Health and safety FAQs


27 FAQs people ask about health and safety.

  1. Does health and safety legislation apply to ordinary office premises?
  2. What are my main responsibilities under health and safety legislation?
  3. Do I need a health and safety policy?
  4. What does my health and safety policy need to cover?
  5. What is a risk assessment?
  6. How do I carry out a health and safety risk assessment?
  7. How do I deal with hazards I identify?
  8. What are my responsibilities for employee welfare?
  9. Do I have to provide my employees with health and safety training?
  10. Do I need a health and safety poster?
  11. Will I need any specialist employees or expert help?
  12. Do I have to set up a safety committee?
  13. Do I need a fire certificate?
  14. How can I minimise fire risks?
  15. Do I need a special fire risk assessment?
  16. What are the main rules covering lifting at work?
  17. What are the main rules covering equipment?
  18. What do I have to do if I work with dangerous substances?
  19. What are the main rules covering the workplace environment?
  20. Do I have to provide any equipment or clothing for my workforce?
  21. What safety precautions do I need to take for visitors?
  22. Do I have to have first aid kits and trained first aiders?
  23. What should I do after an accident?
  24. Do I have to look after my employees when they work from home?
  25. Do I have to look after my employees when they are at work but away from office premises?
  26. If I am prosecuted for a health and safety offence, what fines could I face?
  27. Will having a health and safety policy, carrying out risk assessments and so on be enough to protect me from prosecution and civil claims?

1. Does health and safety legislation apply to ordinary office premises?

Yes. You are just as responsible for the health and safety of everyone affected by your business, and for the welfare of your employees, as you would be if you ran a factory.

In practical terms, office premises can still present health and safety concerns. While hazards may be less obvious, they can still exist - for example, potential causes of accidents (such as trailing cables), fire risks (such as blocked escape routes) and hazardous substances (such as printer toner).

In addition, a poor working environment - for example, inadequate lighting or ventilation, poorly designed workstations or excessive exposure to computer screens without a break - can produce specific health and employee welfare problems.

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2. What are my main responsibilities under health and safety legislation?

You are responsible for the health and safety of everyone affected by your business - including employees, other people working in or visiting your premises (for example, customers, suppliers or delivery drivers), people affected outside your premises (for example, by emissions) and anyone affected by products or services which you design, produce or supply. You are also responsible for the welfare of your employees.

The requirement to register with your local authority or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been abolished. However, depending on the type of business you are operating you may be required to register or obtain a licence to operate under other regulations. You can check whether your business is required to register or obtain a licence on the HSE website.

General requirements include:

  • Having a health and safety policy.
  • Carrying out a risk assessment, and taking action to control any risks.
  • Making suitable arrangements for employee welfare.
  • Taking out employers' liability insurance (unless all your employees are your close relatives).

Specific regulations cover areas such as providing health and safety information to employees, fire precautions, managing dangerous equipment and hazardous substances, providing a suitable working environment, and dealing with accidents and emergencies.

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3. Do I need a health and safety policy?

Yes. If you have five or more employees, the policy must be in writing, and you must bring it to the attention of your employees. Even if you have fewer employees, it is good practice to have a written policy.

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4. What does my health and safety policy need to cover?

Your policy should at least contain your general approach to health and safety - ensuring the safety of equipment, creating a healthy working environment, establishing appropriate procedures, providing appropriate training and so on.

The policy should include how you organise for health and safety - which individuals are responsible. And it should include or refer to your specific procedures for dealing with hazards and risks - for example, who can use particular items of machinery and what training they will receive, and the evacuation procedure in case of fire. You must also make a commitment to review the policy periodically and revise it as necessary.

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5. What is a risk assessment?

A risk assessment is the process of identifying potential health and safety risks and hazards and how serious they are. You need to consider anything which might harm or injure: for example, where people might trip, fall, or collide; electrical installations and machinery; hazardous substances; or other particular hazards of your business.

You must also take into account potential longer term risks to employees health: for example, causes of physical or mental stress; poorly designed workstations; and manual handling of objects. You are legally required to carry out a risk assessment and take steps to control any risks you identify. You should review the assessment periodically (eg annually) or whenever circumstances change (eg if you introduce new equipment) or if you have reason to believe the assessment is no longer valid.

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6. How do I carry out a health and safety risk assessment?

First, identify the hazards. Inspect your premises and the tasks carried out there, ask employees (and safety representatives), check suppliers' instructions and information and review accident and illness records.

Decide who could be affected - bearing in mind particular risks to visitors, contractors and new employees who may not be aware of your safety procedures, and anyone who might be particularly vulnerable (eg the disabled, young people and new or expectant mothers).

Evaluate the level of risk - how likely it is to cause problems, how many people it could affect, and how badly. Consider whether you are complying with any specific legal requirements affecting your business and meeting industry standards. Then decide what you can do to eliminate or minimise the risk.

Finally, record the outcome of your assessment and any corrective action you have taken as a result. (If you employ five or more people, you are legally required to keep a written record of the assessment.)

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7. How do I deal with hazards I identify?

Ideally, you will remove the hazard altogether - for example, by using safer equipment or improving lighting. Failing that, you can reduce the potential for harm to acceptable levels with suitable systems and procedures, including providing appropriate information and training. In some circumstances, the best you can do may be to minimise exposure to hazards - for example, only allowing suitably trained employees to use dangerous equipment.

Providing personal protective equipment such as protective clothing and ear defenders should only be used as a last resort when other steps are impracticable or insufficient on their own. Your legal duty is to take reasonably practicable steps to keep everyone healthy and safe, reducing them to an acceptable level. How far you need to go will depend on the seriousness of the risk - how many people are exposed to the hazard, how often, and how seriously they could be affected. Wherever there are serious risks, you must try to tackle the cause rather than merely providing protection or warnings.

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8. What are my responsibilities for employee welfare?

You have a general duty to make suitable arrangements for employee welfare - ensuring that you provide the facilities (for example, toilets and drinking water) which are necessary for employees' well-being. This includes considering potential longer term health risks to your employees as part of your risk assessment.

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9. Do I have to provide my employees with health and safety training?

You must provide appropriate information, instruction and training. You should include health and safety in induction for new employees (or employees moving to a different role), particularly if they will be placed in hazardous situations.

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10. Do I need a health and safety poster?

You must display the poster 'Health and Safety Law: What you should know' or distribute copies of the leaflet to all employees.

The poster and accompanying leaflets were updated on 6 April 2009. If you have a copy of the old poster, you can continue to use that version until 5 April 2014 providing it is clearly legible and contains up-to-date contact details for the enforcing health and safety body and the Employment Medical Advisory Service. (You must also give employees information about risks to their health and safety and the measures you have put in place to control them.)

In addition, you should use safety signs where appropriate.

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11. Will I need any specialist employees or expert help?

You need to ensure that whoever oversees health and safety in your business is 'competent' to do so. This will include general awareness of the legal requirements. This employee will need to be adequately trained.

Depending on your circumstances, it may be appropriate for the employee to have, or be working towards, a suitable qualification. Similarly, whether you need expert help will depend on your circumstances and the level of in-house expertise. A small business working from office premises may find it relatively easy to meet its health and safety obligations. A business with a factory, by contrast, might need substantial advice on regulations, as well as specialist assistance in assessing specific hazards.

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12. Do I have to set up a safety committee?

All employees have a legal right to be consulted about health and safety issues which affect them. Although setting up a safety committee is not required, it may be an effective way of doing this. If you have a recognised trade union, the union can nominate safety representatives.

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13. Do I need a fire certificate?

Fire certificates are no longer required, but you must carry out a fire risk assessment.

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14. How can I minimise fire risks?

The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations set out the basic requirements for minimising fire risks. These include:

  • escape routes to a place of safety
  • fire-resistant doors and walls
  • fire-fighting equipment
  • fire alarms
  • emergency lighting
  • safe storage of inflammable materials
  • staff training

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15. Do I need a special fire risk assessment?

You must carry out a fire risk assessment (but you can include it within your overall health and safety risk assessment). The risk assessment should include:

  • identifying the fire hazards
  • identifying who might be at risk and who is at the greatest risk (eg visitors who are unfamiliar with the premises, disabled people and people who work alone)
  • evaluating the risks, and removing or reducing them as far as possible
  • providing fire precautions to minimise the remaining risks
  • recording the results of your assessment and providing appropriate information and training
  • reviewing your risk assessment as necessary

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16. What are the main rules covering lifting at work?

Potentially hazardous manual handling (eg lifting heavy or awkward objects) is treated in much the same way as other workplace hazards. You need to assess the risks and take steps to eliminate them or reduce them as far as reasonably practicable.

Possible ways to eliminate risks include redesigning processes to avoid the need to lift objects, or introducing suitable equipment. Ways of reducing risks include: improving workplace layout to reduce awkward or strenuous movements; reducing the distance and frequency items have to be carried; redesigning loads to make them easier to hold and carry; and clearing passageways. Employees should also be given training, both in how to recognise potentially hazardous lifting and in good handling technique.

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17. What are the main rules covering equipment?

All equipment must be taken into account in your risk assessment. Potential hazards to consider when assessing your equipment include the risk of the machines cutting or catching people, creating excessive noise, and throwing out material, dust or fumes.

General requirements include ensuring that equipment is:

  • suitable for the purposes for which you are using it
  • maintained in a safe condition and if necessary inspected
  • fitted with any necessary safety devices and safety warnings
  • only used by adequately trained employees

Additional regulations apply to certain types of equipment which carry particularly high risks - for example, dangerous machinery, lifts and boilers. These include more stringent maintenance and inspection regimes, and a prohibition on the use of dangerous equipment by young people.

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18. What do I have to do if I work with dangerous substances?

Under the COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health) Regulations, you must assess and control the risks from hazardous substances. You should:

  • Examine your workplace to identify any potentially hazardous substances. This could include those you use or those that are created in the course of your business activities.
  • Identify the specific risks posed by those substances. You can check the safety data sheets that are supplied with the substances; ask the supplier for information or check online.
  • Consider how they could harm your employees, customers or other members of the public affected by your business. Could they be breathed in, splashed into the eyes or skin or swallowed?
  • Consider how big the risk is of an incident occurring and how serious an incident could be.
  • Implement suitable control measures. This could include improved storage facilities, staff training on the safe use of the substance, introducing personal protective equipment or clothing or replacing the substance with a less hazardous alternative.
  • Appoint someone to ensure the control measures are working and are complied with. Keep a record of your checks.
  • If you have five or more employees your assessment must be written down.

Even in an office environment, there are likely to be substances that could be potentially hazardous such as printer toner and adhesives, all of which must be appropriately used, labelled and stored.

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19. What are the main rules covering the workplace environment?

Practical measures you need to consider include providing:

  • enough clean, working toilets
  • drinking water (mains or bottled)
  • regular cleaning of working areas
  • a comfortable working temperature
  • adequate lighting (both for safety reasons and for employee welfare)
  • adequate space and ventilation
  • changing rooms if employees need to change into work clothing
  • arrangements for meal and rest breaks
  • rest facilities for pregnant and nursing mothers, and for those involved in physically strenuous work

Your responsibilities include protecting employees from second-hand tobacco smoke. You must ensure that enclosed workplaces are smoke free, including putting up "no smoking" signs and taking steps to ensure that employees and visitors do not smoke on the premises. This requirement also applies to work vehicles that are used by more than one person or carry members of the public.

Your adviser can give you specific guidance on what you need to do.

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20. Do I have to provide any equipment or clothing for my workforce?

You must provide personal protective equipment or clothing (PPE) whenever there are risks to health and safety which cannot be adequately controlled in any other way. You must provide the PPE free of charge.

You are responsible for ensuring that: the PPE is adequate for the purposes; users are trained to use it properly; the PPE is properly maintained; and that it is correctly stored. You should also ensure that items of PPE are compatible. For example, if an employee must wear a helmet and safety goggles you should ensure they fit securely and are comfortable when worn together.

Ordinary working clothes which do not have a health and safety role (eg uniforms) are not covered by these regulations.

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21. What safety precautions do I need to take for visitors?

You are responsible for the health and safety of visitors. The risks to visitors must be taken into account in your risk assessment, and systems put in place to ensure that they are adequately protected.

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22. Do I have to have first aid kits and trained first aiders?

You must have suitable first aid facilities. It is up to you to assess the number of first aid kits and designated first aiders that you require, but you may want to get guidance from your adviser, local authority or the Health and Safety Executive.

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23. What should I do after an accident?

Under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) you are required to report certain 'specified injuries' and 'work-related illnesses' to an enforcing authority. Since 6 April 2012, only accidents resulting in incapacitation of more than seven days (excluding the day of the accident) must be reported. Employers have 15 days from the day of the accident in which to report it. Previously, accidents resulting in incapacitation of more than three days had to be reported.

Accidents resulting in incapacitation of more than three days must still be recorded by the employer.

You must have an accident book that records the date and details of each accident, including the injured person's name. Your accident book and any information you record about incidents and the individuals affected must comply with the Data Protection Act.

You are also required to report certain 'dangerous occurrences' and near misses to your enforcing body, even if they do not result in an injury. You can find out more on your reporting obligations on the Health and Safety Executive website.

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24. Do I have to look after my employees when they work from home?

Yes. Your responsibilities are very much the same as for employees who work on your premises, including:

  • carrying out a risk assessment, and eliminating or reducing risks (to the home worker or anyone else who could be affected) as far as is reasonably practicable
  • ensuring that equipment you provide is suitable for the purpose, properly maintained and so on

In practice, the main concern for a typical homeworker (using a computer and the telephone) will be ensuring that the homeworker has a suitable working environment and takes adequate breaks.

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25. Do I have to look after my employees when they are at work but away from office premises?

Yes - your responsibilities are the same. Consider, for example, a risk assessment of other premises where your employees work.

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26. If I am prosecuted for a health and safety offence, what fines could I face?

Maximum fines are £20,000 and/or one year's imprisonment if a case is heard by Magistrates. If heard in Crown Court, fines are unlimited and you could also face up to two years' imprisonment. Fines can be imposed on a company and on individual officers of the company if both are prosecuted. Directors may also face a disqualification order preventing them from acting as a company director for up to 15 years.

Individuals can also be prosecuted for culpable homicide, and manslaughter caused by their gross negligence.

If a person to whom the business owes a duty of care (such as an employee, or a customer) dies as a result of a gross failure in the way health and safety is managed by senior managers in your business, it may be guilty of corporate manslaughter.

The court will look at your systems and processes for managing safety and how these were implemented, and a failure will be treated as gross if it falls far below the standard that could reasonably be expected of your business. The penalty is an unlimited fine, and the court may also make a publicity order, requiring the business to publicise its conviction and fine, and require it to put right the reasons for its failure.

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27. Will having a health and safety policy, carrying out risk assessments and so on be enough to protect me from prosecution and civil claims?

Not necessarily - it is the implementation of the policy that counts. You must do more than just pay lip service to health and safety. For example, if you see an employee failing to comply with safety requirements, the employee should be reprimanded and warned that repeated failure will lead to disciplinary action.

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