HSfB Blog

Health and Safety at Work: Who’s responsible…?

When most of us hear of workplace accidents and injuries, we look on from the sidelines with a general 'it will never happen to me' attitude, turning up to work comfortable in the knowledge that our health and safety is being well cared for by the organisation in which we work.

Aside from the fact that many companies have poor safety records and your health and safety may well not be in a 'safe pair of hands', it is also not just the responsibility of your employer or those in charge of health and safety to look after you.

The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA) imposes general duties on employers, the self-employed, controllers of premises, and manufacturers to ensure health, safety and welfare but the final group that makes up this list and the one which many of us do not realise exists is – employees.

From the many convictions and cases that are brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), it seems reasonably understood, if not carried through, that the HSWA imposes general duties on all employers and the self-employed to ensure the health and safety of those who may be affected by their business activities. Employers may also be liable for negligent acts committed by fellow employees acting in the course of their employment.

However, the HSWA also imposes a duty on employees to look after their own safety.

Section 7 of the Act clearly states that, while at work, all employees have a duty not to endanger themselves or others through their acts or omissions; and to cooperate with their employer, e.g. by wearing protective equipment.

7. It shall be the duty of every employee while at work-

(a) to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work; and

(b) as regards any duty or requirement imposed on his employer or any other person by or under any of the relevant statutory provisions, to co-operate with him so far as is necessary to enable that duty or requirement to be performed or complied with.

Section 8 also states that no person (whether an employee or not) shall misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety or welfare.

Where an offence is committed due to an act or default of some other person (not being an employee), that person shall be guilty of the offence and may be charged and convicted of it whether or not the employer is also charged. This means that an individual employee can be charged with a health and safety offence without the company being charged of that offence.

An employer may be responsible for the negligent acts or omissions of employees committed in the course of their employment. A claimant can sue an employer on the basis of vicarious liability, provided he can show that the employee was negligent and this caused his injury. However, an employer will escape liability if it can show the employee was acting 'on a frolic of his own' outside the course of his employment.

Breaches of health and safety legislation in the workplace can give rise to criminal liability. In addition, the reality is that a workplace accident may also give rise to a civil, personal injury claim. Whilst a breach of the HSWA does not give an automatic right to a civil claim, in many cases the evidence used against a company in a criminal prosecution may similarly be used against a company in a civil claim.

Successful prosecutions can lead to six months' imprisonment and a £20,000 fine, or if the case is escalated to the Crown Court, two years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine can be imposed.

The message should be clear then, that we are all responsible for health and safety in our workplaces and the HSWA imposes duties on us all alike – employers, the self-employed and employees. As an employee it is your duty to look after your own welfare and that of the colleagues around you. In reality this should take no more than some common sense and knowledge of the systems in the area in which you work. If a task requires PPE then use it. If it is faulty then make someone aware. If you are unsure then check with someone first. There are plenty of experts inside and outside the workplace to make sure accidents don't happen.

Some employees take on training courses, such as IOSH Working Safely, to help them improve their awareness.

Either way, make sure you stay safe!

Article by the Workplace Law Network