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The Health and Safety at Work Act Turns 40
Posted by David Cant on August 7, 2014

The Health and Safety at Work Act

Health and Safety Executive Sign40 years ago, a landmark piece of legislation was passed onto the statute books, changing the workplace forever. The Health and Safety at Work Act finally became law in 1974, immediately clarifying the employer’s role in keeping workers safe, and helping to reduce accidents as a direct result.

Back in 1974, 651 workers died as a result of accidents at work. Forty years later and this figure has been reduced to 148 – a number that now includes self employed workers. Similarly non-fatal accidents have dropped by 75% since 1974 and continue to reduce year on year.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is keen to stress that the 1974 figure could actually be much higher because it does not include work-related deaths in industries that were not covered by existing legislation.

An act to simplify health and safety legislation

Although some employers now view the Health and Safety at Work Act as an unwelcome additional burden, back in 1974 the new law was intended to simplify existing legislation. The 1972 Robens Report found that hundreds of laws had already been enacted to protect employees in the workplace, but they tended to be directed towards addressing issues in specific industries.

The Health and Safety at Work Act went on to replace all of these disparate legislative requirements with a framework that applies to every employer regardless of industry. The new framework was built on one simple principle –

 At the most basic level this means that employers need to carry out their own workplace risk assessments and address any issues they find to keep their employees safe.

The previous prescriptive approach to legislation created dozens of loopholes which were directly responsible for deaths in the workplace. By creating a generalised framework, employers can then apply the guidelines and principles to their own specific circumstances.

Into the future

Because the Health and Safety at Work Act has been so successful over the past 40 years, very little has changed since its inception. Periodic reviews and consultations in the intervening years have sought to clarify employer understanding of the act, rather than to add to it.

Even now the HSE is conducting a brief consultation to review how the Act applies to self-employed people and freelancers. In general these reviews simply serve to reinforce how well the Act continues to function. Despite massive changes in UK industry, the framework has continued to improve working conditions for employees.

It is therefore perfectly conceivable that the Act will continue to protect employees for another 40 years and beyond.

Now it’s your turn

So how has the Health and Safety at Work Act improved conditions within your business? How do you manage your responsibilities regarding health and safety assessments and protective provisions?


Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME's favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick.

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