Last updated: 29.05.23

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 Explained

Many people take their safety in the workplace for granted. But the reason that so many of us don’t have to worry about health and safety when we’re at work is because of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Before the responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act were enforced, there wasn’t any specific legislation controlling how employees were kept safe when they were at work. This meant that there weren’t any standard procedures for risk control, like risk assessments or health and safety policies, and employers didn’t have a legal obligation to make their workplaces safe.

The introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974 had a huge impact on workplace health and safety and is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the health and safety industry. In this article, we explain everything you need to know about the Health and Safety at Work Act.

What Is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974? 

Within British workplaces, the primary piece of legislation which is responsible for health and safety standards is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which is sometimes shortened to HASAWA or HSW. This legislation outlines a number of responsibilities that employers have regarding their employees and how they maintain a safe workplace environment.

The following are Health and Safety at Work Act key points which summarise the safety standards put forward by the legislation:

  • Staff training is required in order for employees to understand basic health and safety procedures and their importance within the workplace
  • Businesses must have welfare provisions to cover all staff
  • All working environments on the premises must be properly maintained in regard to safety standards in order to minimise risk
  • Relevant information about on-site health and safety procedures must be available to staff to consult, as well as instruction and supervision from the designated responsible person

The government body responsible for establishing the HSW is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which also acts as a regulator in association with local authorities to monitor safety standards within businesses. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 contains a number of enforceable powers which allows the HSE to assess employers to ensure their responsibilities are being met, as well as penalise employers for non-compliance in line with the safety standards within the legislation.

When Was the Health and Safety at Work Act Introduced?

The Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974. Before this point, there was no health and safety legislation that covered the topic of safety in the workplace in a general sense, only multiple laws for specific sectors that outlined how to keep workers safe in certain roles and environments.

Why Was the Health and Safety at Work Act Introduced?

The Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced because employment conditions at the time were quite dangerous in certain industries and there were no consistent guidelines for how to manage risks or whose responsibility it was to keep these workplaces safe. 

The introduction of the act was triggered by several serious accidents, one of which was a fire at a factory on James Watt Street in Glasgow which killed 22 people in 1968. The year that the Act was introduced, a chemical plant near Flixborough exploded and killed 28 people, injuring 36 others as well.

A committee was put together to tackle the issue of workplace safety legislation, chaired by Lord Alfred Robens. The Act was implemented to not only protect employees at work but also the general public that may be affected by accidents in the workplace.

What Are the 4 Main Objectives of the Health and Safety at Work Act?

The four main sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act outline the different objectives of the legislation in relation to the different groups that it applies to. These four objectives concern:

  • Employer responsibilities
  • Employee responsibilities
  • The enforcement of health and safety legislation
  • Enforcement action

Employer responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act are to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees and to keep visitors, contractors or nearby members of the public safe. This involves maintaining workplace equipment so that it’s safe, implementing health and safety policies, running risk assessments and providing appropriate health and safety training.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employees responsibilities involve ensuring that staff take care of themselves and their colleagues when they’re at work, which involves avoiding unnecessary risks and remaining aware of their surroundings and actions. Employees are also not allowed to interfere with any health and safety protocols and must follow the guidance given by their employer.

It’s the responsibility of health and safety inspectors to ensure that the Health and Safety at Work Act is being followed, so another of the main objectives of the Act is to outline the rights and obligations that inspectors have. These include the right to inspect equipment, the right to ask questions about a business's health and safety, the right to investigate a workplace and the right to inspect premises without an appointment.

The final objective of the Health and Safety at Work Act is to outline what action will be taken in order to enforce the expectations outlined by the legislation. The Act can be enforced whether an employee has been injured or if a business has just been found to be in breach of the regulations, with a range of consequences that include up to twelve months in prison.

Who Does the Health and Safety at Work Act Apply To?

The guidance and responsibilities outlined in the Health and Safety at Work Act apply to anyone considered to be “at work”, with only a few exceptions. Many people assume that employers or site managers are the only people that have to follow the legislation, but this isn’t the case.

Employers are responsible for keeping their workplaces safe, but it’s also the responsibility of employees to follow the guidance that they have been given and take action if they think that there’s something in their workplace that could be a hazard. The Act also covers self-employed people, who are equally responsible for ensuring their own safety wherever they work and taking appropriate measures to reduce or eliminate risk.

The Health and Safety at Work Act also applies to the owners of non-domestic premises to keep these premises safe for visitors and anyone that works here. For example, if you owned a building where multiple companies had offices, you would be responsible for ensuring the safety of the building and any communal spaces.

The manufacturers and suppliers of articles and substances are also responsible under some of the regulations in the Act, as these can cause workplace accidents if they’re not stored and transported correctly. The Act controls the storage and use of explosive, flammable or dangerous substances, so any company that produces these is impacted by the legislation.

What Are the Penalties for Breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act?

The different penalties for breaching responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act are outlined in Section 33 of the legislation. Specific penalties will be determined in court depending on the offence and the consequences it had, but perpetrators can face maximum penalties of 12 months imprisonment or a £20,000 fine.

Why Is the Health and Safety at Work Act Important?

It is vital that employers take health and safety at work seriously. Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that some 565,000 workplace injuries were recorded in 2021/22, along with 123 workplace fatalities, while a total of 1.8 million people in the UK suffered from a work-related illness.

Health and safety in the workplace needs to be a key priority for office and site managers to safeguard staff and reduce the risk of preventable accidents, injuries and even fatalities. The Health and Safety at Work Act is important because it places a legal responsibility on employers to make the necessary arrangements to keep their employees safe, helping to reduce the high number of people that end up getting injured at work.

Health and safety legislation like the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 sets standards for every industry to uphold when it comes to making the workplace safe. When there are legal consequences for failing to keep employees safe, working environments become safer and employees receive appropriate training that helps them to feel safe and prepared at work. Overall, this helps to reduce workplace injuries and accidents and generally improves health and safety standards and expectations everywhere.


What is the purpose of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974?

The purpose of the Health and Safety at Work Act is to provide a legal framework for upholding health and safety standards in the workplace. The legislation highlights who is responsible for upholding health and safety standards, outlines the steps they should take to keep their workplace safe, and explains the consequences of failing to comply.

What must employees do under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974?

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employees must take responsibility for their own health and safety when they’re at work and be aware of how their actions might compromise the safety of others. They are also legally required to follow any health and safety instructions given by their employer, including implementing what they have learned in health and safety training. 

Who does the Health and Safety at Work Act not protect?

The Health and Safety at Work Act does not apply to any pets that are brought into an office environment, so these animals are not protected by the legislation if they are injured at work. However, pet owners are required to prevent their pets from posing a health and safety risk if they bring them to work, and employers should consider how they can facilitate allowing animals like service dogs into the office without increasing any risks.


Many of the responsibilities which are covered within the HSW contain the caveat ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, which gives employers room to provide a rationale as to why certain safety measures haven’t been implemented, such as the cost greatly outweighing the potential risk. However, this rationale would need to hold up against risk assessments and key safety measures cannot just be ignored due to cost restrictions, so understanding and following the guidance of this piece of legislation where possible is very important.

We offer various courses which cover the individual elements relating to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, such as our ‘Awareness of Health and Safety at Work course and a ‘Manual Handling Training’ course. But the best option which covers all potential aspects of your business is the ‘Complete Health and Safety Package’, which gives access to 11 separate Health and Safety courses to keep you up-to-date on all regulations and ensure you’re fully compliant with the HSW legislation.