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Health and safety at work: a basic guide


What steps must an employer take to ensure that they comply with the law on health and safety and that they minimise the risk of employees falling ill or getting injured while at work?

There are a number of health and safety measures that all employers must implement in the workplace. What follows is a very brief guide to the basic health and safety provisions that a business is expected to make. More details on how to comply with the law can be found at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website at http://www.hse.gov.uk.

Acceptable workplace conditions

Each workplace must provide members of staff with basic amenities that are maintained to an acceptable minimum standard of cleanliness and comfort.

Toilets must be clean and in good working order. They must also have hot and cold water, soap and a means of drying hands, whether towels or an electronic dryer.

Mains drinking water must be available. If the water cannot be supplied directly from the mains, then it must be made available in containers that can be replenished.

The areas where people work must be clean, and any rubbish or waste disposed of frequently.

Employees must have enough room and ventilation in order to feel comfortable.

Risk assessment

All employers must conduct a risk assessment of their office, factory or shop. A typical risk assessment will ensure that possible hazards or dangers to workers' health and safety have been identified and that sufficient protection is in place to prevent an accident.

Carrying out a risk assessment usually follows a basic pattern. Potential hazards are noted (these may include, among others, slippery surfaces, people working at height, dangerous substances, noisy environments and areas where vehicles are in motion).

Also noted are those workers who may be at risk from these potential hazards. The level of the risk must then be gauged along with the adequacy or otherwise of the precautions and protection currently in place - this will dictate whether further protective measures need to be introduced.

The assessment must be recorded (in writing if there are five or more employees). And the assessment must be revisited on a regular basis to ensure that it still properly covers the health and safety risks of the workplace concerned.

Fire

All employers must conduct a fire risk assessment of their premises. A fire risk assessment will take in such things as fire escape routes, fire-resistant doors and walls, fire extinguishers and firefighting equipment, alarms, emergency lighting, the storage of flammable materials and staff training on what to do in the event of a workplace fire.

New fire safety regulations, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, were introduced in October 2006, and businesses are urged to make sure they comply with the changes to the rules. More information is available at the Department for Communities and Local Government website at http://www.communities.gov.uk/fire/firesafety/firesafetylaw/

Signs

Each workplace must show the following:

  • A copy, prominently displayed, of the Health and Safety law poster, which is available from the HSE (as an alternative, staff can be provided with a copy each of the HSE leaflet 'Your health and safety - a guide for workers');
  • a certificate of employers' liability insurance;
  • and, where appropriate, signs warning employees of particular workplace dangers or hazards such as machinery, vehicles at work and potentially harmful substances.

Equipment

All equipment used by employees at work, whether it is provided for them by their employer or whether they supply it themselves, must be safe.

The law requires that such equipment must be appropriate for the use to which it is put; that it must be checked regularly and kept in safe working order; and that it must come with safety precautions like protective clothing and warning signs where appropriate.

The only employees who can use equipment are those who have the training and the information needed to operate the equipment safely.

There are also special rules governing the use of IT equipment such as computers. These include making sure that screens have suitably clear images, that chairs are adjustable and that the lighting at workstations is sufficiently bright. Staff must have training in the use of their computers and workstations. Employees must also have a screen risk assessment and must be allowed regular breaks from the screen while working.

More detailed information on the use of equipment generally and IT equipment specifically is available on the HSE website.

First aid

The law requires that employers ensure there are adequate first aid facilities and equipment in the workplace.

These must include a properly filled first aid box. A nominated person within the firm must be given the task of making sure that the contents of first aid boxes are replenished and of assuming control when there is an emergency. Members of staff must be made aware of the location of the first aid box and of the firm's first aid procedures.

Firms that handle dangerous substances or that use potentially dangerous machinery are usually required to have further first aid procedures in place.

Reporting accidents at work

Employers must by law maintain a record of any accidents and incidents that occur in the workplace.

As this is only an outline of an employer's responsibilities on health and safety, it is essential to consult the Health and Safety Executive website at http://www.hse.gov.uk for more information and guidance.