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HASAWA 1974 – An Overview of the Health and Safety at Work Act

HASAWA 1974 – An Overview of the Health and Safety at Work Act

"HASAWA 1974 – An Overview of the Health and Safety at Work Act" provides readers with an understanding of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

It’s usually in the press and it’s regularly maligned.  “Health and safety gone mad….” is a well-worn catchphrase, and most people (particularly perhaps those with school aged children) could come up with numerous examples of ‘health and safety’ being the nail in the coffin of many a fun and often harmless frolic. 

The piece of legislation that underpins this often misunderstood yet highly contentious area of law is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (often shortened to HASAWA).  HASAWA turned 40 last year  and since 1974 there has been a plethora of cases going through the courts, often to the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court), arguing the interpretation and practical effect of the HASAWA’s words. 

The 1974 HASAWA  creates a duty on every employer to 

  • ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees and
  • conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.

 A similar duty is imposed on the self-employed.

That people expect their loved ones to return home from a day’s work unharmed goes without saying, but in my experience the very real  HASAWA  issue for the vast majority of businesses is not one of neglect, laziness or miserly corporate unsentimentality, but one of practicality and application.   , Literally - how is it done?  Particularly if the line of work is, by its nature, dangerous:  industry, chemicals, heavy machinery etc.   Complying with the HASAWA is, without a doubt, far more participatory than simply having a risk assessment and a health and safety policy drafted up and storing them on a dusty old shelf in the office corner until one day they might be required “as evidence” in an HASAWA investigation..  

Implementing the HASAWA  demands active involvement; a knowledge of the workforce and what each member is trained for and physically capable of doing, a knowledge of the workplace, a knowledge of the industry and the inherent health and safety risks within it.  The HASAWA  requires training and it requires investment. 
Court of Appeal case law  has made compliance even more challenging by ruling that –– the very exposure to a risk is in breach of the HASAWA  and therefore in such a case an accident might not actually need to have occurred for an offence to have been committed. 

The Defendant then has to demonstrate that the risk of harm was so unforeseeable that it was immaterial.  And when you really think about it, what can honestly be said to be ‘unforeseeable’. 
The Court of Appeal went on to consider  how risk is assessed and held that it must be fluid, it cannot be fixed at a point in time.  Your management of risk and HASAWA requirements must be dictated by changes in circumstances.   

That said, your preventative measures are to be ‘reasonably practicable’: on the weighing scales of risk of harm v. expense of eliminating (measured in time, investment and money), HASAWA measures can be proportionate.  That is why the carte blanche banning in the name of ‘health and safety’ isn’t always necessary. 

The HASAWA has undoubtedly led to vast improvements in the safety of countless work environments and that should be celebrated. Your response to it should be to engage, to be proactive, to invest, and when in doubt to seek advice.  

James Johnston is a solicitor in Burnetts’ dispute resolution team. He specialises in regulatory law including the HASAWA. The HASAWA cases cited are: Tangerine Confectionary Ltd & Veolia (UK) Ltd v R [2011] and Baker v Quantum Clothing [2011].

Are you struggling to put the requirements of the HASAWA into practice? I’d be interested in hearing your HASAWA experiences.

About the Author

James Johnston profile photo

James Johnston

James is a Partner and Head of the firm’s Dispute Resolution team.

Published: Monday 9th February 2015
Categorised: Health & Safety

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