What is occupational health and safety?

Around 1.4 million UK workers experienced work-related illnesses in 2017/18 and more than 600,000 injuries occurred at work, according to statistics by the country’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Many health-related issues are avoidable which is why the HSE provides guidance for employers to create a safe and risk-free working environment. But what exactly is occupational health and safety?

Occupational health and safety – a definition

Occupational or workplace health and safety describes services and regulations put in place by both employers as regulated by government agencies to ensure that employees can remain safe and healthy whilst working. In the UK, the HSE oversees and enforces work-related health and safety laws. But its policies do not just benefit employees. Research has shown that healthy staff are beneficial for businesses and boost productivity.


Occupational health concerns the physical and mental wellbeing of employees at their place of work. The aim of occupational health and safety policies and rules is to ensure that injuries and illness due to work are minimised. Large businesses will often have dedicated staff onsite to facilitate and promote health and safety at work, whilst smaller businesses often do not have the funds. However, all of them must adhere to regulations set out by the HSE to provide risk-free working environments.

What are the occupational health and safety regulations in the UK?

The HSE is an independent agency which drafts and enforces health and safety policies. Its guidance helps businesses to identify the key areas they must focus on to provide occupational health for their staff. There are three main aspects employers must focus on when assessing work-related injuries and illness:

  • What can cause injuries/illness at work? For example, dangerous machinery, hazardous chemicals, drafts, etc.
  • How can these issues be solved to minimise the risk for employees to fall ill? What actions need to be taken to ensure a healthy workforce?
  • Which measures should be put in place to prevent injuries and illness?

According to UK regulations, employers are also not allowed to discriminate against disabled personnel and must make provisions to ensure that all employees can fulfil their duties. Importantly, if an employer fails to provide safety for their workers, they can be prosecuted under criminal law by the HSE and under civil law by their staff. It, therefore, makes sense for companies to draft comprehensive occupational risk assessments.

But what are the occupational health and safety regulations in the UK? The HSE provides different regulations for different industries. That makes sense because an office worker won’t be exposed to the same risks as a construction worker or a chemical plant laboratory assistant. That is why HSE guidance is broken down into various industries. Let’s look at an example of this.

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 is a dedicated law that sets out both an employer’s but also employee’s duties when working on construction-related projects. In other words, everyone involved has legal duties under these regulations. For example, designers such as architects or engineers have a duty to ensure reduce construction-related foreseeable risks. Principal contractors must ensure that workers adhere to health and safety regulations at work, whilst workers have a duty to report any breaches of health or safety.

Construction projects that last more than 30 working days and require over 20 workers must be notified using a F10 form. There are also certain general provisions construction site managers must make for workers. These include providing helmets and high visibility clothing for employees on-site.

At this point, it’s worth making a distinction between ‘safety’ and ‘health’. In terms of the construction industry, safety includes issues such as scaffolding, working at height, working on roofs, and fire safety. For example, construction sites are legally required to install rescue plans when work at height (e.g. on scaffolds) is performed. On the other hand, health risks constitute topics such as dust, paint chemicals and fumes, asbestos and noise. For some health risks such as dust, the HSE provides guidance for workers to ensure their own safety.

Who needs to comply with occupational health and safety regulations?

All employers in the UK have a legal duty to assess work-related risks, educate their staff on these risks and strategies to avoid harm, and monitor health and safety. Businesses must also ensure that visitors (e.g. visitors to construction sites) are safe (e.g. by wearing a helmet at all times). One fairly common measure many office-based employers have installed is briefing new members of staff on the office’s fire exits and evacuation policies. Regular fire drills are also common. Larger enterprises usually have the funds to hire dedicated health and safety personnel to train and instruct staff on workplace safety. Typically, companies will ask their staff to take refreshers in its health and safety policies and action plan every year.

But it’s not only employers who need to be aware of occupational safety rules, employees have a duty to learn about their company’s regulations and make sure they can demonstrate an understanding of actions that need to be taken in case of an emergency.

Employers’ responsibilities to ensure safety at work

Although some industries will have stricter guidance on health and safety monitoring and provisions than others, there are certain responsibilities most employers share to ensure their staff are safe and healthy. These include:

  • Minimising danger at work, whether that risk originates from machinery, long hours in front of a screen, animals or other people (e.g. ill populations in hospitals)
  • Employers must ensure that the staff they hire have been trained to operate the tools a business requires them to use; alternatively, they may provide comprehensive training for new staff.
  • Employees and employers have an obligation to report and log all accidents at work, no matter how minor.
  • Employees have a duty to let their employers know of any health issues or medications that could affect their work.

Enforcement of health and safety regulations and breaches

In case of a breach or failure to provide adequate health and safety at work, staff can bring their case forward to the HSE which can take a company or institution to court. For example, in 2013, the University of Edinburgh was found guilty of failing to assess the risk of animal allergens in its laboratory. This had health consequences for one of its employees. The university was fined £10,000.

But fines can be substantially higher. Healthcare management firm HC One Limited was fined £270,000 for failing to secure household and janitorial cleaning products that remained unattended in care home wards. The case was brought forward because an elderly resident ingested chlorine tablets that had been lying out in the open.

However, the enforcing authority of the HSE only covers certain industries and workplaces such as factories, hospitals, building sites, schools, and government premises. Other sites such as offices, restaurants, retail premises, nurseries, pubs and museums are overseen by local authorities. There are also specialist agencies such as the Environmental Health authority which deals with pollution and food hygiene issues. Meanwhile, the police look after road traffic incidents.

In general, failure to adhere to and maintain strict health and safety regulations can become costly for employers. The following step-by-step guide outlines how to ensure your company’s occupational health and safety is in order.

Guidance on how to ensure workplace health and safety

If you’ve recently set up a business or are ready to hire employees for your company, here are steps you can take to ensure you’re not in breach of health and safety regulations.

  1. Assess workplace and work-related risks that could cause injury or harm to employees. It’s worth drafting comprehensive occupational risk assessments to ensure all risks are properly determined. Failure to identify or include certain risks could bring about legal action if something happens as a result of such negligence.
  2. Appoint a person who can help you to achieve your health and safety goals. This could be yourself or a consultant. If you choose to oversee your business’ occupational health and safety, it’s a good idea to become familiar with The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
  3. Draft a dedicated health and safety policy which all employees and management must adhere to. If your company has five or more employees, you must write a policy. These documents should include your company’s intent or goal, your responsibilities as an employer as well as the duties staff must fulfil to ensure health and safety at work. To draft such policies, it can be useful to speak to your staff and workers about the issues they deem risky to their health and safety.
  4. Provide a first aid kit at work and nominate and train an employee on how to use it properly.
  5. Keep a dedicated log of incidents and accidents.
  6. Brief staff on a building’s fire safety regulations.
  7. The HSE provides health and safety posters and leaflets which companies must display or hand out, respectively, to their staff.
  8. Make sure you get employers’ liability insurance to avoid bankruptcy in case of compensation claims.
  9. Improve the workplace to become safer. Managing health and safety is an ongoing task. By monitoring incidents, companies can take measures to improve work-related safety risks. You should also provide continued and refresher training to ensure all members of staff remain in the know of any changes.

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, the HSE has published dedicated guidance in case of a no-deal Brexit. However, the authority has assured that any EU-regulated health and safety laws will become domestic law as part of the transition. As such, not much is going to change for employers in the foreseeable future.

Please note the legal disclaimer relating to this article.

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