Q&A: Health and safety rules

All businesses must comply with health and safety rules to ensure they don’t put the welfare of their employees, customers and visitors at risk. Failure to do so can result in severe penalties. But what does compliance involve? Jonathan Dunkley, partner at Muckle LLP, outlines key health and safety responsibilities for small businesses

Why do I need to worry about health and safety rules?

All businesses have a legal responsibility to protect the health and safety of their employees and others affected by their activities. Employers must comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and extensive subordinate legislation. If health and safety rules are broken, employers face severe penalties, with potentially unlimited fines. The worst transgressions can even result in imprisonment.

But I’m just a very small start-up…

Businesses aren’t exempt simply because they’re small or new. Ironically, the smaller the business, the more exposed their owners and directors. Historically, they have been more likely to serve custodial sentences than directors of larger companies.

What about my employees?

They also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and that of others affected by their acts or omissions, but the primary responsibility will be yours, the employer/business owner.  

Should I carry out a health and safety risk assessment?

Certainly. You must proactively assess and manage health and safety risks. Frequently, it’s impossible to eliminate all risk, but you must undertake a risk assessment of any aspect of your business that could cause harm.

Depending on the nature of your business this could include the risks from: slips, trips and falls; repetitive work or work involving heavy loads; working with visual display units (computer monitors for example); excessive noise or extremes of temperature; exposure to chemicals or hazardous substances; the use of workplace equipment and transport; working at height or at night; lone working or working with members of the public where there is a risk of violence. This list is not comprehensive as every workplace is different. Your assessment must consider your particular circumstances.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website contains some example risk assessments as well as a range of free, practical advice and tools to help you manage health and safety. 

Most risks can be reduced and controlled by taking simple and inexpensive action. In normal circumstances, the assessment should be documented, with action points detailed. This might include specific training, the introduction of personal protective equipment or the implementation of specific, safe-working practices. Failure to undertake an assessment and control risks would normally be regarded as a breach of health and safety legislation.

Must I create a written health and safety policy?

If you employ five or more people, you must have a written health and safety policy statement, that way everyone understands their responsibilities. Your policy must set out your commitment to managing risks and meeting your obligations. Involve your employees when preparing and implementing your health and safety policy.  

And if I do not have a written health and safety policy?

Just suppose there’s a fatal accident. The police or Health & Safety Executive will ask to see your written policy. If you don’t have one, and this is considered to have contributed to someone’s death – and the way your activities are managed or organised amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care – you could be guilty of an offence under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. You may also be convicted of gross negligence manslaughter – and sent to prison.

What should a health and safety policy include?

Documents are set out in three parts. (1) ‘The statement of intent’ explains your commitment to managing health and safety and nominates the person (probably you) with ultimate responsibility for this. (2) ‘The organisation’ section explains who is responsible for what. (3) ‘The arrangements’ section details how you’re going to do to achieve the aims set out in your statement of intent.

What if one of my staff gets sick or injured in a workplace accident?

Under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR), you must record and promptly report certain 'specified injuries' and reportable 'work-related illness'. This is always necessary when an accident involves death, major injury or where an employee is unable to work for seven consecutive days (not including the date of the incident). You must also keep an accident book and record details of accidents and illnesses – including those that you are not required to report under RIDDOR (those requiring absence of less than seven days).

What about near-misses?

The rules on reporting 'dangerous occurrences' have recently been relaxed so that fewer types of dangerous occurrence need to be reported to the HSE. However, even if an incident doesn’t cause serious injury, if it clearly could have, it is likely that you will still be required to record and report it. Failure to do so could result in an unlimited fine – even imprisonment, if an employer has been personally negligent or has connived in the failure to report. The HSE website contains information on the types of incidents that should be reported.

Are there any business benefits to health and safety best practice?

Of course, poor health and safety leads to illness and accidents that could prove an enormous drain on your finances. Simple but effective health and safety practices pay for themselves. They also improve your reputation among customers, regulators and employees. Given the massive increase in penalties under health and safety legislation introduced last year, the cost of non-compliance is likely to exceed by a long way the cost of compliance.

Can having bad health and safety provisions harm my business?

It can reduce productivity, damage products, equipment or premises, there could be considerable fines and legal costs if you’re prosecuted. Your insurance premiums will undoubtedly rise. Most competitive tendering now requires you to disclose any health and safety investigations and convictions. Many customers won’t deal with businesses that have a bad health and safety record and good employees might not want to work for you. Having safe and healthy working conditions will make it easier for you to attract and retain customers, employees and business partners.

Further reading

You can find further advice on health and safety on the Law Donut.