Frequently asked questions

To which organisations is this guidance directed?

This guidance is aimed at private, public and third sector organisations. It applies to organisations of all sizes. Public bodies include government departments, non-departmental public bodies and agencies, NHS trusts, local authorities, schools, colleges and universities. The third sector encompasses voluntary and community organisations, charities, social enterprises, cooperatives and mutuals both large and small (this list is not exhaustive – see the advice on the website of the Office for the Third Sector.

Does this guidance place legal duties on directors?

This guidance sets out actions to achieve leadership in, and direction of, occupational health and safety risk management. The guidance also summarises the legal responsibilities of employers and individual directors for ensuring the health and safety of workers and others affected by work activities. Following the guidance is not compulsory, unless specifically stated, and you are free to take other action. But if you do follow the guidance you will normally be doing enough to comply with the law. Those who operate in the major hazard industries will also need to look to the additional guidance that HSE has published for them.

How can I tell if I and my board are leading effectively on health and safety?

You are advised to review your arrangements against the recommendations within this guidance and make changes as appropriate - answering the questions in the guidance checklist will help you.

Those in major hazard industries also need to consider their arrangements in the light of other guidance published by HSE, in particular Leadership for the major hazard industries INDG277 [128kb].

Why haven't you sought new legislation on directors' health and safety responsibilities?

The HSE Board revisited the issue of Director's duties in April 2011 (HSE/11/22). The Board considered the findings from the independent evaluation of the impact of measures taken to strengthen director leadership, which was completed through a steering group led by Patrick McDonald. While the evidence is that director leadership can be improved, it is inconclusive on the need for new law. The group's report is available on the HSE website.

The Board previously indicated that the evaluation in itself would not confirm whether a legislative rather than a voluntary approach is needed. This continues to remain a subject on which there is no stakeholder consensus. In light of this, we intend to continue to promote effective leadership of health and safety, including appropriate enforcement under existing health and safety legislation by HSE and other enforcement bodies. The work done by the steering group provides useful information on where HSE's efforts need to be targeted, and a baseline against which future changes can be measured.

HSE will continue to promote effective leadership in health and safety at Board level, working with key industry influencers to improve the measurement of health and safety performance,  help establish meaningful targets and to undertake benchmarking. 

Does the Government plan further legislation on directors' health and safety responsibilities?

Whilst the Government is keeping the question of placing new legal duties on directors under review, there are no plans to take further action at this time.

Is the guidance aimed solely at directors?

The guidance is aimed at all directors and their equivalents, eg governors, trustees etc., who provide strategic leadership and direction in running any organisation. They may not necessarily be formally appointed as a director or sit on a board. The test is their role in providing direction on the management of risks within the organisation.

My organisation doesn't have a board; does the guidance apply to us?

The guidance talks a lot about what directors and boards should do, but many smaller organisations will not have either directors or boards. If you are the owner of or partner in such an organisation, the guidance still applies to you as you perform the equivalent role to a board of directors. You may find it easiest to interpret references in the guidance to what boards, board members and directors should do, as referring to what 'you' should do.

I run a small business / organisation; does this guidance apply to me?

HSE has prepared advice on using this guidance for small and medium sized organisations.

Does the executive head of an organisation (frequently referred to as the Chief Executive) have a particular role to play?

Chief Executives and their equivalents have a key role in ensuring that systems are in place and properly resourced to manage the significant risks facing their organisation. Chief Executives should lead by example on managing health and safety and send out clear messages that the risks to workers' health and safety need to be effectively managed.

Chief Executives cannot afford to ignore health and safety. Failure to provide the necessary leadership and direction on managing health and safety sends out all the wrong messages to managers, workers and investors etc.

If one person assumes the role of health and safety director, do they become liable in the event that things go wrong?

The guidance clearly states that board members are collectively responsible for providing leadership and direction on health and safety. We suggest that a health and safety director's role will be to ensure that health and safety is not overlooked when board decisions are made.

If an individual director who has health and safety responsibilities neglects those responsibilities and as a result, the organisation commits a health and safety offence, then the individual may also have committed an offence. Advice on the legal responsibilities of employers and the individual liability of directors for health and safety failures is included in the guidance.

Can the Chief Executive and other directors leave it to the health and safety director to ensure the proper management of health and safety within their organisation?

It is good practice and makes good business sense to have a board member with responsibility for health and safety. Some leading companies have made their Chief Executive responsible for health and safety. This sends out a clear signal that health and safety is an important aspect of the business.

However, the guidance clearly states that board members are collectively responsible for providing leadership and direction on health and safety. The goal of effective management of occupational health and safety is more likely to be achieved where all board members have a proper understanding of the risks, the systems in place for managing the risks and an appreciation of the causes of any failures.

Are elected, co-opted or non-executive board members expected to provide leadership and direction on health and safety in their respective organisations?

Elected, co-opted and non-executive board members need to help ensure their organisation gets the right direction and leadership on health and safety matters. They can also perform a scrutinising role – ensuring the integrity of processes to support boards facing significant health and safety risks.

How does this guidance relate to the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007?

This is covered in the guidance itself, which states:

Under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 an offence will be committed where failings by an organisation's senior management are a substantial element in any gross breach of the duty of care owed to the organisation's employees or members of the public, which results in death. The maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and the court can additionally make a publicity order requiring the organisation to publish details of its conviction and fine.

In considering the liability of an organisation under the Act, a jury must consider any breaches of health and safety legislation and may have regard to any health and safety guidance. In addition to other health and safety guidance, this guidance could be a relevant consideration for a jury depending on the circumstances of the particular case.

HSE has published further advice on the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

Institute of Directors Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland

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Updated 2022-05-03