to help us improve it. We won't set optional cookies unless you enable them. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences. For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Cookies page.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Analytics cookies

We'd like to set Google Analytics cookies to help us to improve our website by collection and reporting information on how you use it. The cookies collect information in a way that does not directly identify anyone.
For more information on how these cookies work, please see our Cookies page.