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Health & Safety - Who is actually responsible?

The truth is everyone is responsible for health and safety in the workplace.   Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure safety and a healthy workplace, but employees also have a responsibility.  It’s a team effort!

Under UK law, employers have the primary responsibility for health and safety in the workplace.  Employers have a duty to ensure the safety of their employees, and employees have rights which include being provided with safety equipment and protective clothing free of charge, having rest breaks,  ensuring time off work during the working week, being able to report concerns about health and safety, the option to stop and leave the work area if there are reasonable concerns about safety and having risks in the work place controlled and minimised - but who within your business is responsible?

Within many organisations responsibility for health and safety compliance is often delegated to an individual within the company who then becomes the named ‘competent’ person.  However as legislation provides no explicit definition of competent, often businesses select an employee based on completely randomly, such as who may have attended a training course that is remotely related to health and safety, or just simply who has the most time on their hands!

Some organisations feel that health and safety fits squarely within the Human Resources camp, while others feel that these are two separate areas of expertise, employing a different individual in charge of each or creating separate departments around them.  There is undoubted crossover within the both areas; stress, absenteeism and training to name but a few, but is it realistic to consider a company’s health and safety is the responsibility of its HR function?

If for example a company health and safety policy clearly stipulates general rules and processes, and sets out the expectations of employees surrounding health and safety within the workplace, what are the potential consequences to staff who are in breach of that policy and where are those consequences displayed?  Generally within most organisations, a serious breach of the company health and safety policy constitutes gross misconduct and gross misconduct typically equates to summary and instant dismissal.  This is usually part of the disciplinary rules so in this example the policing of health and safety is clearly within the remit of Human Resources.

However is isn’t quite as straightforward as that.  What if a company does not have a written health and safety policy?  Unless a business employs 5 or more staff, there is no statutory obligation to provide a written health and safety policy even if the nature of the business is particularly hazardous.  Also, in reality there are quite a few businesses in the UK employing more than 5 staff that are not aware of this legal obligation and so have no formal health and safety policy in place (even though they may have reference to one within their disciplinary ‘rules’).

Under these circumstances, could an employee who has committed a health and safety offence (unwittingly or otherwise) be held accountable?  After all, how are they supposed to adhere to a health and safety policy that doesn’t exist?

Let’s take this scenario one stage further – suppose this ‘incident’ lead to a serious injury to a 3rd third party (a colleague or visitor), who is actually responsible – the employee for causing the injury, or the employer for not having due process in place?  If this incident lead to a health and safety investigation by an enforcing authority, who would be investigated?

For employers with 5 or more staff it is a legal requirement to have a written health and safety policy and to ensure staff have access to comprehensive and relevant information in relation to the risks to their health and safety as well as all preventative measures taken to minimise these. 

This does not however mean that for businesses employing less than 5 staff are exempt from their health and safety obligations and does not need to be managed, it just means that they do not necessarily have to record their findings.  Of course, demonstrating compliance without written evidence could be quite difficult. 

Some would argue that the management of health and safety is the job of the named ‘competent’ person or persons, and that it should be enforced by HR (or within a HR policy) while the employer is ultimately responsible.  Others might argue that in actual fact ‘Health and Safety’ is nobody’s ‘job’ and every employee has a level of responsible for their own safe working practices and the safety and welfare of others. 

Irrespective of the size or function of a business, every employer has a duty of care.  Whilst legislation requires that they appoint at least one competent person (either internally or externally) and permits the delegation of a certain level of responsibility for the management of health and safety in the workplace, this does not remove the onus of compliance from the employer themselves. 

You cannot (and never will be able to) delegate accountability…


With have put together a short guide setting out 10 basic steps to help you address Health and Safety in your business, which can be found here


As a client of HR:4UK, we can ensure that you have a policy in place which minimises the risk to your business by having a clear health and safety policy.  If you do not have such a policy or wish to upgrade your service to include this policy, please call us on 01455 444222 or complete an enquiry form here