While most health and safety responsibilities lie with the employer, employees have health and safety responsibilities too. The two main pieces of legislation that feature health and safety responsibilities for employees are:
- The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
The Health and Safety Executive say that when it is mainly the employer that is responsible for an incident, they would usually only take enforcement action against the employer. But if the employer has taken all reasonably practicable measures to comply with the law, they will consider taking enforcement action against employees. They will look at the safe systems of work that were in place and find out whether they were followed in practice and whether any previous warnings were issued to employees.
Let’s take a look at these legal duties in a bit more detail. Don’t worry, we’re not going to get bogged down in legalese, we’ll leave that sort of thing to the lawyers!
Responsibilities of Employees under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974
This piece of legislation places a duty on employees to take reasonable care for their own health and safety. This means exactly what it says. If an employee acts recklessly and ends up injuring themselves through their own actions or behaviour, then they could find themselves facing criminal charges. The duty goes a bit further though. In addition to taking reasonable care of themselves, employees have a legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure that they don’t harm anybody else who could be affected by what they are doing (or, not doing).
The other duty of employees under this piece of legislation is to cooperate with their employer in order that the employer can meet their own legal duties. So, for example, if an employer provides an employee with personal protective equipment (PPE), along with training in how and why to use it, it could be an offence for the employee to refuse to use the PPE which they have been provided with.
There is another legal duty in the Health and Safety at Work Act that, while not directed exclusively towards employees, is worth mentioning here. It’s a duty not to deliberately interfere with or misuse anything provided for health and safety purposes. This duty applies to everyone, not just employees. An example might be using fire extinguishers to prop fire doors open.
Here’s another, where a site manager was found guilty (as well as the company he worked for) when he ordered workers to construct scaffolding, rather than bringing in contractors. One of the workers dies as a result of falling from a height.
Responsibilities of Employees under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
This piece of legislation contains specific duties of employees in addition to the duties discussed above. One of the duties it places on employees is to use any equipment and substance provided to them by their employer in accordance with any training or information that the employer has provided. There is also a duty on employees to tell their employer or health and safety manager about situations that they become aware of that might be dangerous or any shortcoming that they notice with regards to health and safety. These duties are very similar to the duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act to cooperate with their employer.
In a Nutshell…
The legal duties discussed in the two pieces of legislation above can be summarised in four key points:
- Take reasonable care of your self an others;
- Co-operate with your employer;
- Follow the training you’ve been given;
- Tell your employer about health and safety problems you notice.
Employers’ and employees’ duties are summarised and displayed on a poster you might have seen in your own workplace. It’s a legal duty for employers to make the information contained in the poster available to employees. Click below for the online leaflet version.
Possible Consequences for Employees
So, what might happen to an employee if they are found to have not complied with their legal duties? Possible consequences for employees include:
- Warning letter;
- Improvement notice;
- Prohibition notice;
Prosecution is a possibility but is usually only used for serious incidents or circumstances where there has been a flagrant disregard for the law. If an individual employee is prosecuted for a health and safety offence, the severity of the punishment they will receive from the courts will depend on the seriousness of the offence. The maximum possible penalty for health and safety offences is two years imprisonment. If a fine is part of the sentence, the maximum level of the fine can be up to 700% of the persons’ weekly income. There could also be an order of unpaid community work.
Good health and safety is not just about what the employer needs to be doing. Everyone has health and safety responsibilities, including employees. Health and safety works best when everyone knows what is expected of them and what their responsibilities are.