Freelance Tech Writer for SHP and IFSEC Insider

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A tech writer specialising in cybersecurity, working with Redscan on this and a number of other GDPR, MDR, and ethical hacking projects.
January 19, 2024

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Key health and safety risks in the retail sector

Ensuring health and safety should be a top priority for any retail business, but start-ups like small food shops or independent delis face additional challenges in this area. New business owners often don’t have robust systems and processes in place, or lack specialised health and safety knowledge.

shopping mallHowever, failing to properly manage these risks can have devastating business consequences – not only from financial or legal perspectives, but also for the safety of both employees and customers. This guide outlines some of the major risks that food businesses and other retail start-ups should be aware of, and why taking a proactive approach can help foster a strong safety culture from day one.

The cost of workplace injury

Workplace injuries generate direct expenses around medical care, legal claims and insurance premium hikes. However, they also spur indirect costs through productivity losses, overtime pay outs, hiring temporary cover, missed sales and management hours swallowed by incident response. Preventable incidents divert retail resources from profit-building activities.

With nearly 2 million UK workers suffering work-related ill-health last year, and the estimated annual costs of workplace injury reaching £20.7 billion, it’s a serious problem for businesses across the country. Significant injuries involving vehicles, falls or dangerous machinery can run costs significantly higher again when factoring in permanent disability, not to mention the impact on teams and productivity for businesses.

Therefore, while safety measures hold an upfront investment, they significantly mitigate issues like lost productivity, legal claims and insurance premiums. A profit-first mindset misses the preventative opportunity to minimise injury expenses decimating returns. Staff and customer safety should always be paramount, not only for general wellbeing but also for your brand’s reputation and company culture.

Food issues

foodFood safety is paramount for any retail business serving prepared foods. New delis and food shops need procedures and controls in place to minimise the risk of contamination and foodborne illness outbreaks, which not only protects your customers, but prevents legal repercussions or even forced business closure.

In addition to contamination risks from handling, facilities must be designed and maintained to food safety standards. This means appropriate flooring, waste disposal processes, lighting and ventilation. Inventory should be monitored for expiry dates, with structured processes for food wasting and efficient stock rotation.

Identifying and being clear on allergens is a vital component of running a safe business. For example, artisan bakery wholesaler, Panificio Italiano, outlines noted allergens on their website, as well as all environmental, health and safety, and food quality certifications. This makes it easy to instil confidence in customers, as well as authorities, on the cleanliness of the business.  

In-store safety hazards

A retail shop environment poses an array of safety risks that business owners need to manage to protect both workers and customers. One of the most common hazards in stores are slip, trip and fall incidents which can occur due to spilled products, weather conditions at entrances, uneven floors or even rushed shoppers. New retail outlets must implement floor cleaning protocols, such as installing entrance mats and warning signs, ensuring aisles remain uncluttered, and encouraging sensible footwear for staff.

Ladders, step stools and footstools are another necessity in stores, whether for changing light bulbs, accessing high shelves or serving customers from display cases. However, these platforms present falling hazards if positioning and usage guidelines aren’t followed or if equipment is unstable.

Retail businesses need to ensure they source appropriate ladders or steps for the environment, educate workers on correct techniques like maintaining three-point contact, and keep items properly maintained.

Fire risks

fire doorFire poses severe threats to retail outlets given extensive flammable goods, old buildings, high occupancy and dangerously faulty electrical systems. One recent example of a UK retail business affected by a fire is the historic Jenners department store in Scotland. The blaze occurred in January 2023, causing extensive damage to the iconic building and forcing its temporary closure.

Food businesses, in particular, are at an especially high risk if food is cooked on-site, so duty holders need to prepare. Review emergency systems, train staff in raising verified alarms, install prevention tools like sprinklers, and educate all teams in safe evacuation.

Create response plans for different alarm scenarios, such as suspected and confirmed fires, isolated alerts or after hours, and assign roles for investigating, communicating with authorities and evacuation management. It’s vital that businesses carry out regular drills with duty holders and staff, so this process is embedded and clear to everyone.

Review fire risk assessments biannually, inspecting exits, expiry dates, damaged doors or signage, and action independent audit advice for upgrades. It’s a good idea to empower staff to flag hazards through safety committees so you can fix issues rapidly. With stringent planning, you can manage the threat and stay on top of legal compliance.

Safe manual handling

Manual handling of inventory and merchandise is a major contributor to injury and lost time in retail, accounting for over one million missed working days annually. Lifting strains and sprains often arise from poor kinetic motions, unstable loads, awkward postures when reaching, and overexertion relative to strength. Rather than accepting this harm as an inevitable side effect of stock movement, retailers can take a more proactive approach to prevention.

Further reading: An act with real impact: the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974

Firstly, assess the manual handling risks posed by standard products sold. Clearly label cartons and pallets that exceed thresholds and display maximum weights across backrooms and loading bays. Make sure to supply suitable carts, lifts and trolleys to eliminate unnecessary carrying – well designed equipment can assimilate the effort.

Additionally, training must cover safe movement patterns, load positioning, communication for team lifts and individual capacity awareness so employees don’t overexert. Make this practical and context-specific – front end cashier assistance tools differ greatly from warehouse trolley advice.


Managing the myriad risks in retail may seem daunting for new start-ups, but being proactive around health and safety is one of the best investments you can make. It protects your hard-earned business as well as employees and customers. While no workplace can be completely risk-free, understanding major hazards, implementing both physical and administrative controls, and fostering an open, learning safety culture gives your business the best chance of remaining incident-free.

Approaches to managing the risks associated Musculoskeletal disorders

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Matt Birtles, Principal Ergonomics Consultant at HSE’s Science and Research Centre, about the different approaches to managing the risks associated with Musculoskeletal disorders.

Matt, an ergonomics and human factors expert, shares his thoughts on why MSDs are important, the various prevalent rates across the UK, what you can do within your own organisation and the Risk Management process surrounding MSD’s.

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