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Understanding the importance of the health and safety at work act

Established in 1974, the Health and Safety at Work Act is designed to protect workers so that they may work in a safe working environment. With over 1.1 million people reporting a work related injury in 2011/12 and 27 million lost working days the work of the Health and Safety Executive in enforcing the Health and Safety at Work Act is essential.

The Health and Safety at Work Act is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety within the UK. The full and complete act can be downloaded from the Health and Safety Executive.

The Health and Safety Executive can work with businesses to ensure they are fully compliant with the legislation as it is designed to protect the business, employees and the general public. The law itself does not differentiate between small and large businesses, as employers are fully responsible for the laws implementation and ensuring that the workplace maintains appropriate standards.

Whilst the responsibility of adhering to the Health and Safety at Work Act rests with the employer they can look to appoint others to help with its implementation and ongoing spot checks. An employer may decide to appoint internal employees to oversee responsibilities for health and safety as well as themselves. External agencies may also be employed to review the policy and ensure a business is maintaining standards, something that both small and large businesses may choose to adopt from a resource / neutral 3rd party view.

Health & Safety post it note

Each business undertakes their health and safety activities differently in terms of their publication and management of issues internally, all with the distinct goal of complying with the Health and Safety at Work Act and keeping all stakeholders safe. The creation and implementation of a health and safety policy provides the business with a clear set of standards and rules with which to abide by. It is shows stakeholders the importance placed on health and safety by employers and the standards expected.

Health and safety is in essence common sense, by identifying potential risks within the workplace and working on ways in which the risk can be minimised or eradicated. Sometimes it is not possible to remove a risk entirely, but simply reduce it i.e. working with machinery has inherent dangers attached to it though the wearing of PPE and emergency stop buttons can help to reduce this.

Employers should work with their employees to help identify potential hazards within the workplace, the easiest way is to walk around and point things out. Once you have identified the risks you should look at ways in which they can be controlled and addressed and form part of the health and safety policy. By working with your employees on the identification of hazards you can empower them and encourage them to have the Health and Safety at Work Act firmly in their thinking to minimise risks in the future.

A hazard can be considered anything from a something that an employee may trip over to something more serious where PPE or protective areas are designated when using machinery. With over 27 million days lost as a result of work related illnesses it is imperative that the Health and Safety at Work Act is adhered to, not only to keep people safe from work injuries but to keep businesses trading.


Here are just a few of the key statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive for 2011/12 showing the number of work related injuries sustained and the loss to UK businesses, in terms of working days, as a result:

  • Over 1.1 million people were affected by a work related illness during this period which ranges from the very minor to the very serious.
  • A further 111,000 injuries were reported via RIDDOR by employees during this period, taking the total number of health and safety issues to an excess of over 1.2 million which is a massive amount.
  • Over 212,000 people were away from work for over 3 days as a result of their illness or accident
  • Over 27 million working days were lost as a result of illness or injury, a massive cost to businesses throughout the UK
  • In total workplace illnesses and accidents cost £13.4 billion in 2010/11 to the tax payer

In considering the number of working days lost through illness and injuries in conjunction with the cost to the tax payer it is clear to see why the Health and Safety at Work Act is so important as the costs involved represent the seriousness of the injuries sustained. From a business perspective the loss of working days can effectively end a business from lost revenue. If a business doesn’t have their employees fit and healthy then they cannot expect to remain in business for long. At the same time health and safety is the responsible of the employer, therefore absences can be attributed to their failure to enforce the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Each workplace will have its own dangers, with builder’s yards having more inherent dangers than working in an office, though the type of injuries sustained can sometimes be the same regardless of environment. A sprained ankle or knee injuries for instance are just as likely on a construction site as they are in a school.

Same level falls

A same level fall is considered any fall where there is no elevation of the ground i.e. slipping on a wet floor, slipping in the ice or snow or tripping over a piece of exposed carpet. Slips and trips are one of the most common forms of injury within the workplace, either through negligence through someone leaving items on the floor which can be tripped over.

Injuries resulting from slips and trips can range from a sprained ankle, knee injuries or in more serious case broken bokes. A sprained ankle can occur as a result of someone slipping on either a wet floor or an icy surface, where there is an unnatural movement of the ankle joint which cause damage to the surrounding ligaments. The extent of the ligament damage incurred will determine the length of time you are out of action and whether or not further treatment is required.

Knee injuries range in their diagnosis and severity, with a twisted knee something which you can recover from within a few days, albeit rather painful, compared to ligament damage which is a lot more serious. In more serious knee injuries such as Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries, then surgery could be the only remedy and involve up to one year out of action. 40% of ACL knee injuries are as a result of high impact sports such as snowboarding or motocross.


Another common term for exertion is manual handling, a common feature on the injury at work list through either pulling, lifting, pushing, holding or carrying. When picking any item up it is important to lift with your knees and not your back in a bid to avoid injury. Lifting in an incorrect way can lead to back injuries, as can lifting items which are too heavy. If you believe an item is too heavy to lift on your own you should seek help or utilise a lifting or transportation aid i.e. a pallet truck or fork lift truck.

Repetitive Strain Injury

Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) is common place within an office environment, with people undertaking the same task continually. In considering an office RSO is likely to affect computer users or those sitting at a desk for extended periods of time. It is important to remember that you have a break from your desk throughout the day and stretch your muscles to help avoid injury.

Man in warehouse holding a box and having back pain

Back injuries, vision complaints and carpal tunnel all conditions which can occur as a result of RSI, affecting the muscles and tendons. Back injuries are typically concentrated in the lumbar region, with complaints involving muscle spasms causing pain and hindering movement. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is quite common and affects the hands, causing pain, numbness and a tingling sensation to the area. It is caused as a result of compression to the median nerve which controls sensation and movement within the hands.

Lower level falls

As the name suggests, this involves falls whereby a person falls from an elevated height such as a ladder, roof, or mezzanine floor. The severity of the fall is ultimately determined by the height, the material the person is falling onto and how the person lands.

Lower level falls can result in anything from a sprained ankle to hospitalisation. A sprained ankle can be as a result of landing awkwardly from a height the rolling the joint, the same can be said of knee injuries. The greater the height the more serious the risk of injury, with breaks to bones becoming more likely.

Image of a yellow plastic wet floor sign

When working at any height it is important to ensure you are safe. If you are working up a ladder then both you and the ladder should be anchored to a fixed object, namely a wall, so that the chance of the ladder giving way or you falling is minimised greatly. If you are working on a mezzanine floor then you should ensure that there are adequate rails on the edge to prevent you from slipping or tripping over it.

Bodily reaction

A bodily reaction injury is where an individual slips or trips without actually falling. If the body thinks it is falling then it will typically tense up and brace itself for a fall and sometimes it is this tensing up which can cause muscle injuries, even without the actual fall.

Being struck by an object

Being struck by an object from a height can be very serious, depending on the object and height it falls from. This can be as a result of overloading shelves or failure to put things away properly which can lead to them falling on the floor. Building sites are a prime example of where there is an increased risk of things falling on your head, which is why all workers are required to wear a hard hat as a means of protection.

Head injuries are probably one of the more serious forms of injury, causing anything from concussion to permanent damage. In the event of a head injury you should seek medical advice, either in the form of your first aider or a doctor.

Accidents incurred on the road

With many employees travelling the length and breadth of the country to carry out their role there is a risk of injury when performing their duties. In 2012 there were almost 800,000 road related injuries, of which around 1,700 were fatal. The roads are a dangerous place and around a third of all fatal and serious road related injuries (almost 25,000) involved someone who was at work, either commuting or travelling between appointments.

Image of a leg in a cast next to a set of crutches

Sometimes road accidents are unavoidable, with weather conditions playing a major part. The best way of staying safe on the roads is to abide by the law and stay focussed and be aware of other road users.

Injuries as a result of machinery

Workers involved in using large machinery are at constant risk of injury should something go wrong. Whilst there should be automatic stops in place on the machines in the event of an accident, damage can still be done. Without the correct safety equipment and/or proper knowledge of machine then those risks are increased dramatically, which is why appropriate training and PPE provision are essential. An employer failing to provide either of these runs the risk of a heavy fine from the Health and Safety Executive.

Physical injuries

Whilst this is one of the less common injuries faced in the workplace it is still noted as a type of injury sustained within the workplace. Violence in the workplace can cause a range of injuries, especially when considering where the act takes place and the surrounding environment, which could be even more dangerous.

With so many risks present within the workplace and over 27 million working days lost in 2011/12 being safe is more important than ever. Sometimes accidents are unforeseen and unavoidable, though if everyone is diligent and responsible for health and safety then the workplace can be made safer.

Staying safe at work

Your health and safety and wellbeing at work should be the number one priority of every employer, as without a happy and fit workforce the chances of success are limited. Whilst a business is responsible for the health and safety of its premises, individuals employees also play a major role in ensuring standards are maintained by looking out for themselves and fellow colleagues.

The risk of accidents within the workplace can be reduced greatly providing everyone in the business, both employer and employee is committed to upholding health and safety and taking reasonable care and attention of their own health and safety on the site.

Each workplace has its own inherent dangers, from building sites where heavy plant machinery may be in close vicinity to offices where there may be myriad of trip hazards. One of the most common forms of injury within the workplace relates to same level falls including slips and trips, resulting in anything from a sprained ankle to knee injuries and even broken bones.

Swollen ankle showing bruising and the application of an ice pack

There are however a number of steps you can take to ensure your own health and safety at work. Training is paramount within any organisation, ensuring your employees know the rules and what is expected of them. On top of this however it is essential that employees pay attention to said training and understand the implications of failing to follow procedure.

Employees should be prepared to ask for training on new machinery to ensure that procedure is followed to the latter, with new equipment requiring new policies and procedures which require rolling out within the business. Supervision should also be considered for new procedures to ensure it is being adhered to, though can also be implemented where an employee is ensure if they are doing something correctly.

Each employee is responsible for health and safety, therefore if you feel something is too dangerous or contravenes the regulations in place then it should be flagged with your superior. The same can be said if you feel something is too difficult and require additional training, otherwise it could be an accident waiting to happen.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should always be supplied and worn when required i.e. if you are handling products in a builder’s yard then gloves, a hard hat, a high visibility jacket and steel toe cap boots should be provided to give you maximum protection and visibility from vehicles. Failure to wear PPE provided is not only a breach of health and safety legislation but can go against company policy and lead to disciplinary proceedings, not to mention the increased risk of an accident taking place.

PPE equipment

The only way a business knows their performance from a health and safety perspective is via reporting, therefore every injury big, small and even near misses should be documented so that they can be analysed. If there is a flaw somewhere in the policy then the reporting should flag this if employees haven’t.

The most important thing to remember when considering health and safety at work is being vigilant of not only what you are doing but everyone around you. If you see something unsafe, whether it is a trip hazard in an office or an unsafe set of racking in a warehouse then don’t walk by. If everyone remains vigilant and looks out for one another then the workplace can be a safer place to work. With over 1.1 million people affected by work related illness in 2011/12, resulting in 27 million lost working days it’s clear to see why health and safety in the workplace should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.