In 2003, the International Labour Organisation (“ILO”) began to observe ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’ in order to stress the prevention of accidents and diseases at work, capitalising on the ILO’s traditional strengths of tripartism and social dialogue. This celebration is an integral part of the ILO’s ‘Global Strategy on Occupational Safety and Health’ and, with the UK being a founding member of the ILO, it is fully supported by our domestic Health and Safety Executive. This World Day is a key tool for raising awareness of how to make the workplace safe and healthy around the globe, as well as raising it as a political issue.
The World Day for Safety and Health at Work takes place on 28 April 2021, with emphasis on the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases globally. The campaign focuses international attention on promoting and creating a culture of safety and health to reduce the vast number of work-related deaths and injuries, a topic which is particularly relevant given the global pandemic. The magnitude of the problem should not be underestimated.
We are all responsible for promoting compliance with workplace health and safety. A national culture of occupational safety and health is one in which the right to a safe and healthy working environment is respected at all levels; where governments, employers and workers actively participate in securing a safe and healthy working environment through a system of defined rights, responsibilities and duties, and where the highest priority is accorded to the principle of prevention.
The purpose of health and safety is to protect employees, workers, sub-contractors, customers and members of the public when involved with are present in the workplace. Under common law, all employers have a duty of care whereby they must protect their employees against risks which may affect their health and safety in the workplace. An implied term of employment contracts requires employers to take care of their employees’ health and safety in this respect. For example, employers must:
- Provide a safe place of work.
- Provide a safe system of work.
- Provide adequate plant and equipment.
- Recruit competent and safety conscious staff.
If an employer fails to take reasonable care in any of these areas, an employee may have grounds for a claim in respect of constructive unfair dismissal and/or personal injury. It is important to note that employees also have a duty to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their actions at work. It is essential that employees co-operate with their employers and other employees to ensure the health and safety of themselves and others.
Separate to an employer’s common law duties, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (“HSWA”) all employers have a strict legal duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all of their employees (including both physical and mental health). This duty, which includes the provision of information, instruction, supervision and training, extends to risks arising from:
- The nature of the work.
- How the employer conducts its business.
- Any supervision, training instruction (or lack thereof).
- The plant, equipment, materials and substances used.
- The condition of the premises.
- The provision of welfare facilities.
The main requirement on employers under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 is to carry out risk assessments, which involves vigilant examinations of what could cause harm to individuals in the workplace. As a result of the risk assessment, an employer must assess whether it has taken sufficient precautions to prevent damage and injury (both physical and mental) and adopt or introduce measures where areas of risk are not catered for. We have recently discussed how this obligation extends to those working from home. With the increased homeworking during the pandemic, the incidence of domestic abuse in 2020 spiked significantly, resulting in the Business Minister calling on all UK employers in January 2021 to do more to help their colleagues who may be victims of domestic abuse. The duty on employers to provide a safe workplace is a proactive rather than reactive obligation. In carrying out risk assessments, the employer should consider the employee’s physical and mental wellbeing, and domestic abuse at home is part and parcel of this.
There are various other pieces of legislation and regulations which set out the employer’s position in respect of health and safety in the workplace and it is something for an employer to consider when assessing the extent of its duties.
Health and Safety Policy
Under the HSWA, all employers with more than five employees must have a written health and safety policy in place. Should employers fail to do so, enforcement officers can issue improvement notices which may ultimately lead to potential criminal penalties including larges fines and imprisonment. Employers with less than five employees may still find it helpful and good practice to produce a health and safety policy regardless.
As a general rule, a health and safety policy should be concise and effective and should:
- Be workable.
- Demonstrate a commitment to managing health and safety.
- Be easily accessibly and communicated to all employees.
- Contain a general statement of intent to provide a safe and healthy working environment.
- Give details of health and safety responsibilities and name key individuals.
- Refer to other documents or supporting policies where relevant.
- Detail the systems and procedures currently in place.
- Outline and address risk assessments.
- Explain arrangements for training, supervision, accidents, first aid and emergencies.
- Include arrangements for employees consultation, maintaining equipment and safe handling of substances.
- Address stress and alcohol and drug misuse.
Supporting mental wellbeing has grown in prominence over recent years and policies will now often be complemented by mental wellbeing policies setting out the employer’s strategy and support in this regard. The call to action this year for employers to be vigilant in spotting signs of domestic abuse and offering access to relevant support or the safe space of the office can be met by employers additionally consulting with staff and staff representatives over a Domestic Abuse Policy, and then implement one. Other health and safety policies to accompany this might also a remote working policy itself which includes training on undertaking risk assessments remotely and considers issues for lone workers.
Health and safety policies should be applied uniformly with a system in place for regular monitoring and review to ensure that they comply with current legislation or global events such as the pandemic.
Practical tips for employers
Dealing with and addressing workplace safety is essential for any business and the importance of it simply cannot be underestimated, especially in the present times of COVID-19.
- Have written workplace policies –reviewed annually or more often where necessary.
- Have a training programme in place – ensure all employees are trained in health and safety, reviewing this regularly to ensure employees have refresher training or when new policies are implemented.
- Have the right equipment – make sure employees have the equipment they need to effectively carry out their role, particularly if they are working home due to the current pandemic.
- Set by example – take a positive approach to health and safety and build a relationship with employees that demonstrate that you are a caring and conscientious employer.
If you are an employer and would like to discuss the obligations and considerations for your employees regarding health and safety in the workplace, you have any other questions arising from this alert, or for specific legal advice on particular circumstances, please contact our Partner Emma Bartlett, who specialises in employment and partnership issues for multinational employers, senior executives, partnerships and partners.