Health and safety at work, guide for members

  • Do you know what could cause you harm at work?
  • Are you aware of the things that could stop you going home in the same physical and mental health as when you arrived this morning?

If not, then it is likely that your employer is not meeting their legal obligations under health and safety at work laws.

Health and safety at work is important

Thousands of people are injured, or even killed, through work each year.

Even more find that work has damaged their health in any of a variety of ways - upper limb disorders, back injuries or mental health difficulties caused through stress.

And it is not only factory or construction workers - many of these injuries and illnesses occur in office environments.

The dangers of working in unsafe ways has been recognised for a long time.

The first laws on health and safety were passed in 1802 - and since 1974 we have seen the development of a comprehensive framework of laws designed to ensure that all employers take care of the safety, health and welfare of their workers and any one else who could be harmed by what they do.

Find out more in a brief guide to health and safety law from the Health and Safety Executive website - PDF

Risk assessment

Employers should be assessing the risks that their workers are exposed to.

This could include things like chemicals, noise, risk of musculoskeletal injuries (back, neck and arm injuries), violence at work and risks of slips, trips and falls, as well as the dangers of stress at work.

But a health and safety risk assessment is more than just a paper exercise.

Once the hazards and risks are known, employers have to take adequate steps to protect their workers from exposure to these risks and they should tell the staff about what the risks are and how they are being protected.

They should also have comprehensive training to ensure that workers are able to undertake their jobs safely.

Details on all of this should be contained in the organisation's Health and Safety Policy Statement - a legally required document that should show who is responsible for health and safety issues throughout the organisation and give the details of the arrangements made to ensure that all hazards and risks are properly controlled.

Consultation

Also, they should be involving the staff and their representatives in consultation about how to best make the workplace a safe and healthy place to be.

Employers are not only bound by law to prepare and maintain their health and safety policy, but there is also a requirement to bring it to the attention of their workforce.

Experiences from the PCS's Advanced Health and Safety Course, which looks specifically at the management of safety and health at work suggests that in many organisations, even the union safety reps have difficulty in tracking down their safety policy.

Each workplace should display a poster 'Health and Safety Law', which outlines the main legal duties on employers and gives details of who is responsible, who the appointed union reps are and where employees can turn for further information and advice.

It also outlines the legal duties on employees - to take reasonable care of their own and their colleagues safety at work, to cooperate with their employer, to use items provided in a safe way and not to interfere with anything provided for your health, safety or welfare.

As well as carrying out a general risk assessment, specific pieces of legislation require additional assessments for more hazardous operations, such as manual handling, the use of display screen equipment.

Accident and incident reporting

Another important area for health and safety is reporting incidents. Once a supposed safe system of working has been put into place, it is vital that employers monitor what is happening in the workplace to identify any accidents or near-misses that could point to faults in the system.

Official estimates suggest that for every one fatal or major incident accident that occurs, there will have been over a hundred other instances where someone was nearly or was only slightly injured.

Proper reporting and monitoring procedures allow employers the opportunity to identify these shortcomings in their safety arrangements and rectify them before the major incident happens.

But this is only possible if there is a proper reporting system in place and if all staff follow it - though this can mean having to fill in forms and can be time consuming, which is all to often why such systems fail to operate correctly.

Union health and safety reps

Trade unions have always maintained a keen interest in issues of health and safety at work.

The law allows recognised unions to appoint health and safety representatives, and affords these reps the legal right to time away from the workplace to undergo training and to time away from their work duties to carry out their safety rep functions.

There are also legal requirements on employers to consult with their workers through their union reps and to take their input into account in making decisions that could affect health and safety at work.

PCS invests heavily in ensuring that we have a suitable network of safety reps, who have ready access to training, guidance and support.

But the key message to all workers has to be: don't become part of the injury or ill health statistics - talk to your local safety rep about any concerns that you have. Help them to work with your employer to provide a safe and health environment for everyone to work in.

Find out more about health and safety at work with Worksmart from the TUC

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