The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974: an overview

What is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974?

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA 1974) is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK. There are three primary aims of the HSWA 1974:

  1. to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees;
  2. to 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;
  3. to control the keeping and use of explosive or highly flammable or otherwise dangerous substances, and generally prevent the unlawful acquisition, possession and use of such substances.

HSWA 1974 imposes various general duties upon both employers and employees.

Duties owed by employers to employees

The following duties are owed to employees:

  • provide and maintain safe plant and systems of work;
  • ensure the safety of employees in connection with the use, storage and transport of articles;
  • provide the necessary information, instruction, training and supervision;
  • ensure the safe maintenance of the place of work;
  • provide and maintain a safe working environment.

Duties owed to persons other than employees

The following duties are owed to persons other than employees:

  • not to expose such persons to risks in relation to their health and safety;
  • provide such persons prescribed 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 a 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 of employees at work

The following are duties of employees:

  • to take care for the health and safety of themselves and other persons;
  • to cooperate with any requirement imposed by the employer so the employer can perform and 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

HSWA 1974 created two governing authorities: the Health and Safety Commission; and the Health and Safety Executive. In April 2008, the authorities were merged to establish one governing authority, namely 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:

  • assisting and encouraging persons concerned with matters relevant to the operation of the objectives of HSWA 1974;
  • making arrangements for and encouraging research publication, training and information in connection with its work;
  • making arrangements to ensure government departments, employers, employees, their respective representative organisations and other persons are provided with an information and advisory service and are kept informed and advised on such matters;
  • propose 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 to take responsibility for their own enforcement. Such an authority would include the ‘local authority’. 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 enter into arrangements with each other for securing cooperation and the exchange of information;
  • they from time to time review those arrangements and revise them when they consider it appropriate to do so.

Powers of inspectors

Section 20 of the HSWA 1974 provides inspectors with a wide range of powers to ensure the provisions of HSWA are enforced. 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 contravening provisions contained within HSWA 1974. Both types of notices may be served without resorting to criminal proceedings, so long as the individuals comply. However, failure to comply with either notice is a criminal offence.

Improvement notices

Section 21 affords an inspector the power to issue an Improvement Notice on an individual who is contravening one or more of the relevant statutory provisions or has contravened one or more of the relevant statutory provisions. The notice must state the reasons why the inspector has issued the notice and that the person is able to remedy the contravention or appeal against the notice.

Prohibition notices

Section 22 affords an inspector an identical power to issue a Prohibition Notice on an individual who carries out activities which may involve a risk of serious personal injury 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.


Any person who is served with a notice may appeal to an employment tribunal. Insofar as an improvement notice is concerned, instigating the process of an appeal will have the effect of suspending the operation of the notice until the appeal is finally disposed of. In the case of a prohibition notice, instigating an appeal will have a similar effect as an improvement notice but only if, on the application of the appellant, the tribunal so directs. 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.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.