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  7. A Look at the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

A Look at the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974


Law and legislation concept

One of the most important pieces of UK health and safety legislation of the 20th century is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Before this Act was introduced, health and safety with regards to workplaces tended to be industry-specific, and was largely reactive instead of proactive, meaning that new legislation was only introduced after a serious accident had taken place. Prior to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 being introduced, existing health and safety legislation concentrated more on ensuring that the equipment being used was safe, rather than raising the awareness of employees to work safely and take responsibility for occupational health and safety.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was based on the findings of Lord Robens, who was tasked with reviewing the existing provisions of health and safety for those in the workplace. His recommendations led directly to the creation and introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the main ones being:

  • Rather than different Acts for different industries, there should be a single Act which covers all workers. The main goal of the Act should be to change attitudes with regards to occupational health and safety, to be more proactive rather than reactive as in the past.

  • This proactive approach would involve the encouragement of employee participation to develop safe systems of work. This laid the foundations for a culture of health and safety in the workplace which many organisations today try and encourage.

  • The emphasis for enforcement would be directed to the employer for 'self-regulation', rather than reliance on prosecution by the courts, although this would still be in place for those who still failed to comply.

  • The Act would not only cover workers employed by the company, but would also include all the people affected by the activities of the company, including contractors, visitors and the public.

Whilst the Act is dated 1974, it is still current. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in an Enabling Act, allowing further laws (Regulations) to be made without the need to pass another Act. Some Regulations apply across all industries (e.g. manual handling) whereas others cover hazards which are unique to certain industries such as construction or mining).

Enforcement of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Inspectors work either for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the Local Authority, and have a number of rights, including the right to:

  • Enter premises at any reasonable time

  • Examine and investigate the premises, as well as require it to be left undisturbed and as it is

  • Take samples and photographs, and remove equipment or substances if deemed necessary

  • Require the production of relevant documentation

  • Seize, destroy or render harmless any article or hazardous substance if they deem it necessary

  • Issue an enforcement notice and initiate a prosecution

As well as the rights listed above, inspectors have a number of actions available to them once they have concluded their findings. These range from taking no action, to giving verbal or written advice, to serving a prohibition notice or even commencing prosecution proceedings if there is sufficient evidence and it is considered to be in the public interest.


The above is just a very brief introduction to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and its enforcement. Specific details and a more in-depth look at the Act can be found on the Health and Safety Executive's website at

It is also highly probable that laws and legislation have changed, sometimes significantly, since this article was written. This makes it vitally important that you visit the UK government website to find out just what the current legislation is for the United Kingdom, so that your company can comply with it. As we have seen in numerous other health and safety articles on this site, a failure to ensure that your business or organisation complies will mandatory health and safety regulations can lead to a number of different and serious problems, potentially involving criminal charges.

How Does Health and Safety Legislation Benefit Workers?

The introduction and implementation of health and safety legislation within a country can provide numerous benefits for workers. It will force employers to conform to a minimum level of standards when it comes to health and safety in terms of taking steps and making provisions to keep their workers, as well as nearby members of the public, safe from hazards and free from illness. Sometimes it will be impractical for all risks to be removed, as the only way of avoiding 100% of risks will be to stay at home! But health and safety legislation will serve to reduce these risks by forcing employees to change processes or take certain steps, however the extent of this will depend upon the level of legislation introduced by the government of the respective country.

Just as with any other type of legislation, it will only be truly effective if it is properly enforced by the authorities. Laws which are made but are not enforced will allow for people, in this case company owners and managers, to ignore the rules which are supposed to prevent harm to employees. It is all very well for a government to have good intentions towards the welfare of its citizens by introducing laws, but if they are not enforced and are largely ignored, then they may just as well not have been made in the first place.

The exact details of the legislation and what is required from employers can include provisions such as the mandatory issuance of personal protective equipment (PPE), making employers provide suitable health and safety training to their workers which will enable them to operate machinery safely or avoid the most probable risks in their particular place of work, e.g. coshh risks in a chemical plant.

Whilst it may sometimes cost more money and take up additional time, there can be no doubt that the presence of health and safety legislation has saved lives and prevented countless serious injuries and illnesses for workers since it began to be introduced in countries across the world over a century ago.

Selected Courses

Please see below for a selection of health and safety courses and qualifications which you may be interested in:

NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety

The NEBOSH National Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety is the flagship NEBOSH qualification, and is the first UK vocational qualification to be developed specifically for health and safety professionals.

The NEBOSH National Diploma provides the core health and safety knowledge (transferable across industry, commerce and the public sector) which, combined with understanding and appropriate application, underpins the competent performance of an occupational health and safety practitioner.

Click Here for More Information

NEBOSH National General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety

The NEBOSH General Certificate is one of the most popular and widely-held health and safety qualifications in the UK. It is intended to be taken by managers, supervisors and any other employees who require an understanding of general health and safety issues.

The NEBOSH General Certificate covers the main legal requirements for health and safety in the UK, along with the identification and control of workplace hazards, and the practical application of this knowledge. The general content of the NEBOSH General Certificate syllabus means it is suitable and relevant for those working in virtually any industry, and is often used as a solid foundation for those going on to further study and specialising in a particular area such as construction site health and safety or fire safety.

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IOSH Managing Safely Course

The IOSH Managing Safely course is designed for managers and supervisors of organisations in virtually all industry sectors, in order to give them all they need to know to effectively manage health and safety in the workplace.

Recently updated, the new high impact programme covers key health and safety issues, and includes references to international case studies.

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CITB Site Management SMSTS Course

The Site Management Safety Training Scheme (SMSTS) is one of the most popular health and safety training courses, and is intended for construction site managers, project managers and senior supervisors, as well as proprietors of smaller companies.

Client-based personnel would also benefit from attending the SMSTS course.

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