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In the last few years Health & Safety (or ‘elf and safety) has been an increasingly popular source of stories for the media. We have all seen stories about local councils cutting down apple trees in case people trip over fallen apples and hurt themselves, or stopping using hanging baskets in public places in case one falls on someone’s head.

These stories can often be both amusing and infuriating but stories about police officers or fire-fighters having to carry out a risk management procedure before putting a ladder against a tree to climb up and rescue a cat, or wading into a fairly shallow pond to rescue a dog or a child and taking so long that the child or animal drowns. Not so amusing.

There can be no doubt that very often people who misunderstand health and safety legislation make some daft decisions that often offend against common sense, but on occasion the decisions are entirely justified.

The fact is that anyone running a business needs to be aware that however daft, unreasonable or nonsensical they feel the Health & Safety (H & S) laws are, they ignore them at their peril because they can end up being held responsible in civil law (damages, fines) and in criminal law (fines and/or imprisonment). And you needn’t think that if you are a director or a limited company you will get any protection because you won’t!

Company directors have both collective and individual responsibility for health and safety. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places duties on organisations and employers, and directors can be held personally liable if these are breached.

Health and safety law states that organisations or all types – businesses, local authorities, hospitals, everyone – must:

  • provide a written health and safety policy (where there are five or more employees);
  • assess risks to employees, customers, partners and any other people who could be affected by their activities;
  • arrange for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of preventive and protective measures;
  • ensure they have access to competent health and safety advice; and
  • consult employees about their risks at work and current preventative and protective measures.

Protecting the Health & Safety of employees or members of the public who may be affected by your organisation is an essential part of risk management and in companies this must be led by directors.

Failure to include H & S as a key business risk in board decisions can have catastrophic results. Many high-profile safety cases over the years have been rooted in failures of leadership. Health & Safety Executive (HSE) figures reveal the human and financial cost of failing to address H & S:

  • More than 200 people are killed at work in the United Kingdom each year. This does not include work-related road deaths.
  • In 2006, 30 million working days were lost in the UK to occupational ill health and injury, imposing an annual cost to society of £30 bn (more than 3% of GDP).
  • Surveys show that about two million people suffer from an illness that they believe to be caused or made worse by work.
  • Many thousands of deaths each year can be attributed to occupational illnesses, including some cancers and respiratory diseases

Click on this link to download a copy of Leading Health & Safety at Work a free 12 page guide published by the Institute of Directors (IoD) in association with the HSE. The guide suggest that the principles for successful health and safety leadership and performance can be achieved through four key principles. These are:

  • planning — the board should set the direction for effective health and safety management;
  • delivering — there needs to be an effective management system to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees, customers and members of the public;
  • monitoring and reporting — to entrench an organisation’s health and safety culture; and
  •  reviewing — conducting a formal annual review by the board of health and safety performance.

In addition to the above, the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 came into force on 16 January 2009. This new Act increased the fines which may be applied to those who breach health and safety legislation and also exposes directors, managers and other employees to the risk of imprisonment. This Act reinforces the need for both employers and employees, particularly those in senior management positions, to take their health and safety responsibilities seriously.

Although this article deals with the position in the UK most other countries have similar – sometimes more stringent – legislation so whilst the various acts referred to in the article don’t apply outside of the UK the underlying responsibilities and principles for navigating the choppy waters of H&S legislation are pretty much the same the world over.

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