Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

What is Health and Safety at Work 1974?

The aim of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA 1974) was to create a single comprehensive system of regulatory law covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain. HSWA 1974 imposes various general duties upon both employers and employees and its three primary objectives are to:

  • secure the health, safety and welfare of persons at work;
  • protect persons other than persons at work against risks to health or safety arising out of, or in connection with, the activities of persons at work;
  • control the keeping and use of explosive or highly flammable or other dangerous substances, and generally prevent the unlawful acquisition, possession and use of such substances.

Duties owed by employers to employees

Employers owe the following duties to their employees:

  • ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and others who might be affected by their business;
  • assess risks in the workplace, tell employees about these risks and how they will protect them and provide training on how to tackle these risks;
  • ensure the safety of employees in connection with the use, storage and transport of articles;
  • ensure the safe maintenance of the place of work;
  • consult employees on health and safety issues.

Duties owed to persons who are not employees

There are also limited duties owed to persons who are not employees:

  • not to expose such persons to risks in relation to their health and safety;
  • provide such persons with information about the way in which the employer or self-employed person conducts their undertaking.

Duties of manufacturers (articles and substances for use at work)

There is duty on any person who designs, manufactures, imports or supplies any article for use at work to ensure:

  • it will be safe when being set, used, cleaned or maintained by a person at work;
  • there will be adequate testing and examination of such articles;
  • persons using the article are provided with adequate information about its usage;
  • persons using the article are provided with any revisions of information about the article;
  • the carrying out of any necessary research with a view to the discovery, elimination or minimisation of any risks to health;
  • the erection or installation of any article is done so safely.

Duties owed by employees at work

  • to take care of the health and safety of themselves and other persons;
  • to cooperate with any requirement imposed by the employer so the employer can comply with any required duty;
  • not to intentionally or recklessly interfere or misuse anything provided in the interests of health, safety or welfare.

Governing authorities

In the early days HSWA 1974 created two governing authorities: The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.

On April 1st 2008, both authorities were merged to form the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The idea of the merger was to bring the governing arrangements for both the commission and the executive in line with practice and provide a more robust governing framework. The HSE performs its functions on behalf of the Crown. Its main role and functions include:

  • anticipating, identifying and preparing for new or changing risks in the workplace;
  • preventing death, injury and ill-health in the workplace;
  • enforcing health and safety rules;
  • assisting and encouraging people in the health and safety community to be better prepared;
  • encouraging research publication, training and information in connection with its work;
  • ensuring government departments, employers, employees and representative organisations provided are kept informed on health and safety matters;
  • proposing regulations.

It is the duty and responsibility of the HSE to make adequate arrangements for the enforcement of health and safety legislation. The Secretary of State has the power to establish provisions that allow other authorities or bodies (e.g., local authorities) to take responsibility for health and safety enforcement. There is a duty on both the HSE and the local authority to ensure that:

  • they work together to establish the best practice and consistency in the enforcement of legislation;
  • they cooperate with each other and exchange of information;
  • they periodically review those arrangements and revise them when appropriate.

Powers of inspectors

Section 20 of HSWA 1974 provides inspectors with a wide range of powers to ensure health and safety legislation is complied with. Inspectors have the power to:

  • enter premises which they have reason to believe it is necessary for them to enter for the purpose of enforcing any statutory provision contained within HSWA 1974;
  • take with them a constable if they have reasonable cause to apprehend any serious obstruction in the execution of their duty;
  • undertake such examination and investigation as is necessary for the purpose of enforcing any statutory provision contained within HSWA 1974;
  • direct that premises or any part of them, or anything therein, shall be left undisturbed for so long as is reasonably necessary;
  • take such measurements and photographs and make such recordings as they consider necessary for the purpose of any examination or investigation;
  • take samples of any articles or substances found in any premises and of the atmosphere in or in the vicinity of any premises;
  • dismantle, test, take possession and detain any article or substance likely to cause danger to health or safety;
  • require any person whom they have reasonable cause to believe they are able to give any information relevant to any examination or investigation;
  • require the production of, inspect, and take copies of any entry in any books or documents which are required to be kept.


Inspectors are authorised to serve Improvement and Prohibition Notices on persons who they believe are breaching HSWA 1974. Both types of notices may be served without resorting to criminal proceedings so long as the individual complies. However, failure to comply with either notice is a criminal offence.

Improvement Notices

Section 21 gives an inspector the power to issue an Improvement Notice on an individual who is breaching or has breached one or more of the relevant statutory provisions. The notice must state the reasons why the inspector has issued the notice, require the person to remedy the breach or the matters occasioning it; specify the period for compliance (which should be not less than 21 days from the date of service of the notice) and that they have the right to appeal.

Prohibition Notices

Section 22 gives an inspector the power to issue a Prohibition Notice on an individual who carries out activities which may involve a risk of serious injury at work to another. A prohibition notice must:

  • state that the inspector is of such an opinion;
  • specify the matters which, in their opinion, give rise to the risk;
  • specify the provision(s) which they are of that opinion and give particulars of the reasons why they are of that opinion;
  • direct that the activities to which the notice relates shall not be carried on by, or under the control of, the person on whom the notice is served unless the matters specified in the notice and any associated contraventions of provisions have been remedied.


Anyone served with a notice may appeal to an employment tribunal. Where Improvement Notices are concerned, instigating the process of an appeal will suspend the operation of the notice until the appeal is finally disposed of. In the case of a Prohibition Notice, instigating an appeal does not automatically suspend its operation. The appellant may, however, apply to the employment tribunal for a direction suspending operation of the notice until the appeal is heard. The tribunal has the power to cancel or affirm the notice. If the tribunal affirms the notice, they may do so in its original form or modify it as it thinks fit.

Other Important Information

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About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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