What is occupational health and safety? | British Safety Council

Discover what occupational health and safety is, the legislation behind it and the responsibilities for employers and employees in the workplace.

What is occupational health and safety?

Occupational health and safety (OHS) is a practice that deals with the safety, health, welfare and wellbeing of people when they are at work. Providing a safe working environment for staff is a legal responsibility for companies in Britain and OHS requires both the prevention and treatment of any health issues that staff may experience during or because of their work. 

What is the purpose of occupational health and safety?

With OHS standards implemented, every worker in Britain should be able to function in their role in a safe and secure environment, free from hazards. 

OHS must also ensure that people with disabilities or impairments are not unreasonably prevented from taking job opportunities and that work processes are adapted to help people with specific conditions work safely. 

In 2020 142 workers died as a result of a workplace accident. Latest figures from HSE for 2019 show that 65,427 significant injuries were reported, although a large number this is a 80% drop since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974. This has been in large part due to the effective OHS practices adopted by employers. These figures have been declining a pace since 2021, keeping the workforce safe and healthy and having a positive impact on productivity and performance.  

History of OHS

The Act for the Preservation of the Health and morals of Apprentices (1802) was intended to improve working conditions for young mill and factory workers. Since then, health and safety regulation in Britain has evolved. The Factory Act of 1833, and subsequent amendments running into the 20th century and the concept of duty of care developing in 1837 and the Employer’s Liability Act (allowing workers to seek compensation for work-related injured resulting from negligence) in 1880. But in most cases, acts and reforms remained industry specific for almost a century. 

It took until 1974 for the Health and Safety at Work Act to be introduced. It was the first act to cover all industries and employers, placing responsibility on both employer and employee to ensure workplace health and safety for everyone. 

The impact of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was dramatic, reducing the number of workplace fatalities between 1974 and 2019 by 90%. The act still forms the core of today’s health and safety legislation. 

Legislation in health and safety

There are three main elements to health and safety legislation in Britain today:  

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 
  • The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. 

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

This act is central to occupational health and safety in Britain. It identifies the responsibilities of employers, employees and the self-employed, both to themselves and others. 

Workplaces are required to provide: 

  • Adequate staff training to ensure health and safety procedures are understood and adhered to 
  • Adequate welfare provisions 
  • A safe working environment that is properly maintained and in which operations are conducted safely 
  • Suitable provision of relevant information, instruction and supervision 
  • For workplaces with five or more employees, employers must keep a written record of their health and safety policy, as well as consult with employees (or employee representatives) on relevant policies and associated health and safety arrangements. 

Find out information in our guide “The Health and Safety at Work Act Explained”. 

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 was introduced on 1st January 1993 and put Great Britain in line with an EC (European Commission) directive on minimum health and safety requirements for a workplace. These regulations do not apply to construction sites. Separate legislation for construction was introduced later under the Construction, Design and Maintenance Regulations (2015) 

The regulations cover: 

  • Ventilation and windows 
  • Comfortable appropriate temperatures  
  • Lighting 
  • Equipment maintenance 
  • Waste and cleanliness
  • Sufficient space 
  • Seating and workspaces 
  • Building access 
  • Bathrooms and kitchens. 

The Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 were introduced to support the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 by providing specific duties for both employers and employees to ensure a safe workplace is maintained. 

Although the 1974 act provided the outline principle of risk assessment, the largest change was placing a legal duty of care on employers to conduct risk assessments to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees, the public and visitors. Any company with five or more employees must record any significant findings from their assessments. Separate risk assessments are required for people under 18 and new or expectant mothers. 

Following the risk assessment, suitable health and safety measures must be implemented to control or manage the identified risks. Procedures should also be prepared for serious emergency situations, such asfires, which may require evacuation.  

Find out more about risk assessments in our guide. 

Types of occupational health issues

The range of occupational health risks is varied across industries. The following identifies some of the most common occupational health issues employers must be aware of today. 

Falls

For who work at heights, falls are a major occupational health concern, but through improved training and the supply of suitable equipment, many deaths and injuries could be avoided. It should be remembered that falls can be below as well as above ground. 

In other industries, slips, trips and falls are an extremely common form of non-fatal injury. Many could potentially be prevented if employers focus on seemingly smaller workplace hazards (such as poorly fitted carpets or trailing wires) when performing premises inspections or risk assessments. 

Repetitive stress injuries

Poor posture and extended hours working on computers or with machinery are resulting in increased levels of repetitive stress injuries that can lead to persistent medical issues such as eye strain and back pain. 

Investment in ergonomics and staff training can have a positive impact on reducing repetitive strains. 

Heat/humidity

Workers that spend long stretches of time outside, such as gardeners or construction workers, are at risk of sun-related health issues, during the summer months (sunburn, dehydration, heatstroke, etc.) or in winter months hypothermia. Measures must be taken to protect against severe heat and cold and may require workers to reduce the time workers spend in weather extremes 

Sedentary workdays

With many professional roles based behind a screen, workers are spending many hours sitting down. This is especially true since the rise of remote working during the pandemic. The omission of commuting and leisure time may also lead to more inactivity, and this will have significant cumulative consequences on health and fitness. There are a range of ways to combat these risks to staff wellbeing – from health initiatives, challenges and training to encouraging regular screen breaks. 

Who is responsible for managing occupational health and safety?

The responsibility for managing occupational health and safety is ultimately the employer. While the Health and Safety at Work Act means that employers are legally obliged to ensure the health and safety of employers are work, workers must also cooperate with the established safety measures and minimise risks in the workplace by: 

  • Taking reasonable care to not endanger others by their acts or omissions 
  • Reporting accidents, illness or injury and cooperating in any investigations into the causes. 
  • Only using equipment in the way they have been trained. 

It is through a sense of collective responsibility that worker’s health and safety can be most effectively managed and improved: 

  • Employers meeting outlined requirements and ensuring that best practice, expectations and processes are met 
  • Staff taking time to understand their roles and the importance of collaboration to ensure that the required levels of safety are maintained.  

Find out about our online training courses for health and safety including online short courses on general health, safety and environmental awareness, and manual handling.