40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

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Courtesy of Pulsar Instruments plc

31st July 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Also referred to as HSWA or the HSW Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act is the primary legislation covering occupational health and safety in the United Kingdom. Take a look at what exactly this monumental Act involves and what impact it has had on employee health and safety during the last 40 years.

In 1974, a headline of the British Safety Council’s former monthly publication, ‘Safety and Rescue’ read: “Work safety: A new era begins”. The legislation was considered ground-breaking in helping to improve the management and regulation of health and safety at work.

Those who create the risk of injury must manage the risks

The Act was implemented in order to define the general duties on employers, employees and contractors, as well as the suppliers of goods and substances for use at work and those who manage people at work.

At the core of the Act is the ethos that those who create risks of injury and ill health at work must manage the risks.

The 1974 Act enables a broad regime of regulation by the UK government through Statutory Instrument, the principle form in which delegated legislation is made in the United Kingdom.

According to Legislation.gov.uk, the preliminary vision of the HSW Act was to:

  1. Secure the health, safety and welfare of persons at work
  2. To protect persons against risks to health or safety arising out of or in connection with work-based activities
  3. To control the use of explosive, highly flammable or other dangerous substances, and to generally prevent the unlawful acquisition, possession and use of such substances
  4. To control the emission of noxious or offensive substances from premises into the atmosphere

A dramatic reduction in workplace injuries

Since the Act was implemented, major and fatal injuries occurring in the workplace have been significantly reduced. The dramatic reduction of work-based injuries during the last four decades has also been attributed to the creation of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an independent and unified regulator, which places duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees and the active involvement of employers and trade unions.

Speaking of the improvements to employees’ health and safety embedded by the HSW Act, Alex Botha, Chief Executive of the British Safety Council said that in the last 40 years:

“We have seen an 80% plus reduction in fatal injuries in our workplaces. The 1974 legislation has attracted admiration and emulation across the globe and provided the model for many other regulators.”

Noise at Work Regulations 1989

The Control of Noise at Work regulations of 1989 were further legislation made under the HSW Act. The aim of the regulations is to ensure workers’ hearing is protected from excessive noise in their place of work. On 6 April 2008 the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into force for all industry sectors in the UK, replacing the 1989 regulations.

According to the HSE, the level of which employers must act and provide hearing protection is now 85 decibels (averaged exposure to noise levels over a working day or week). The noise level at which employers must assess the risk to workers’ health and provide them with training and information is now 80 decibels (again, averaged over a working day or a week). Importantly, the levels of noise exposure which must not be exceeded is 87 decibels.

The future of worker health and safety

As we have seen with the arrival and then modification of the Control of Noise at Work legislation, during the last 40 years the HWS Act has been modified and advanced to adhere to changing industrial practices. As Alex Botha recognises, future legislation must continue to be flexible to continue adapting to risk.

“Going forward we need a legal framework that is flexible and one that can adapt to changing risks. We cannot stand still. There remains so much to do including tackling the thorny issues around health and well-being – the sometimes forgotten part of the health and safety equation. The British Safety Council and its members are confident that the 1974 Act can continue to play a role in meeting present and future challenges.”

Further information about the Health and Safety Act can be found on the HSE website.

Meanwhile if you are an employer or health and safety manager needing to measure the noise levels in your workplace to check their compliance against the legislative requirements, the Pulsar Nova Class 1 and Class 2 Professional Sound Level Meters are suitable for all applications for measuring noise and work compliance.

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