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The legal duty of care that small businesses have to staff and customers


Recently, several businesses have been prosecuted and fined for health and safety failures. In one, a car parts manufacturing company was fined £1.6 million and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £75,259 after two separate serious health and safety incidents which caused serious illness and burns to employees. 

This raises the question, what key points should a business owner consider around workplace health and safety?

The answer is probably more straightforward than you think. The starting point for British health and safety law is the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It sets out the general health and safety duties which employers have towards their staff and others who could be affected by their business; in essence, this comes down to good management and common sense. 

You must be able to show that you have taken reasonable steps to prevent accidents or harm from happening in your business. Be aware that a company director, company secretary or manager can be held criminally responsible for health and safety offences. 

For day-to-day activities we look to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to provide more explicit guidance on the practicalities of managing health and safety. The most important element is that employers must carry out a risk assessment, and if you have more than five employees, you need to record its significant findings. 

The following are all points to consider when you are doing a risk assessment:
 Walk around your workplace and identify what could go wrong in connection with your work activities or the working environment

 Check documentation provided with equipment or substances. Do they provide technical health and safety advice, and is this being followed? 

 Take reasonable steps to ensure you are aware of legal requirements, approved codes of practice, and industry standards, and ensure that these are being followed

 Consider whether the hazards may affect individuals, workers or employees

 Think about long-term health issues which could be caused by, for example, excessive noise or vibrations

 Involve your employees and health and safety representatives (where relevant) in the process and ask if they know of any hazards. Consider appointing someone to be responsible for health and safety and implement the measures needed to comply with health and safety laws

 Always try to remove the hazard if you can and, if you cannot, look at ways to minimise the level of risk 

 Use examples of good working practices from your industry

 Regularly review and assess the adequacy of the procedures that you have implemented.

The Health and Safety Commission and its operating arm, the Executive (HSE), regularly produce guidance and codes of practice which give advice to employers, especially around identifying and controlling or mitigating risks in the workplace. 

In addition, regulations approved by Parliament are often issued to set out specific action that must be taken in high-risk situations. Examples include the Manual Handling Regulations, which apply whenever things are moved by hand or bodily force, or the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, which sets out your duties for fire safety in the workplace. The guidance, codes and regulations can be found on the Health and Safety Executive website.  

Additional requirements

If you employ staff, you must display the required health and safety law poster in your workplace or provide each worker with equivalent leaflet, and you will need employers’ liability insurance. 

Make arrangements for first-aid, accidents and ill-health situations in the workplace. This includes having a suitably stocked first-aid box, appointing someone to take charge where there is a first-aid emergency, deciding whether you need trained first-aiders, and giving information and training to your staff.  

You will need to create a health and safety policy for your business, which must be documented if you have five or more employees. The FSB Legal Advice Line can provide risk assessment and health and safety policy templates for your business; alternatively, you’ll find these documents on the FSB Legal Hub.