The importance of health and safety is not something to be laughed at.
Published 04 September 2023
Workplace health and safety has been a source of bemusement, but the need for employers to carry out risk assessments and ensure the welfare of staff and others has never been more important.
All employers have responsibilities under health and safety law to manage health and safety risks in their businesses.
It means ensuring that all employees and others are protected from any risks arising from work activities.
The rules and procedures are designed to prevent accidents, injuries, illnesses and even deaths in the workplace.
Employers have a legal obligation to prevent threats and violence towards their employees at work.
Tesco has recently been proactive in proposing new plans to help to safeguard employees following a rise in violent attacks on staff [1 cited 4.9.23]. The supermarket will offer staff bodycams to help to protect them.
Similar action is reported to have already been taken by Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Co-op. It follows the British Retail Consortium publishing figures earlier this year, which found abuse against retail staff had almost doubled compared to pre-Covid levels.
Protecting staff from threats and dangers in all sectors, and ensuring their health and safety at work is an extremely serious matter. But it has also been a subject open to much ridicule over the years.
The idea that health and safety is boring, unnecessary and can be restrictive is certainly one that has been fuelled by media stories, the accuracy of which in some cases have been questioned.
Examples include reports of a shop refusing to inflate a balloon bought online for health and safety reasons, flip-flops being a health and safety risk in the office and for safety reasons not having plasters for staff who suffer small cuts because some may be allergic[2 cited 4.9.23]
However, the seriousness with which employers should treat health and safety, and the need for them to carry out effective risk assessments was highlighted once again in a recent case.
Pret a Manger was fined £800,000 after an employee was trapped in one of its freezers for more than two hours, where she tried to use croissant boxes to stave off hypothermia[3 cited 4.9.23]
After she was rescued, an investigation found there was no suitable risk assessment for employees working in temperature-controlled environments.
It is reported that Pret’s reporting system revealed there had been several call-outs relating to defective or frozen push buttons in the previous 19 months. This included one occasion at the same remote kitchen in January 2020 when a worker had become stuck in the walk-in freezer after being unable to open the door from the inside. In that incident the internal door release mechanism was not working.
The sandwich chain pleaded guilty to an offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 after an investigation by a council health and safety team.
The Health and Safety at Work Act is the main piece of legislation, which covers health and safety in the workplace[4 cited 4.9.23]
It details the responsibilities of both the employer and employee in ensuring there is a safe working environment. It also covers many other aspects of health and safety which include dangerous substances, harmful emissions, agricultural health and safety, offences and penalties.
The Health and Safety at Work Act places general duties on employers, and some self-employed people to do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure their health and safety and that of others who may be affected by what they do or do not do.
The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are responsible for regulating and enforcing health and safety law.
The HSE state: As an employer, you're required by law to protect your employees, and others, from harm[5 cited 4.9.23]
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the minimum you must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk).
- Take action to eliminate the hazard, or if this isn't possible, control the risk.
Assessing risk is just one part of the overall process used to control risks in your workplace.
Assessing workplace risks
A risk assessment can help to identify hazards in the workplace in order to help an employer to implement control measures that can then eliminate or minimise any risks as much as possible[6 cited 4.9.23]
The assessment is a systematic process of identifying dangers and evaluating any associated risks within any particular workplace, then implementing reasonable control measures to remove or reduce them.
It enables employers to weigh up how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously, and what actions need to be taken to prevent or control the risks
Employers, of all sizes, should carry out risk assessments to protect their employees and others from harm, and to comply with the legal requirements under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
Risk assessments also help an employer to create a safer and healthier work environment for its workers and customers.
Addressing any risks identified
If a danger is revealed by a risk assessment, an employer should take appropriate action to eliminate or reduce the danger it poses.
Steps employers can take to control any risks highlighted can include:
- Where a specific hazard or activity is identified as a danger it should be removed completely, and a different material or method used instead.
- Substitute the hazard or the activity with something less risky e.g. use a less hazardous chemical or lower voltage equipment.
- Implement measures to protect people from the threat, which for example can be done by erecting physical barriers or guards or better ventilation
- Alter the way in which employees carry out their duties by putting relevant rules in place, procedures, signs, training, supervision, etc. It can, for example, include limiting the exposure time or rotating workers between tasks.
- The need for suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) was certainly emphasised during the pandemic. Staff should always be provided with the correct clothing and equipment to keep them safe and protect them from harm e.g. masks, gloves, goggles or a helmet.
An employer should always look to use the very highest level of control possible, and if one measure is not considered sufficient then a combination can be used to reduce any risk sufficiently.
Any control measures put in place should be regularly monitored and reviewed to determine the effectiveness of them, and to establish if any changes or adjustments are needed.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations state that all employers must have arrangements to manage health and safety, and most employers are required to write them down[7 cited 4.9.23]
The same regulations also require employers to conduct risk assessments to identify and control any hazards in its workplace.
But only employers with five or more employees have to record the significant findings of the risk assessments and the groups of employees who are particularly at risk.
An employer should always review any safety measures put in place, to make sure they are effective and adhere to relevant laws and guidelines.
Examining the plans helps an employer to identify and address any new or emerging hazards. It also helps to improve the safety performance and culture.
Safety measures should be reviewed at least once a year. Any change in the workplace, which may include the use of new machinery, processes or materials, should mean any risk control measures are reviewed. Similarly if an incident occurs or there is a near miss.
Keeping up to date and on top of safety measures can help an employer to prevent accidents, injuries, and illnesses, as well as to avoid what can be considerable costs and reputational damage should something go wrong.