The Health and Safety at Work Act was first published in 1974 and following consultation, became law on April 1st 1975. The act introduced the concept of goal setting in which the end results expected are specified and it is then up to employers to make arrangements to achieve the results. This places an onus upon employers to take all steps which are "reasonable and practicable" to look after the health, safety and welfare of their employees while they are at work.
The definition of the phrase "so far as is reasonably practicable" is that employers must look at the risks their employees are exposed to and then take steps to remove those risks. The act is policed by H. M. Factory Inspectorate along with Environmental Health Officers. They will look at any given risk in a workplace and offset that risk against both the cost and inconvenience of removing it. If the one is disproportionate to the other then they will not enforce it. Obviously the decision as to whether the actions took by the Employer were reasonable and practicable can only be decided in a court of law.
Punitive punishments are available to the courts for breaches of health and safety legislation including an unlimited fine and up to two years imprisonment for certain specified offences. From time to time the government brings out various alterations to the legislation and one of the most far reaching of these changes occurred on 1st January 1993 with the introduction of the so called "six pack" regulations. This in itself has been updated with the introduction of additional legislation in December 1999.
In addition, in April 2008, the Government introduced a new law of Corporate Manslaughter. This is aimed at companies and directors of companies where someone is killed because of an accident at work. The penalties for an infringement of this law can be very severe. This legislation, is completely separate from the Health ands Safety At Work Act.
The Health and Safety (Offences) Act came into law in January 2009. This basically gives lower courts more powers when sentencing than they had previously.
The HSE have their own web site which should prove a useful tool. Although mainly aimed at the Health and Safety professional it is well worth a visit for those with a casual interest in workplace safety.
The HSE act has, over the years, become an object of scorn in certain areas but the reality is completely different from what you might read in the popular press. The act has been mis-quoted and distorted so much that the HSE have published a whole series of myths about health and safety legislation. Click here for more details. You can now download many HSE books free of charge