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50 years of the Health & Safety at Work Act

05 January 2024

2024 MARKS 50 years since the introduction of the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974). Ridwaan Omar explains how the Act has evolved and what organisations can expect in the coming year.

An evolution in work-related health and safety 

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) was introduced to consolidate and modernise health and safety legislation. Working conditions were very different five decades ago, with employees in factories and mining exposed to practices and processes that would seem inconceivable today. There was greater risk of serious accidents and fatalities, and no standardised law to address this. The HSAW was seen as the solution and a means of helping protect employees against workplace risks that could otherwise lead to illnesses, accidents and death. 

A lot has changed since 1974, with workplaces, attitudes and behaviours evolving significantly. Legislation has kept pace and there has been secondary legislation since the HSWA in the form of the introduction of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which requires employers to assess and manage risks in the workplace. 

There have also been additional regulations in specific risk areas such as Manual Handling Regulations, Work at Height Regulations, Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations and the Provision of Use of Work Equipment Regulations. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 has also been introduced. 

The HSAW has helped pave the way for such legislation and remains hugely relevant in demonstrating the overarching duty of care that employers have towards employees and non-employees impacted by work-related activities. 

50 years on – health and safety in 2024 

HSAW legislation is unlikely to change in 2024. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regularly identifies specific focus areas for the coming years, with these including mental health, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung disease.

The role of employers in supporting mental health has been gathering increasing momentum and the importance of this is likely to grow further, as both employers and employees adapt to changing working patterns. Recent years have seen a transition to remote working, and then to hybrid working and now a growing shift back towards more traditional workplace-based roles. Many organisations and employees are still trying to find the best fit for all parties and this can create unique challenges for mental health.

Additionally, continued advances in technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) can alter workplace expectations and pressures, while external market factors can also impact workloads and the demands placed on employees. The focus on mental health is highlighted in the first objective of the HSE’s strategy for 2022 – 2032, which also acknowledges the most common work-related health issues in Great Britain as being stress, depression and anxiety. It’s reasonable to expect continued HSE focus on this area, as well as HSAW enforcement.

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) are of growing importance for employers and employees because of the increasingly fluid nature of working environments. Monitoring and managing ergonomics can prove more challenging for organisations, which have employees performing their roles and responsibilities in a variety of settings. Addressing these risks in the ‘new normal’ world of work is likely to remain a priority for the HSE, with a focus on adapting and promoting guidance that supports best-practice and protects employees against MSDs, no matter where they work. 

HSE data shows that around 12,000 people died in 2022 from lung diseases linked to past exposure from work, and there are an estimated 19,000 new cases of breathing and lung conditions each year among people who believe these are caused or made worse by work. The HSE is running a ‘Dust Kills’ campaign, which aims to address respiratory risks across a number of sectors. Inspections of workplaces will continue throughout 2024 to ensure control measures are being considered and appropriately implemented to reduce occupational lung disease. The HSE have identified that they are still finding sites where the hierarchy of controls are simply not considered at all and where there is no effective design, planning or control measures to eliminate risks from dust, such as water suppression and the use of RPE. 

The HSAW places a legal duty on employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others who may be affected by their work activities. This will remain as relevant in 2024, as it did when the Act was first introduced 50 years ago. To ensure compliance, organisations should conduct suitable and adequate risk assessments, provide adequate training and supervision of their employees, and implement suitable and reasonable control measures to minimise risk in accordance with acceptable industry standards and to comply with HSE Codes of Practice, as a legal minimum.

Ridwaan Omar is a partner and head of regulatory, insurance at Forbes Solicitors.