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How do civil law and health and safety law apply?

Understanding which type of law applies

Concerns often arise when people confuse civil law obligations with an organisation's duties under health and safety law.

This page clarifies the differences between the two types of law and how health and safety law applies to voluntary organisations.

Civil law and the duty of care

Under the common law, voluntary organisations and individual volunteers have a duty of care to each other and others who may be affected by their activities. Where something goes wrong, individuals may, in some cases, sue for damages using the civil law if they are injured as a result of another person's negligence.

But, for a negligence claim to succeed, the injured person must show that the defendant had a duty to take reasonable care towards them, and they have suffered the injury through a breach of that duty. The injured person must also show that the type of loss or injury for which damages are being claimed was a foreseeable result of the breach of the duty.

Liability in individual cases is a matter for the courts, depending on all the circumstances of the case and the actions and standards it is reasonable to expect from each of the parties involved. If the court decides that a particular claim does not have merit, then it will reject it. It can also reduce any damages awarded to reflect the extent of any contributory negligence on the part of the injured person.

Health and safety law

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSW Act) is criminal law aimed at protecting employees and others who may be affected by work activities. It is enforced mainly by HSE and local authorities.

Health and safety legislation does not, in general, impose duties upon someone who is not an employer, self-employed or an employee.

HSE and local authority health and safety officers have no power to investigate incidents or pursue enforcement action in relation to most purely voluntary activities (subject to limited exceptions such as where a volunteer is in control of non-domestic premises).

When health and safely law applies

The HSW Act and the regulations made under it apply if any organisation, including a voluntary organisation, has at least one employee. The Act refers to employers and the self-employed as 'dutyholders'.

The HSW Act sets out the general duties that employers have towards employees. It also requires employers and the self-employed to protect people other than those at work (eg members of the public, volunteers, clients and customers) from risks to their health and safety arising out of, or in connection with, their work activities.

Risk assessments for low-risk activities

An employer's legal duty to do a risk assessment is one that often causes concern. This isn't about creating huge amounts of paperwork but rather it's about identifying sensible and proportionate measures to control the risks. The Health and safety made simple site provides advice on how to do a risk assessment. Some voluntary organisations may also find our risk assessment tool for low-risk, office-based environments helpful.

Risk assessments of higher-hazard activities

Dutyholders organising higher-hazard or more risky activities should use the risk assessment process to ensure their employees and volunteers are appropriately protected.  

These organisations will normally know what to do, based on their experience and knowledge. They will appreciate the need for volunteers to have appropriate levels of information, training and protective equipment so activities can be carried out safely and without harming health.

The preventive and protective measures should reflect the actual risks that employees and volunteers face in their respective roles. So a volunteer might reasonably expect similar protection to a paid colleague who does the same type of activity.

The HSE homepage has information on a range of topics to help you decide what you need to do about many common types of risks.

Updated: 2019-10-08