Frequently Asked Questions

The meaning of health and safety in the workplace may seem too obvious to need explaining, but when it comes to health and safety, with all its legal ramifications, things are rarely as simple as they seem.

For example, this statement from the joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health shows how much more there is to health and safety in the workplace than simply preventing people from getting ill and having accidents.

“Occupational health should aim at: the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social wellbeing of workers in all occupations; the prevention amongst workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his physiological and psychological capabilities; and, to summarize, the adaptation of work to man and of each man to his job.”

In other words, health and safety in the workplace is about promoting positive wellbeing as well as preventing injury and illness.

The best reason for a business to look after the health of its employees and promote their well being is that it can enhance productivity and loyalty. People with health problems are more likely to be absent from work, less productive when in work and more likely to leave. And health problems at work are extremely common, as shown by the latest government figures:

  • 1 in 4 UK employees have a physical health condition
  • 1 in 8 has a mental health condition
  • 1 in 10 has a musculoskeletal condition
  • 1 in 3 has a long-term health condition
  • 42% of those with a health condition say that it affects their work

Under the law employers are responsible for health and safety management. The following provides a broad outline of how the law applies to employers. Don’t forget, employees and the self employed have important responsibilities too.

It is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this.

This means making sure that workers and others are protected from anything that may cause harm, effectively controlling any risks to injury or health that could arise in the workplace.

Employers have duties under health and safety law to assess risks in the workplace. Risk assessments should be carried out that address all risks that might cause harm in your workplace.

Employers must give you information about the risks in your workplace and how you are protected, also instruct and train you on how to deal with the risks.

Employers must consult employees on health and safety issues. Consultation must be either direct or through a safety representative that is either elected by the workforce or appointed by a trade union.

For more details on the basics of what employers must do to make their business comply with health and safety law in a low risk business , HSE has produced a booklet Health and safety made simple.

For more details on how health and safety law is meant to work, HSE has produced a booklet: Health and safety regulation: A short guide (PDF)– Portable Document Format.

Employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety Information for Employees Regulations (HSIER) to display the approved poster in a prominent position in each workplace or to provide each worker with a copy of the approved leaflet Health and safety law: What you need to know that outlines British health and safety law.

If workers think their employer is exposing them to risks or is not carrying out their legal duties regards to health and safety, and if this has been pointed out to them but no satisfactory response has been received, workers can make a complaint to HSE.

Recently, there have been many concerns regarding the health and safety of employees working in various organizations and industries. With the growth of human welfare departments that try their best to ensure that employees are made to work in the best of conditions and are not exposed to health or safety risks; it has become common to come across a number of health and safety measures being deployed.

Be it an employed worker, an ad-hoc employee or a person on a factory tour, the first thing that they are briefed about is the health and safety hazards. Usually, as in the cases discussed, health and safety hazards are discussed together and although both are equally important, they are different. There might be situations where one of them is more important than the other.

The word hazard which is common to both is a potential source of harm or an adverse health effect on the person involved. To understand the difference between the two types of hazards, we first need to understand the difference between health and safety. Health is described as the level of efficiency of the functioning of an individual’s body.

A good state of health implies lack of illness, pain or injury. Safety, on the other hand, refers to a state of being safe, that is, a condition whereby one is protected against physical, social, emotional etc. consequences of failure or any undesirable events.

Health hazards usually affect a person’s health and bring about delayed results. For example, a person working in the coal mines is at an increased health risk of developing lung related diseases in the future. Safety is slightly different in this regard.

Safety hazards increase the risk level to which a person is exposed and can bring about immediate effects if not dealt with properly. An example can be of a construction worker falling from the ladder and injuring his skull since he did not use the advised safety helmet.

Moreover, health risks may not always be understood or very well defined and sometimes even the cause-effect relationship is not established. It is difficult to firmly conclude the effects of health risks since they usually appear after a long time and there are a number of factors at work. Safety is one thing that is quite clearly prescribed and the possible effects of not following safety tips can almost always be described and warned about.

Since safety risks have an immediate effect, the importance of safety methods and equipment has been emphasized upon for quite some time now. However, health risks which usually take a longer time to show their effects have only been recently addressed with the increase in research, technology, and accurate experiments.

This is one of the main reasons that during the past few years, health concerns have attracted widespread publicity and the attention of various NGO(s).

Where it is easy to collect and infer data regarding safety, which can be further used to increase safety; studying health risks, collecting data for it and connecting it to its cause, which is usually way back in the past, is very difficult. This makes it almost impossible to act in a proactive manner to decrease health risks although this is very much possible if the risk involved is a safety risk.

A few examples of the two types of hazards will further help to differentiate the two. Health hazards include pollution, harmful emissions, exposure to toxic substances etc. Safety risks include being accidentally hit by moving parts of machinery in a factory which can cause injuries, dislocations or even fractures.

Summary of differences expressed in points

  • Health is the efficient functioning of an individual’s body; safety is the state of being safe from undesirable events or consequences
  • Health hazards affect the health, safety hazards make the surrounding conditions unsafe or risky
  • Health risks take a long time to show their effects, safety risks usually have immediate effects
  • Easy to judge and deal with safety hazards, they are well understood; health hazards are difficult to catch and deal with as they usually show their effects after a long time
  • Data collection and inferences is easier for safety hazards compared to health hazards
  • Examples; safety hazards-getting hit by moving machinery; health hazards-developing bronchitis by inhaling harmful emissions for a sufficient period of time

Lone workers

Lone workers are those who work by themselves without close or direct supervision.


Employers can find basic guidance on how to protect lone workers in Lone working: Protect those working alone.

This includes advice on managing health and safety risks that particularly affect lone workers, such as violence and stress.

Lone workers

People working alone can find guidance on their responsibilities and those of their employer in Lone workers – your health and safety.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 state the following provision for rest breaks at work and time off:

Rest breaks at work

A worker is entitled to an uninterrupted break of 20 minutes when daily working time is more than six hours. It should be a break in working time and should not be taken either at the start, or at the end, of a working day.

Daily rest

Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, regulation 10, a worker is entitled to a rest period of 11 consecutive hours rest in each 24 hour period during which he works for his employer.

However, there are a number of special circumstances in which the entitlement to rest periods does not apply, for example, where the activities involve a need for continuity of service or production or where there is a foreseeable surge of activity. Also, if a shift worker changes shift, it may not be possible for them to take their full rest entitlement before starting the new pattern of work. In such a case the entitlement to daily and weekly rest does not apply.

Weekly rest

An adult worker is also entitled to one day off a week; this can be averaged over 2 weeks.

Young or adolescent workers

If a young worker is required to work more than four and a half-hours at a time, then they are entitled to a break of 30 minutes. A young worker is also entitled to twelve uninterrupted hours in each 24-hour period in which they work. Both these entitlements can only be altered or excluded in exceptional circumstances. Young workers are also entitled to 2 days off each week and this cannot be averaged over 2 weeks.

There is a free guidance produced by the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), which can provide more information.


If you require further advice regarding in work rest breaks and time off, please contact the Acas Helpline Online or contact the Acas Helpline:

Telephone: 0300 123 1100
Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm
Saturday, 9am to 1pm


the web pages on Rest Breaks at Work and Holiday Entitlement

Unpaid students and learners who are workers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) have the same duties and rights as paid workers. For example, they have to work in compliance with the OHSA and regulations, operate equipment safely, and report any hazards or contraventions of the OHSA or regulations to the employer or supervisor. They also have the right to know about workplace hazards and the right to refuse unsafe work. All workers, including unpaid students, learners and trainees, must complete the basic training required by Ontario Regulation 297/13 (Occupational Health and Safety Awareness and Training).

Placement employers have the same duties to protect the health and safety of unpaid students and learners who are workers under the OHSA as they do to protect their paid workers. For example, a placement employer has a duty to provide these unpaid workers with information, instruction and supervision, and to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect their health and safety.

Section 25 entitles employees to decide on, select and appoint a safety representative or, by agreement with their employer, more than one safety representative to represent them in consultations with the employer on matters of safety, health and welfare at the place of work.

There is no set number of safety representatives required in an organisation. Section 25, as stated above, entitles employees to decide on, select and appoint a safety representative or, by agreement with their employer, more than one safety representative. Therefore, in determining a suitable number of safety representatives, the following factors should be considered:

  • the number of employees to be represented
  • the nature of the work and the relative degree of risk
  • the operation of shift systems
  • the number of workplaces under the employer‘s control spread over many locations, e.g. for a local authority
  • the constituency of the employees to be represented, including variations between different occupations and distinct locations within the place of work, e.g. a large hospital, where a wide variety of different work activities take place within a single workplace, or places of work where conditions and workforce change regularly, such as construction.

Special consideration may need to be given to those situations where the employees spend most of their working time away from the nominal place of work, e.g. care workers, goods delivery depots and local authority service yards.

Also, in some situations, a single safety representative may be unable to perform all the functions as listed under the 2005 Act effectively. In these cases, the safety committee can also usefully assist in the consultation process. Agreement should be reached between the employer and the employees on how many safety representatives are necessary in particular circumstances, where more than one safety representative may be required.

Note that there are special provisions covering safety representation in the construction industry contained in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Construction) Regulations.

No specific term of office is laid down in the 2005 Act. However, to gain most benefit from knowledge acquired and training received during the period, a term of office of about three years seems appropriate. There should, however, be provision for review by the employees, perhaps on an annual basis.

A safety representative may consult with, and make representations to, the employer on safety, health and welfare matters relating to the employees in the place of work. The employer must consider these representations, and act on them if necessary. The intention of these consultations is to prevent accidents and ill health, to highlight problems, and identify means of over-coming them. Consultations would be particularly important when changes are taking place, for example when drawing up a safety plan, or introducing new technology or work processes, including new substances. They also have a part to play in long established work practices and hazards.

The functions of the safety representative also include:

  • accompanying an inspector carrying out an inspection under Section 64 of the 2005 Act other than the investigation of an accident or a dangerous occurrence (although this may be allowed at the discretion of the inspector)
  • at the discretion of the inspector, and where the employee concerned so requests, be present when an employee is being interviewed by an inspector about an accident or dangerous occurrence at a place of work
  • make representations to the employer on safety, health and welfare at the place of work
  • make verbal or written representations to inspectors including on the investigation of accidents or dangerous occurrences
  • receive advice and information from inspectors in relation to safety, health and welfare at the place of work
  • consult and liaise with other safety representatives appointed in the same undertaking, whether or not those safety representatives work in the same place of work, in different places of work under the control of the employer or at different times at the place of work (for example, safety representatives on different shifts).

A safety representative, after giving reasonable notice to the employer, has the right to inspect the whole or part of a workplace he or she represents, at a frequency or on a schedule agreed between him/her and the employer, based on the nature and extent of the hazards in the place of work. A safety representative also has the right to immediately inspect where an accident, dangerous occurrence or imminent danger or risk to the safety, health and welfare of any person has occurred.

Factors that should be considered when deciding the frequency of inspections include:

  • size of workplace
  • nature and range of work activities and work locations
  • nature and range of hazards and risks
  • changing hazards and risks

Annex 1 of the Safety Representatives and Safety Consultation Guidelines gives examples of the frequency and duration of inspections by safety representatives.

Annex 2 of the Safety Representatives and Safety Consultation Guidelines details the course content for training safety representatives and safety committee members. There are 10 elements that are to be included in this training:

  1. Safety and health legal system
  2. Role of the Safety Representative and Safety Committee members in the safety consultation and participation process
  3. Communication skills for the Safety Representative and Safety Committee members
  4. Hazard identification and carrying out Risk Assessments
  5. Preparing and implementing the Safety Statement
  6. Carrying out safety and health inspections
  7. Accident investigation, recording and analysis
  8. Sources of safety and health information
  9. Risk control and safety and health management at work
  10. Course follow up

In addition to complying with the guidelines set out in Schedule 4 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, the following points will help the safety committee and other employee participation programmes to operate more efficiently:

  1. The composition and number on the safety committee may comply with those set out in Schedule 4, but will also depend on the range and type of work activities and the nature and the range of hazards and risks. All major activities, especially in a large organisation, should be represented.
  2. The committee must keep in mind the key role the safety representative plays in the consultation and employee participation process, and at least one safety representative must be a member.
  3. The officers (chairman and secretary) should have the ability to ensure that the committee can function effectively. Business should be conducted in an ordered and structured fashion. Minutes, reports and submissions should be precise and clear to help decision-making and to enhance the likelihood of having recommendations considered and acted upon more speedily.
  4. There should be regular meetings, to include items such as the following:
    · any representations made to the employer on any matters relating to safety, health and welfare · the review of safety and health audit reports (including feedback from an inspector) · seeking solutions to safety and health issues which arise · the study of information relating to accidents, dangerous occurrences and instances of occupational ill-health at the place of work · the development and implementation of safe systems of work · the review of communication and employee training procedures relating to safety and health · the consideration of reports presented by a safety representative  · progress report on the implementation of Risk Assessments and the Safety Statement · the provisions and use of personal protective clothing and equipment · special promotional activities on safety and health at work including general fitness and well-being programmes, stress reduction or ‘work positive’ initiatives · safety and health training needs and reports on safety training courses attended by management or employees · any of the other items arising under Section 26 (1) (b) of the Act
  5. Some additional points for effective safety consultation and employee participation are as follows:
    · the employer must commit the necessary financial and staff resources and facilities, e.g. meeting rooms, access to relevant safety and health information, etc. · the employer or senior managers and employees should be encouraged to participate · workers are encouraged to communicate their views or complaints · sensible recommendations are implemented without delay · line managers and supervisors do not ignore recommendations · committee members are adequately trained and informed on safety and health matters · meetings are  held regularly in accordance with Schedule 4 · the agenda for meetings is varied and relevant · committee members are prepared to consider new options or approaches to problems.

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