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July 31, 2014

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HSWA 40 years on: “it’s just as relevant and effective today”


Today (31 July) marks the 40th anniversary of when the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) received royal assent. To coincide with this landmark legislation coming into force, we asked the SHP editorial board to explain why the act was so important and what difference it has made.


“Commonly referred to as the ‘Umbrella Act’, HSWA is a unique piece of legislation. It has never been repealed and remains a touchstone for all legislation that has been produced since, particularly where more recent legislation fails to cover off contingencies that jeopardise the health and safety of individuals. Outside the UK, where the legislation is silent as to what we would expect as health and safety professionals to be in place, we are asked to refer back to the UK’s act.

“Despite its length, it has not been touched by the waves of deregulation, which have occurred over the last 20 years. Health and safety professionals work to preserve a world of work that is safe, healthy and sustainable and this act sets a benchmark for that expectation — informing employees of their duty to co-operate with employers to take care of their own safety. It is also used by their representatives to ensure that employers meet their legal duties: the act also includes an element of foreseeability, in its provision to ensure that whistleblowing would not lose you your job.”

Nattasha Freeman is associate director, health and safety services at Faithful & Gould


“I have spent most of my career in and around the construction industry. It has been an interesting and challenging career but it can also be dangerous. Sadly, this danger has meant that I have had to participate in the investigation of many incidents, resulting in harm and death. Names have lived in my mind for many years and will continue to do so. 

“I was once asked, ‘Do you think that it is possible for everyone to go home safely every day?’ and, ‘Where will the next accident happen and what can you do to prevent it?’ The latter, certainly, should be integral to the ‘safety conversations’ that we should all have. I was once asked ‘Why?’ by a bereaved family member. I could not answer. Don’t let that be you.

“The act was put in place to save lives. It has done that, but its objectives are never complete. It has changed the workplace, but the workplace itself continues to evolve and change. New challenges always need addressing. New people are put to work. Managing risk has to be something that you ‘live’. The safety conversation is never complete, whether it is management-to-workforce or peer-to-peer. Procedures alone will not make it possible for every person to go home safely. What is required is leadership in safety.”

David Thomas is technical director at The heightec Group Ltd


“The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 is probably one of the most significant and effective pieces of legislation in the UK.

“It fundamentally changed the perception of work and established the principle that everybody has a right to go home at the end of each day just as fit and well as they were at the start.

“It’s an extremely well structured piece of legislation, pulling all of the key duties and requirements into one act, and the ‘goal setting’ nature of the requirements means that it has stood the test of time and remains just as relevant and effective today as it was at its origination in 1974 despite all the changes that have occurred in the social, economic and political environments.”

Louise Ward is head of passenger and public safety at Network Rail


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Mike Kelly
Mike Kelly
52 years ago

A great piece of legislation.

It’s a pity that the Pearson Commission, also in the 70’s, didn’t give rise to a No-Fault system of compensation for personal injury.

This could have improved matters significantly for those injured at work over the last 40 years rather than leaving them to the ‘forensic lottery’ of negligence-even worse now that strict liability is no more.

Malcolm Griffiths
Malcolm Griffiths
52 years ago

I agree with almost every statement in this article. I agree that the Act is simple and there is nothing really that should be changed. I agree that the self-employed should be regulated in the same way. I agree that part of the falloff in accidents is due to the loss of many of the heavy industries – in fact, of industry generally. I agree that it created committees where dialogue could take place. As someone who has been involved in safety since 1974 and, for a while, acted as local secretary in a factory for one of the staff… Read more »