The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is arguably one of the most definitive pieces of workplace legislation in the UK. But what does it do? Why is it so important? And who does it apply to?

Since the burgeoning days of the industrial revolution, health and safety law had played a vital role in the lives of working people across the UK. One of the most important pieces of legislation to emerge since is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which has helped safeguard millions of workers across a wide variety of industries and sectors. However, as with many laws navigating health and safety legislation can often be a minefield of confusing acronyms and vague phrases. As a result, it can be difficult to know exactly what your role and responsibilities as an employer/employee really are.

To help you navigate the health and safety legal lingo, we put together a quick and easy summary to help you understand what the Act is, why it’s so important and how it affects you.


What is The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (alternately referred to as the HSWA, HASAWA or HSW Act, case in point) is a piece of health and safety legislation that governs health and safety in the workplace. It also defines the responsibilities of employers and employees, as well as the measures that can be taken by authorities to make sure the act is enforced.

The introduction of the Act was pivotal for a number of reasons. Where previous legislation had mainly focused on particular industries and environments, the HSWA was the first piece of workplace health and safety legislation for all industries to abide by on a national scale. As a result, it covers a wide variety of sectors, from nuclear energy and construction to office and retail spaces. It was also the first of its kind to clearly outline the responsibilities that employees and employers have to ensure workplace health and safety.

One of the key elements of the HSWA is its adaptability. The Act has been amended repeatedly over the course of its history to reflect the changing nature of industries and sectors across the country. These changes to legislation, known as statutory instruments, make sure that emerging health and safety concerns are addressed. Examples of statutory instruments include the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at Work Regulations 1992, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).

Ultimately, the main goal of the Act is to ensure that health and safety measures are preventative rather than curative, encouraging organisations to develop a culture of awareness and accountability.

The Health and Safety Executive

The introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 led to the creation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an independent, non-governmental body that regulates health and safety in the UK. The Act gives the Hleath and Safety Executive authority to conduct research in health and safety, pursue concerns regarding dangerous or hazardous working conditions and investigate significant industrial incidents. In serious cases inspectors can shut down operations indefinitely and bring criminal charges against offenders.


Who does it apply to?

One of the most important functions of the Act is that it applies to all industries, meaning that workers from a wide variety of work environments fall under its jurisdiction. The Act applies to employers, such as managers, directors, employees, self-employed or contracted workers whether they are full-time or part-time workers. It also provides guidelines concerning the safety of non-workers such as guests, clients and the general public in instances where workplaces can overlap with public spaces.  


The Health and Safety At Work Act Summary  

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974  is made up of four key sections (known as Parts) which are subsequently broken down into detailed sections. The roles and responsibilities or employers and employees can be found in Part I – Health, Safety and Welfare in Connection with Work, and Control of Dangerous Substances and Certain Emissions into the Atmosphere. It sounds like a lot, but we’ve broken down and summarized the  key sections you should know:

  • Sections 2-9 outline the general duties, roles and responsibilities of employees, self-employed, individuals, employers and manufacturers to ensure reasonable health and safety practices are maintained in the workplace.
  • Sections 10-14 outline the function of the Health and Safety Executive and its powers to conduct investigations and inquiries.
  • Sections 15-17 establish the codes of practice that the Health and Safety Executive must abide by in order to conduct investigations and inquiries.
  • Sections 18-26 detail enforcement guidelines, including relevant bodies of authority and the powers given to health and safety inspectors.
  • Sections 27-28 outline the procedures Health and Safety Executive and Enforcing Authorities must follow to request and obtain information.
  • Sections 33-42 concern offences, specifically what constitutes an offence, collection of evidence and prosecution procedures.   

In other words, Part I covers the who, what, why, and how of health and safety legislation. However ‘general duties’ is quite a vague term, especially when you want to know exactly what your role in maintaining health and safety should be. Don’t worry, we’ve broken it down even further with a summary detailing the responsibilities employers and employees have concerning health and safety in the workplace.

The Health and Safety at Work Act Employer Responsibilities

One of the most important aspects of the Health & Safety at Work Act are Sections 2-6, which outline the responsibilities of employers, self-employed persons and manufacturers to provide and maintain a safe work environment. In short, employers are expected to:

  • Develop a written general policy regarding health and safety in the workplace and to update the policy with changes in legislation. 
  • Provide detailed information and instruction to employees regarding all duties in relation to their health and safety in the workplace.
  • Ensure the health and safety of all employees, visitors and the public in instances where the workplace shares accessible space.
  • Make sure that the workplace is effectively maintained and that access and egress into the work area is safe and without risk.
  • Consult with appropriate trade unions and industry authorities on health and safety matters.
  • Must provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) where it is required.


The Health and Safety at Work Act Employee Responsibilities 

With the nature of workplaces constantly changing year on year, employees should always be aware of their responsibilities in order to be compliant with health and safety regulations. As a result, Sections 7-9 of the act are dedicated to establishing the duties and responsibilities of employees in the workplace. Employees are expected to:

  • Take reasonable consideration for the health and safety of themselves and others who may be affected by their actions in the workplace.
  • Cooperate with the employer to make sure that all requirements and duties regarding health and safety are understood clearly and followed effectively.
  • Refrain from intentionally neglecting or undermining health and safety protocols that have been put in place by the employer.

In short, employees must do everything that is reasonably asked by their employer to ensure health and safety measures are followed.


The future of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Undoubtedly the workplace of today exists in a state of constant change. With the rise of the digital revolution, organisations have begun to outsource work to freelancers and digital nomads, slowly moving away from the traditional workplace structure as a result. Additionally, many positions held by workers who interact with dangerous pieces of machine or chemicals have given way to automation, reducing the need for worker oversight. While the future of the contemporary workspace might be uncertain, The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 continues to serve to help protect millions of workers in the UK from risk.

This article is purely for informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice. For more information regarding the HSWA in the UK visit: