40th anniversary of landmark health and safety law – highlights workplace safety in the UK

1 Oct, 2014

HThis year marks the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the most important legislation affecting workplace safety in the UK. At the time it was a landmark piece of legislation and while reflecting on its impact after four decades the creators of the bill can rightfully say that the law has had a major, positive effect on the well-being of employees across the country.

Impact on deaths and injuries

The forty years since the act became law has seen a major reduction in deaths and injuries. The number of fatalities in the workplace has fallen by 85 per cent with the number of reported non-fatal injuries decreasing by 77 percent (by 2012). In terms of numbers this translates to a reduction from 651 deaths in 1974 to 95 in 2012-13. To put this in context, in 1974 there were 2.9 fatal injuries per 100,000 employees but by 2012-13 the figure was much improved to 0.4 per 100,000 employees. Of course the reason for the fall is not solely attributable to the Health and Safety at Work Act. The changing work environment with the move into different occupations has been an important factor. The result is that today, thankfully the UK is now one of the safest places in the world to work.

ISO standard

Employers seeking to meet their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act generally rely on the relevant certification that applies – BS OHSAS 18001. While this is not strictly an ISO Standard it was designed to cover gaps in the certification system and is a globally accepted standard. It covers relevant areas, such as risk assessment, hazard management, training and readiness to deal with emergencies.

It is important to note that the BS OHSAS 18001 will become ISO 45001 in 2016 so as to align it with the upcoming revisions of the ISO 9001 Quality Management Standard and the ISO 14001 Environmental Management Standard.


The origins of the Health and Safety at Work Act can be found in the Robens Reports, which was published in 1972 and provided a number of recommendations that were included in the 1974 act. Taking a completely new approach to what had gone before it focused on outcomes for workplace safety rather than on the mechanics of rules. The logic underpinning the act was that those who create risk are in the best position to manage it. In practice this approach has set out objectives for health and safety at work and placed the onus on employers and other parties to make these happen.

Although most people will not remember what it was like before the act was introduced, regulations then were very rule based. In an ever-changing work landscape this meant that authorities were often playing catch-up, trying to enforce rules that were often unsuited to the corporate environment. One of the motivations for the act was a recognition that legislation would inevitably be two steps behind the reality of the workplace and if the health and safety of workers was to be protected then a different approach was needed.

newNew approach

With this new mindset employers were given the responsibility for ensuring a safe working environment, an obligation that has not always sat easily on their shoulders. However, as the creators of the Act realised, those on the ground are by far the best suited to identify risks and issues and address problems as they arise.

The Health and Safety at Work Act broadly provides for protection for people from work related risks and imposes duties in this regard on employers, but also on self-employed workers, employees themselves and more widely on designers, manufacturers and suppliers of commercial equipment and materials.


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