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Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Employers' health and safety responsibilities

Employers have responsibilities for the health and safety of their employees. They are also responsible for any visitors to their premises such as customers, suppliers and the general public.

Risk assessments

Your employer has a 'duty of care' to ensure, as far as possible, your health, safety and welfare while you're at work. They should start with a risk assessment to spot possible health and safety hazards. They have to appoint a 'competent person' with health and safety responsibilities (usually one of the owners in smaller firms, or a member of staff trained in health and safety).

Businesses employing five or more people

For businesses employing five or more people, there must also be:

  • an official record of what the assessment finds (your employer has to put plans in place to deal with the risks)
  • a formal health and safety policy, including arrangements to protect your health and safety (you should be told what these are)

The employer's duty of care in practice

All employers, whatever the size of the business, must:

  • make the workplace safe
  • prevent risks to health
  • ensure that plant and machinery is safe to use, and that safe working practices are set up and followed
  • make sure that all materials are handled, stored and used safely
  • provide adequate first aid facilities
  • tell you about any potential hazards from the work you do, chemicals and other substances used by the firm, and give you information, instructions, training and supervision as needed
  • set up emergency plans
  • make sure that ventilation, temperature, lighting, and toilet, washing and rest facilities all meet health, safety and welfare requirements
  • check that the right work equipment is provided and is properly used and regularly maintained
  • prevent or control exposure to substances that may damage your health
  • take precautions against the risks caused by flammable or explosive hazards, electrical equipment, noise and radiation
  • avoid potentially dangerous work involving manual handling (and if it can't be avoided, take precautions to reduce the risk of injury)
  • provide health supervision as needed
  • provide protective clothing or equipment free of charge (if risks can't be removed or adequately controlled by any other means)
  • ensure that the right warning signs are provided and looked after
  • report certain accidents, injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences to either the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the local authority, depending on the type of business

Making the workplace safe and healthy

So that the work premises provide a safe and healthy place to work, your employer should:

  • make sure that workplaces are properly ventilated, with clean and fresh air
  • keep temperatures at a comfortable level (a minimum of 13 degrees C where the work involves physical activity; 16 degrees C for 'sedentary' workplaces (eg offices) - there's no maximum limit) 
  • light premises so that employees can work and move about safely
  • keep the workplace and equipment clean
  • ensure that workrooms are big enough to allow easy movement (at least 11 cubic metres per person)
  • provide workstations to suit the employees and the work
  • keep the workplace and equipment in good working order
  • make floors, walkways, stairs, roadways etc safe to use
  • protect people from falling from height or into dangerous substances
  • store things so they're unlikely to fall and cause injuries
  • fit openable windows, doors and gates with safety devices if needed
  • provide suitable washing facilities and clean drinking water
  • if necessary, provide somewhere for employees to get changed and to store their own clothes
  • set aside areas for rest breaks and to eat meals, including suitable facilities for pregnant women and nursing mothers
  • let employees take appropriate rest breaks and their correct holiday entitlement
  • make sure that employees who work alone, or off-site, can do so safely and healthily

What to do next

You also have responsibilities for your own health and safety at work. You can refuse to do something that isn't safe without being threatened with disciplinary action. If you think your employer isn't meeting their responsibilities, talk to them first. Your safety representative or a trade union official may be able to help you with this. As a last resort, you may need to report your employer to the Health and Safety Executive or to the environmental health department of your local authority.

If you are dismissed for refusing to undertake an unsafe working practice, you may have a right to claim unfair dismissal at an Employment Tribunal.

Where to get help

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on employment rights issues. You can call the Acas help line on 08457 474 747 from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm Monday to Friday.

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues for residents of Northern Ireland. You can contact the LRA on 028 9032 1442 from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. You can find your local CAB office in the phone book or online.

If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.

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