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Health and Safety Legal Duties of Employers

If you employ people to help run your business, you will be expected to meet certain responsibilities under health and safety law.

As an employer, the law requires you to take measures to ensure that your business premises are a safe place to work and have plans in place to deal with accidents and injuries. 

You will need to ensure that you have at least one “competent person” in the workplace who can ensure that health and safety regulations are being complied with. If you can handle this responsibility yourself, this person could simply be you. If you are less confident about your abilities in this area, however, you could enlist an employee with the experience to check that the law is being followed, or you may choose to bring someone in from outside who has the knowledge you need.

Benefits of health and safety

Implementing sound health and safety measures can have wide-ranging benefits for your business, leading to increased profit and employee morale. The benefits of properly implementing health and safety rules include:

  • Protection of workers
  • Saving absence costs
  • Saving recruitment costs
  • Saving insurance costs
  • Protection of reputation
  • Improvements in productivity

Providing a safe workplace

The essence of health and safety regulations is that you should provide, as much as is practical, a safe workplace for your employees. Whether they are working with heavy machinery or sitting in an office at their computers, you must assess any risks your workforce may encounter and take measures to minimise them. Where customers or other visitors are able to access the premises, you should ensure that their safety is not put in jeopardy either.

You do not need to prepare for every possible eventuality or remove anything which could conceivably be a risk, but you must do what is reasonable - for example, on the basis of cost or the amount of time it would take - to reduce the likelihood of health and safety issues which are likely to arise.

Health and safety does not only cover potential accidents, but also means that you should make the workplace as safe and comfortable as possible. This includes ensuring that the workplace is reasonably clean and hygienic and that toilets and other necessary sanitary facilities are provided. Any potential long-term risks to health need to be considered and minimised as with accident risks.

Risk assessments

To comply with health and safety law, you will need to carry out a risk assessment of your workplace. This ensures that any risks are identified and measures for dealing with them are put in place.

The first step is to identify any potential risks. Some of these will be obvious, but you should undertake a thorough examination of the workplace and talk to your employees in order to identify any less obvious hazards which could exist. You should also note down which groups of people are potentially at risk from these dangers.

Once you have identified any risks in the workplace, you’ll need to determine what action you can take. You may already have safety measures in place, and if so you should assess whether or not these are sufficient; alternatively, the risk may not have been considered before, and you will have to decide what can be done to reduce or eliminate the hazard it poses. You may also want to ask your employees what they think about proposed safety measures and if there are any unforeseen drawbacks.

You do not have to go to extreme measures to ensure safety if it is out of proportion to the actual risk. The law states you must do what is “reasonably practicable”, so if you feel that a safety precaution would be overly expensive or take too long based on the actual likelihood of an accident or other safety issue arising, you probably do not have to act on it or you could put a lesser measure in place.

Once you have evaluated the risks, you can begin to implement your solutions. At this point you are also legally required to document the details of your risk assessment in writing if you have at least five employees. This should be written in a way which demonstrates that you carried out the appropriate checks, looked into who would be affected by the risks, and planned reasonable solutions based on the nature of the risks and how many people could be affected. You should also show how your staff has been consulted throughout the process.

When putting your solutions into place, you should deal with the more important issues first, and consider using temporary measures if it will take some time to implement a permanent solution. The most important thing to do is take reasonable action on any issues which have been identified.

Risk assessments should be updated if something happens which could lead to new risks arising. For example, if your business moves to new premises or starts doing a different kind of work, there might be new hazards that you have to consider.

Health and safety policies

You must always be aware of how you are dealing with health and safety in the workplace, and if you have five or more employees, you need to set out a health and safety policy in writing.

A health and safety policy should explain the risks that exist in your workplace and the precautions you have put in place to minimise them. It should also clearly state the responsibilities that employees have in order to ensure their safety, including any procedures you have implemented.

If you are legally required to have a written policy, it can be displayed on a sign which is visible for all employees to see or printed as a leaflet which is distributed to every member of staff.

Consulting with employees

One of the best ways to find out about the hazards and concerns of your staff is to discuss health and safety issues with them. Keeping them up to date with your approach will also help to ensure that they work safely and fully understand your policy. It is for this reason that the law requires you to consult with your employees on these matters.

Who you should consult with will depend on your workforce. If they belong to a union, then the union may put forward a representative. If they do not belong to one, or if the union has not put forward a representative or you do not recognise the union, you can either consult with each employee individually or have them elect a representative.

Consulting with individual employees may be the best approach in smaller businesses, but for larger ones, it is generally preferable to deal with representatives instead. The number of representatives should reflect different groups within your organisation in order to address their differing health and safety concerns. For example, you could have a representative for each department, or for each type of work done.

If you are consulting with representatives who are also your employees, it is important that you allow them paid time off from their role to perform their duties and supply resources they may need (such as training or equipment). They are also protected under employment legislation from being treated less favourably than other employees due to their participation in health and safety activities.

As some employees can be members of recognised trade unions while others may not be involved in any, you may be consulting with a mixture of trade union representatives and representatives elected from the workforce.

The purpose of representatives is to be involved in the decisions made relating to health and safety in your workplace. They should be supplied with the information they need to make a judgement, and you should listen to their views on risks in the workplace, potential methods for dealing with hazards, and the concerns of other workers.

It is important to note that consulting with representatives does not mean that you are not obliged to keep the workforce as a whole informed on health and safety issues. Part of the role of representatives will be to help you decide on the best ways to relate health and safety information to the rest of your workers so they have the necessary knowledge to do their jobs safely.

The role of health and safety representatives

The most important thing to remember with both trade union-appointed and internally-elected health and safety representatives is that when performing their role they are free from the management's authority. Their role is to provide representation to the management on behalf of the workforce on health and safety issues; as such they act as an intermediary, relaying concerns that have been conveyed to them by the workers. Both types have a similar role, which includes:

  • representation of the workforce on health and safety matters
  • attendance of training courses intended to improve their ability to assist with health and safety
  • contact with health and safety inspectors

Specific functions


There are several core functions that are alike for both union appointed and internally elected representatives, which are:

  • representation of workers to management
  • representation of workers to health and safety inspectors and officials.

The role of an elected representative under law is more limited than that of a union-appointed official, though through agreement between an elected representative and the employers the role can be expanded to include other duties.

Trade Union

Functions that the law specifically prescribes to a trade union representative are:

  • to investigate accidents, near-misses and potential hazards
  • to investigate employee complaints relating to health and safety
  • report the findings of these investigations to the management
  • inspect the workplace for health and safety issues
  • request, in conjunction with at least one other union representative, the formation of a health and safety committee
  • attend the meeting of such a committee as a representative of the workforce.

Reporting incidents

If an accident does occur in the workplace, you should ensure that details of the incident are recorded and that no new risks have developed as a result of the accident. In some cases, you will also be required to report the accident to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

You are required to report accidents which:

  • cause someone’s death
  • cause major injuries
  • force the victim to be off work or unable to do their normal job for more than seven days after being injured
  • injure a member of the public (i.e. not a worker) severely enough that they must be taken to hospital for treatment

The HSE also has a list of other incidents which it describes as ‘dangerous occurrences’, which must be reported even if nobody suffers an injury. Details of these are available on the HSE website.

If your workers have contracted certain occupational diseases, these must also be reported if they could relate to the work they have done for you. Additionally, if you work within the gas industry, any incident involving the gas which causes someone to be killed, injured or knocked unconscious must be reported.

First aid

One important aspect of ensuring safety in the workplace is making suitable first aid provisions. First aid is any medical attention given to someone at the scene of an accident, before emergency services arrive (if they are required). Part of your risk assessment (see above) should involve deciding on how much medical equipment is required for your workplace and whether a fully-trained first aider is required.

The minimum requirement for a workplace which is relatively safe, such as an office, is that a first aid box must be available and that someone in charge of administering first aid is present. They do not necessarily need to be fully trained in providing medical assistance, but there must be someone who can be called upon if someone is injured. Information on the first aid provisions available must also be provided.

A first aid box must, at minimum, contain:

  • a leaflet giving general first aid guidance
  • 20 assorted plasters
  • 4 sterile triangular bandages
  • a pair of disposable gloves
  • 6 safety pins
  • 6 medium sterile dressings
  • 2 large sterile dressings
  • 2 sterile eye pads

A workplace with more severe or specific hazards must provide first aid resources in line with the risks at hand. For example, if your employees work with dangerous chemicals, you must provide any additional equipment that would aid in the treatment of chemical burns or other injuries likely to result from an accident. In such cases, you may also need to have a fully-trained first aider on-site at all times in order to administer medical assistance should an accident occur. The essential idea is that you must supply first aid provisions which are suited to the size, nature and any other considerations of your business.

Health and safety poster

If you have any employees, there is government-provided information on health and safety law that you must display as a poster or provide as a leaflet to all of your staff. More information is available from the Health and Safety Executive website.

Employers’ liability insurance

The majority of employers are legally required to take out employers’ liability insurance. This is a type of insurance which covers you for any injury or harm suffered by your employees for which you are found to be liable. If you follow health and safety law properly, you will hopefully never need it, but it is still a requirement for most kinds of employer.

If your business does not have any employees, or your employees all work in another country or are closely related to you, you may not need to take out employers’ liability insurance, but for other employers it is a must.

Get legal advice on health and safety

If you need more help understanding your responsibilities and implementing a policy under health and safety law, you could benefit from our Instant Law Line for Business service. When you sign up for Instant Law Line, you can get legal advice over the phone on all the day-to-day concerns of running your own firm.

With an easy online sign-up form and flexible prices based on the size of your business, it's the efficient and affordable way to get the advice you need to keep your business running soundly.

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