This question raises a number of questions of its own that could merit an essay of some length!
The vast majority of businesses I deal with know why the legislation is there and why it is important. However, over the years I have heard comments like “there is too much red tape” and safety is “common sense”.
I asked my two teenage boys at the weekend why they thought UK has health and safety laws. Their answer was refreshingly simple – to “stop people getting injured”.
The journey to date
The UK has had safety legislation for a very long time. The 1833 Factory Act introduced protection for children working in factories and created an inspectorate to enforce the new law.
Almost 200 years later, we have a suite of legislation and guidance all designed to protect individuals’ safety and health.
The core legislation we use today is the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. Since its introduction, other more sector specific or prescriptive laws have been passed to plug regulatory gaps.
Does the law work?
If proof were needed as to why safety laws are necessary, we need look no further than the annual statistics collated by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Those tell us that by 2018 there had been an estimated 85% fall in fatal injuries to employees since 1974 and an estimated 58% reduction in employer reported non-fatal injuries since 1986.
Safety laws force businesses to think about operational risks and come up with processes and procedures to either eliminate those risks altogether or manage them down to the lowest reasonably practicable level. In my time in legal practice, I have noticed significant improvements in business’ approach to health and safety management and I have no doubt that our legal framework and the consequences for everyone when something goes wrong have never been more important.
There are less “traditional” physical work place incidents today than there were when the 1974 Act was introduced, but incidents do still occur (I deal with the legal aftermath of many) so there is clearly still work to do and improvements that can be made. The process of analysis, review and control doesn’t stand still.
But looking ahead, businesses need to think about how they identify compliance gaps to avoid the incidents, prosecutions and civil damages claims of the future and protect health. Fatigue, stress, remote/home/lone/flexible worker safety, well-being, anxiety, bullying and the rise of psychosocial illness – recognised risks of the working world we now live in. HSE statistics show that the rate of work related stress, depression and anxiety has shown signs of increasing in recent years.
If our health and safety legislation is, as my teenagers declared, designed to “stop people getting injured”, businesses should deep dive to ensure they are protecting against not only current known risks, but the future and newer risks that might, or should I say, will arise.