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December 2, 2015

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Health, safety and the self-employed

Jerry Hill, Head of Consultancy Support, Safety, Health and Environment, for business consultancy and advisory service NatWest Mentor, looks at some of the issues connected with recent changes to health and safety legislation and its effect on 1.7 million of the country’s self-employed workers.

Back in 2011, a review of health and safety legislation began. Conducted by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, from King’s College in London, its aim was to simplify the law where possible, reduce bureaucracy and cut down on red tape. It was branded as an attempt to “reclaim health and safety for all.”

In response to the review, and following a consultation period, the government amended the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA), so that it no longer applies to 1.7 million of the nation’s 4.6 million self-employed workers. These changes came into effect in October this year and are arguably still to be fully understood.

If you are a self-employed sole trader and you undertake one or more of the “prescribed activities” listed by the government, then you still have a duty under the Health and Safety Laws to protect yourself and others from risk. The “prescribed activities” involve agriculture, asbestos, construction, gas, railway and chemicals.

However, if your profession does not involve these activities, then you have been identified as not being at risk and you are exempt from having to comply with the HASAWA. A whole host of roles have been affected by the new legislation, such as journalists, graphic designers and accountants.

Concerns have been raised that exemption of certain professions could lead to confusion, a decline in standards and increased risk of injury or illness at work. The legislation was opposed by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Unite and the TUC, in addition to further complaints since enforcement by the Union for Professionals.

TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady highlighted the dangers of the new legislation, stating that the “proposals are […] a license to kill [giving] a green light to cowboys and incompetents to cut corners and take risks.”

The Union for Professionals joined the argument by adding that the HASAWA is a “recipe for confusion,” with the simplicity of the list being an insufficient representation of how complex each activity can be.

So how does this affect people who are self-employed?

If you are self-employed and your work activity poses no potential risk to the health and safety of other workers or members of the public, then health and safety law will not apply to you.

However, if you do partake in a “prescribed activity” mentioned, then health and safety law will still apply to you. Section 3(2) of the HASAWA imposes a duty on every self-employed person to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, he and other persons (excluding employees) who may be affected by work-related activities are not exposed to the risks of health and safety.

In addition, the Secretary of State has the ability to add self-employed activities to the prescribed list in the future, if one of four criteria are met:

  1. There are high numbers of self-employed in a particular industry and high rates of injuries and/or fatalities;
  2. There is a significant risk to members of the public;
  3. There is the potential for mass fatalities; or
  4. There is a European obligation to retain the general duty on self-employed persons.

The Löfstedt review of health and safety legislation was part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge – an attempt to cut down on “unnecessary” legislation for the benefit of businesses and the general public. David Cameron claims that the scrapping and amendment of over 3,000 regulations will save businesses approximately £6 million every single day.

But when it comes to cutting down legislation in health and safety, is it really a good thing? Are we sending the wrong message and diluting the importance of health and safety by telling the self-employed that they don’t need to worry about the HASAWA?

After all, the risk of accidents still exists, and failure to consider potential hazards could be fatal.

Jerry Hill is the Head of Consultancy Support, Safety, Health and Environment for NatWest Mentor.

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8 years ago

So. How do s/e decide if there IS a ‘potential risk’ to another person? If there is a TINY risk – is that enough to make the rules apply? After all ‘[potential’ is not ‘significant’ – how can anyone say there will never be a ‘potential’? If there IS a risk does that mean ALL the H&S legislation then applies, or just the bit that’s (perceived to be) relevant to the (tiny) risk? What if the risk is infrequent or conditional (once a year / if it snows etc) – does that mean H&S legislation applies just for that period… Read more »