Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 · Health and Safety Regulations

40 Years of the Health and Safety at Work Act: 1974-2014

2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act which, whilst frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted, has protected millions of British workers and made for huge reductions in charted numbers of occupational death, serious injury and ill-health reported the world over.

The UK has seen a charted fall in the number of serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace since the introduction of the HASAW Act 40 years ago. Figures show 1993 - 2013.
The UK has seen a charted fall in the number of serious injuries and fatalities in the workplace since the introduction of the HASAW Act 40 years ago. Figures show 1993 – 2013.

Here in the UK, in 1974, the number of workplace fatalities recorded stood at 651. Latest figures released by the HSE (for 2012/13) reveal a whopping 77% reduction at 148 fatalities – which corresponds to a rate of fatal injury of 0.5 deaths per 100 000 workers and is 18% lower than the average for the past five years (181).

Before the 1974 Act there existed a plethora of different regulations – some industries bogged down with prescriptive governance and others with little or no regulation at all.

Time For Change

In 1972, the Robens Report controversially championed the idea of self-regulation by employers concluding there were too many regulations and that what was needed was a regulatory regime that set broad, non-prescriptive goals for dutyholders, underpinned by a fundamental principle: ‘those that create risk are best placed to manage it’. The Report itself led to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.

The Act that emerged from his review swept away detailed and prescriptive industry regulations; it created a flexible system where regulations describe goals and principles, supported by codes of practice and guidance. Based on consultation and engagement, the new regime was designed to deliver a proportionate, targeted and risk-based approach.


Health and Safety legislation can be perceived as restrictive by many and the phrase the ‘Nanny State’ is often used to blanket all relevant health and safety legislation.

In fact, health and safety legislation is reasonably straight forward, once you know how it works. The worst part about it is getting started and the need to keep the ‘paper trail’. If you can get these systems in place with the support of the relevant management then future tasks should be relatively easy. UK health and safety legislation begins with the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

In  part, the Act states that employers are required to:

  • Ensure the safety of employees at work so far as reasonably practical
  • Ensure that non-employees are not harmed by their activities
  • Not charge employees for any protective measures or equipment identified as necessary to protect health and safety

Persons responsible for premises:

  • Landlords (or other persons in control of premises) are required to ensure the safety of users

Manufacturers, suppliers, importers and designers:

  •  Must ensure that items provided are safe and without risks to health

Employees must:

  • Ensure their own health and safety at work and ensure they do not endanger anyone else
  • Co-operate with their employer ensuring compliance with any legal requirements
  • Not interfere with any item or measure provided in the interests of health and safety

For an employer: this means that they have to consider what are the hazards associated with their business, who are effected, what the risk levels are and ensure that suitable measures are in place to control the risks to all persons effected by the employers activities.

For an employee:  this means that if the employer states a safe system of work they must follow it. Also you must not interfere with any safety item. For example – using a Fire Extinguisher to prop open a door. Whilst the Fire Extinguisher is on its stand or hook it is part of a safe system of work. If a person carries out inspection or maintenance of the extinguisher it is still part of a safe system of work, but as soon as you use it to prop a door open you are interfering with a safe system of work and potentially committing a criminal offence.

Forty Years On

In many ways, today’s workforce is unrecognisable from that of forty years ago – having moved away from an economy based predominantly on heavy industry and manufacturing. The intervening period has seen massive economic, social and technological change, yet the fundamental aspirations set out in 1974 remain relevant today. Recent reform agenda (see the Lofstedt report – Reclaiming Health and Safety for All) is aimed at simplifying or stripping out unnecessary or duplicated regulation in order to help the smaller business to understand how to take a proportionate approach to managing risk – but its basic principles remain intact.

Forty years on, these principles have been applied time and again to new and emerging technologies and sectors and HASAW’s legacy is a safety record envied around the world. The Health and Safety at Work Act continues to demonstrate how it can be applied to the responsibilities and demands of today’s workplace, creating the framework for people to come home safe and well from a day’s work.

However, I am sure that these new figures will do little to reassure those 148 UK families and those who share a similar grief the world over having lost a loved one at work and is testament to why a fatality figure over 0 means we still need to do everything in our power to address workplace safety in any sector of the economy today.

The information contained in this article is intended to a basic overview of health and safety management. It is not designed to be a legal document, but a quick guide for readers to know where to look for relevant information. Readers are advised that only following the information in this article may not lead to legal or best practice compliance in health and safety management – competent advice should be sought.

For more information on recent changes to Health and Safety Regulation, see our first blog post.

For further advice on any aspects of your health and safety policy, get in touch via our website.

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