Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

This is the fundamental piece of health and safety legislation.  It places general duties on employers, people in control of premises, manufacturers and employees. 

These general duties form the framework for all subsequent health and safety regulations.

It also establishes the Health & Safety Commission (HSC) and Executive (HSE), lays out the systems for enforcing the act, including the penalties for breaches of law and is the source of Crown immunity.

The Act is in 4 parts:

Part I covers general duties, the HSC and HSE, the power to make regulations and Codes of Practice, enforcement and penalties;

Part II establishes the Employment Medical Advisory Service

Part III relates to Building Regulations; and

Part IV covers various amendments and other general issues.

We will only cover the main provisions of Part I here. 

General duties of employers

Section 2 covers the general duties of employers.  It breaks down into 7 parts:

Part 1 places a general duty on employers  'so far as is reasonably practicable' to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.

Part 2 breaks this down further into specific areas, requiring employers to provide:

  • safe plant and systems of work;
  • safe methods for the  use, handling, storage and transport of articles and substances;
  • necessary information, instruction, training and supervision;
  • a safe and well-maintained workplace, including safe access and egress;
  • a safe working environment with adequate welfare facilities;

Subsection 3 requires employers to prepare, and maintain up-to-date, a statement showing the policy on safety and the organisation and arrangements put in place to ensure the general policy is carried out.  The employer must ensure that all employees are aware of the policy and any revision;

Subsections 4 and 5  provide for regulations to be made to create Safety representatives.

Subsection 6 requires employers to consult any such representatives and to involve them and employees in making arrangements for health and safety at work;

Subsection 7 requires the establishment of safety committees under certain circumstances.

Duties placed on other people

Section 3 requires employers (and the self-employed) to ensure that non-employees (eg the general public, contractors and contract staff) do not have their health and safety adversely affected by the employer's actions and, where necessary, to give such people information about hazards.

Sections 4 and 5 place duties on people in control of premises (landlords, tenants etc), both to ensure that people can use the premises without risks to their health or safety and to control any 'noxious or offensive substances' from being released into the atmosphere.

Section 6 relates to the designers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers of articles for use at work.  All of these have various duties to ensure that items supplied for use are safe and to supply necessary information about safe use and any testing results.

Section 7 places duties on employees to take reasonable care of their own health & safety, and that of anyone who could be adversely affected by their 'acts or omissions at work' and to co-operate with their employer in steps to meet legal requirements. 

Section 8 is a general prohibition:  "No person shall intentionally or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety or welfare in pursuance of any of the relevant statutory provisions."

Section 9 provides that employers cannot charge their employees (or allow them to be charged) for anything that is required to be done by the 'relevant statutory provisions'.

HSC and HSE, Regulations and Codes of Practice

Sections 10 to 14 establish the Health & Safety Commission and the Health & Safety Executive. 

The HSC is made up of a Chairman and between 6 and 9 members - all appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, following consultation with organisations representing employers, employees, local authorities and professional bodies. 

It is usual for at least 2 to be nominated by the TUC.  The HSE, is led by a Director General and two Deputies, appointed by the Secretary of State.  The HSC and HSE work closely to recommend legislation, develop guidance and Codes of Practice and, through the HSE's Inspectors, enforce health and safety laws.

Sections 15 and 16 deal with the making of regulations and the approval of Codes of Practice. 

Enforcing the law on health and safety at work

Sections  18 - 26 deal with the enforcement of health and safety law.  They provide that the  HSE and  Local Authorities will appoint inspectors to enforce the law and outline the powers of inspectors.

Where inspectors believe that legal requirements are being breached, they can issue an Improvement Notice. 

This lays down where the inspector believes the breach is occurring and stipulates a period within which the breach must be remedied.  HSE policy is now for inspectors to give employers written notice of an intention to issue an Improvement Notice - minimum period of notice is 2 weeks. 

If the employer does not challenge this, the notice is issued.  The employer then has a further period - usually two weeks - to appeal to a tribunal against the notice.

Where the inspector believes that there is a risk of serious personal injury arising from any activities (either actual or planned), they can issue a Prohibition Notice. 

The key differences from an Improvement Notice is that a Prohibition Notice does not require any actual breach of the law, and it can take immediate effect.

Sections 27 - 32 cover a variety of other enforcement issues, including the powers of the enforcing authorities to obtain information and the systems for enforcing agricultural health & safety.

Sections 33 - 42 cover the penalties and prosecution provisions for enforcing health and safety law.

Section 48 covers the Application to the Crown - in other words, it is from this section that Crown Immunity comes.  This is dealt with more fully elsewhere.

Updated 26 Jan 2017

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