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Employees’ Health & Safety duties

Nick Wilson, Director of Health & Safety Services at Ellis Whittam, gives an overview of the general duties owed by employees under Health & Safety law.

The Health & Safety at Work etc. Act (HSWA) 1974 places a number of important responsibilities on the shoulders of employees and as an employer, you may wish to share this with your staff!

Main duties

The HSWA says employees must take reasonable care:

  • for their own Health & Safety
  • not to put others at risk by what they do or don’t do at work. This covers the same wide public group that employers must protect. In other words, not just the person on the next desk or bench!

Workers must also:

  • not deliberately interfere with or misuse safety provisions – no “horseplay”
  • co-operate with their employers and anyone else to help everyone meet their Health & Safety obligations.

Employees can therefore be prosecuted under the HSWA if an incident takes place and they fail to:

  • take reasonable care of their own Health & Safety
  • take reasonable care of someone else’s Health & Safety
  • use safety provisions correctly
  • co-operate.

In practice, the employer’s safety policy should set out what amounts to the key employee duty of taking “reasonable care” of themselves and others. Duties laid out in the policy may include summaries of the legal and organisation’s rules.

Further duties

Employees have further duties most notably under the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations (MHSWR) 1999.

The MHSWR say employees must:

  • use equipment or substances in line with the training or instruction given by their employer
  • alert their employer of serious or imminent danger
  • report shortcomings in their employer’s protective Health & Safety arrangements.

Employers must have safe systems of work. The MHSWR state employees must follow these systems and any procedures set up for their protection.

Notice should also be taken of the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. They require employees to make full and proper use of any system of work that their employer provides them with.


Individual employees may be held personally liable and criminally prosecuted for failing to carry out their Health & Safety duties. But this is fairly uncommon.

The regulatory authorities seem to have more appetite for prosecuting workers with “greater authority”. When the Health & Safety Executive considers whether to prosecute an individual it does not just look at someone’s job title but also their authority and responsibilities. For example, a “plant manager” could well be liable under the HSWA if they are in a position of real authority and have decision making powers.

Individual company directors, managers, secretaries or similar officers may also be prosecuted if their firm commits an offence under the HSWA and it’s proved to have been:

  • committed with their consent or connivance
  • due to their neglect.

“Consent” means they knew or were aware of the circumstances and risks that caused the Health & Safety failure. “Connivance” means knowing and not doing anything about the risks and “neglect” means unreasonably breaking a duty of care.

Individuals face up to two years’ imprisonment for HSWA and MHSWR offences.


Source: Ellis Whittam