In honour of the World Day for Health and Safety at Work, and International Workers’ Memorial Day (both falling on 28 April), we discuss two important concepts in every workplace: a safe and healthy working environment as a worker’s right, and union action in relation to health and safety at work.
Workers’ rights to a safe and healthy working environment
The legal framework
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) set out workers’ rights to a safe and healthy working environment. The HSWA imposes a positive duty on employers to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.” This is a key principle for both employers and employees.
More specifically, employers must:
- ensure employees’ health, safety and welfare at work as far as reasonably practicable;
- conduct a “sufficient and suitable” assessment of work-related risks their employees and others affected by the employer’s activities may face;
- make arrangements for planning, organising, controlling, reviewing and auditing preventative and protective measures;
- appoint one or more competent people to assist with implementing the measures; and
- provide employees with information and training on the health and safety risks they may face at work and any measures to mitigate these risks.
Employers with five or more employees must also:
- produce a written health and safety policy and describe the arrangements for putting this policy in place;
- revise the policy as appropriate;
- bring the policy and any revisions to employees’ attention;
- record arrangements for planning, organising, controlling, monitoring and reviewing preventative measures, usually in a risk assessment; and
- record any significant findings of risk assessments and any groups of employees identified as especially at risk.
Consequences for non-compliance
Failure to comply with health and safety legislation can result in a company being subjected to enforcement action by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). HSE inspectors can serve:
- improvement and prohibition notices which give employers 21 days to remedy a fault or implement a programme for improvement; or
- prohibition notices which mandate an employer to cease an activity which presents a risk of serious personal injury.
Companies also face prosecution in the criminal courts for some breaches and, in addition, individual directors, company secretaries and managers can also be held criminally responsible for breaches.
More generally, there can be serious reputational damage to companies which have failed to ensure employees’ health, safety and welfare as far as reasonably practicable. Not only can this result in loss of profit, clients and customers, but it can also result in the loss of talent as individuals may leave or be deterred from applying for vacancies.
The serious consequences of such failure makes compliance with the legislation crucial.
Organising for health and safety
Workers’ Memorial Day is a day marked by the trade union movement to remember workers who lost their lives to workplace illness or injury and to recommit to fight to keep workers safe. This year’s theme is “Global: organising for health and safety – a crucial part of union action“.
Collective action and union organisation has often been aimed at promoting workers’ rights to a safe and healthy working environment, or a response to unsafe working conditions. Last June, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) added “safety and health” to its Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This means that all ILO member states, such as the UK, commit to respecting and promoting workers’ fundamental right to a safe and healthy working environment.
Where action is carried out in accordance with legal requirements, the unions and those taking part are granted a degree of immunity to civil claims (such as for nuisance and inducing employees to breach their employment contracts) which could otherwise arise when workers walk out of or picket a workplace. To gain this immunity, industrial action must be taken “in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute“,which means the action must be founded on a dispute between workers and their employers that relates wholly or mainly to one of a specified list of issues. The list includes the physical conditions in which workers are required to work.
Generally the best point at which an employer can deal with industrial action is before it even begins. If there is a threat of industrial action, the issue giving rise to the threat should be considered, the potential impact of the action, and what dispute resolution measures could be put in place to try to avoid the action and arrive at a reasonable outcome. Where action does begin, employers should take advice quickly on how to respond.
Why is this important for employers?
As outlined above, there are sanctions for non-compliance with health and safety requirements. Additionally, there is the possibility of industrial action if a dispute over poor working conditions arises. These can result in a damaged reputation for the employer.
To help prevent these situations arising, it is important that employers have an effective health and safety policy. Employers should proactively consider any dangers employees may face on the job, how they can eliminate those risks, and how their health and safety policies can be updated to deal with and mitigate them. Ensuring that workers are safe and healthy promotes productivity, maintains their goodwill, avoids legal claims in respect of injuries sustained at work, and ensures the company’s brand is not damaged by health and safety issues. Employers with five or more employees should also ensure risk assessments are carried out, and these assessments also apply in respect of employees who work from home.
Do not hesitate to get in touch if you have any queries following on from this post.