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The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA)

The Health and Safety at Work Act is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain. The Health and Safety Executive, with local authorities (and other enforcing authorities) is responsible for enforcing the Act and a number of other Acts and Statutory Instruments relevant to the working environment.

The Act, which largely reflected the recommendations of the 1972 Robens Report, introduced a broad goal setting, non-prescriptive model, based on the view that 'those that create risk are best placed to manage it'. In place of existing detailed and prescriptive industry regulations, it created a flexible system whereby regulations express goals and principles, and are supported by codes of practice and guidance. Based on consultation and engagement, the new regime was designed to deliver a proportionate, targeted and risk-based approach.

HSE's first director general described the HSW Act as 'a bold and far-reaching piece of legislation'. It marked both a watershed in health and safety regulation and a recognition that the existing system had failed to keep up with the pace of change and was trailing behind industrial and technological developments.

The Act gave people a broad legal right to be protected from work related risks. In general, the law imposed a range of duties on employers, the self employed and employees as well as others such as designers, manufacturers or suppliers of articles and substances for use at work. These are expressed as broad general duties in the Act but are supported in some circumstances by subsidiary regulations such as those dealing with the management of health and safety and specific health and safety issues. Many of these derive from Directives.

While most modern health and safety law applies 'across-the-board', there are also additional regulations covering particular industry sectors such as construction, agriculture, railways, mines and quarries and major hazard and nuclear installations that reflect the particular risk and hazard profile of those sectors.

The Act also established two new bodies - HSC and HSE to implement the framework and the HSE and HSC were later merged into one organisation.

Besides laying down duties, the law also gave the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Local Authority inspectors wide ranging powers - to prosecute and to issue notices halting dangerous work or requiring improvements.

Updated: 2021-06-08