With the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reporting that there were 581,000 employees sustaining non-fatal injuries at work in 2018/19, it still seems that not enough is being done to protect workers.

But what are the legal obligations faced by UK employers? What can be done to mitigate risk, and what are the consequences of getting it wrong?

What Is The Law?

There is a wide range of health and safety regulations, covering employer’s legal responsibilities generally, and detailed rules for specific industries.

The main regulations you need to be aware of are:

Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA)

This is the primary work safety legislation, and sets out employers’ general duties towards employees and the public. This Act also sets out the criminal consequences of breaking health and safety law.

Full Details of HSWA1974 Here

RIDDOR (The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995)

RIDDOR requires companies to report work-related accidents, illnesses and near-misses to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other bodies.

Employers must record the details of certain incidents in an accident book. Reportable incidents include fatalities, serious injuries, injury or illness that causes over seven days off work, and cases of occupational diseases like HAVS, asthma and dermatitis.

Full Details of RIDDOR Here

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999

These regulations require employers to carry out regular health and safety risk assessments. Employers must act to manage the risks they identify.

Employers must also:

  • Have a written health and safety policy
  • Appoint a suitable health and safety representative
  • Provide health and safety training to staff

Full Details of MHSWR1999 Here

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992

The PPE regulations mean that employers must provide suitable protective equipment to staff wherever a health and safety risk exists. Companies must also ensure workers are trained to use the PPE correctly.

Full Details of PPEWR1992 Here

Other regulations

Health and safety duties are also set out in other legislation, including:

  • The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992, covering duties relating to lifting, carrying and other physical tasks. Details >
  • The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, setting out obligations to provide tools, machinery and other work equipment that is safe to use and fit for purpose. Details >
  • The Working Time Regulations 1998, which defines workers’ rights to rest breaks, maximum working hours and annual leave. Details >

Legal Boundaries

It is a criminal offence for an employer to neglect their legal duties under the HSWA and other legislation.

A worker does not need to have been actually injured for the HSE to take action. An employer’s failure to manage the risk of harm is enough.

The consequences for failing to follow applicable regulations range from the HSE issuing formal advice to prosecution and unlimited fines. In serious cases, offenders may face imprisonment.

How To Carry Out A Risk Assessment

Managing risk begins with assessing risk

As an employer, you have a legal duty of care to provide a safe working environment for your employees. This duty extends to self-employed workers, contractors and even visiting members of the public.

Although there is a significant amount of bureaucracy associated with health and safety, it is not enough to treat risk management as a form-filling exercise.

Effective risk management means identifying areas of risk in the workplace and implementing practical measures to mitigate them.

Areas of risk can relate to:

  • The overall state of the working environment 
  • The tools and equipment used by employees
  • Working practices and procedures
  • Hazardous substances (e.g. harmful chemicals, asbestos etc.)
  • Off-site and remote working (e.g. home workers, drivers etc.)
  • Individual employee vulnerabilities (e.g. workers with existing disabilities)

The risk assessment process should reference as many sources as possible to identify specific areas of risk.  These could include:

  • Seek feedback from employees who will usually be aware of the risks they face
  • Review historical company accident records including near misses
  • Read your existing risk assessment and review its effectiveness
  • Review legislation and best practice guides for your sector
  • Walk around all of the company’s premises and actively observe workers doing their jobs
  • Consider an external review from a health and safety expert.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Work that endangers health and safety should only proceed if there is no alternative. Suitable PPE must be provided for workers identified as at risk by the assessment.

The PPE must be readily available at the place of work. Training in the use of PPE must also be provided by the employer.

You should consider the individual needs of employees that may find the standard PPE uncomfortable. For example, workers wearing glasses or prescription goggles may find it difficult to wear ear protection.

Special consideration should also be given to staff who have already sustained some degree of injury or disability, e.g. providing extra hearing protection to a worker with existing hearing loss.

Selecting the correct PPE

The correct PPE will depend on the nature of an employee’s work, and on the nature and seriousness of risks to the worker’s health.

All forms of PPE have their own safety ratings and multiple levels of safety within those ratings. You can find all the information you need in our free guides:

Remember PPE is considered a last line of defence against risks that cannot be mitigated by other means - it is no substitute for safe working practices, training, good housekeeping or risk reduction.

The Importance Of Staff Training

Under health and safety law, employers must provide their workforce with suitable health and safety training. Training should be tailored to suit the needs of the staff being trained. There’s no point locking workers in a classroom for hours, if more practical ‘on the job’ training is more engaging and effective.  

Staff must be trained to perform the roles expected of them. Both management and workers must understand and respect the risks associated with carrying out tasks staff are not trained for.

The effectiveness of training and information should be monitored, either by an appointed rep or by a third party, and ‘booster’ session should be provided to make sure that standards don’t slip.

The methods used to train staff must be regularly reviewed and updated. Reasons for updating training materials include:

Do you need a trained First Aider?

By law, employers must make suitable first-aid arrangements for their workforce. What this means in practice will depend on the situation.

If you run a small office, it may be enough to buy a first-aid box and nominate a person to handle first aid protocol in the event of an accident.

Bigger workplaces, and wherever there is a bigger risk of injury, should have a trained first-aid provider. You can arrange for one or more members of staff to be given certified first-aid training.

In some cases, you may need to provide a fully-stocked first-aid room, with appropriate supervision.

As in all areas of health and safety, a company’s approach to first-aid must be suitable and fit for purpose. Staff should be clearly informed as to what to do in the event of an incident, and first-aid needs should be checked on a regular basis.

The Legal Consequences Of Getting It Wrong

If an employee is injured whilst doing their job and the employer has failed in its duty of care to provide a safe working environment, the employer could be sued.

Employees have up to 3 years from the date of diagnosis of an injury or illness to start a compensation claim against an employer. If it can be established that the injury resulted from the accident or exposure at work, and the employer was in breach of its health and safety obligations or failed in it's duty of care, a work accident claim is likely to be successful.

Employer’s Liability Insurance

Under the Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969, UK employers are legally required to have insurance that meets the cost of compensation for employees’ injuries or illnesses.

Insurance should not be seen as a replacement for providing the safest possible working environment. An insurer cannot refuse to pay compensation as a result of employer negligence.  However, if the insurer believes that the employer has been remiss in its health and safety obligations, it might sue the employer to recover the compensation.


The duties imposed on employers are wide-ranging, but most are also a matter of common sense.

The HSE provides a range of helpful guides and checklists to help support companies to do everything they can to safeguard the health and safety of their workers.

It is important to treat all health and safety risk management as a worthwhile, positive opportunity to promote company values and exchange ideas and concerns across management and the workforce.

If only lip service is paid to the regulations or assessments are treated as a box-ticking exercise, this attitude will infect the whole company. Workers are less likely to feel like the company has their back, and accidents and injuries are more likely to happen.