Plain English Guide to British Employment Law
Health and Safety
Employers have legal obligations to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. As an employee, you have rights, and you have responsibilities for your own workplace health and safety and that of your colleagues. Find out what these employment law health and safety responsibilities are, and how you can meet them.
Your health and safety employment law rights
Your employment law health and safety rights are given to you by legislation, and generally can’t be changed or removed by your employer. The most important rights are:
- as far as possible, to have any risks to your health and safety properly controlled
- to be provided, free of charge, with any personal protective and safety equipment
- if you have reasonable concerns about your safety, to stop work and leave your work area, without being disciplined
- to tell your employer about any employment law health and safety concerns you have
- to get in touch with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or your local authority if your employer won’t listen to your concerns, without being disciplined
- to have rest breaks during the working day, to have time off from work during the working week, and to have annual paid holiday
Your employment law health and safety responsibilities
Your most important employment law health and safety responsibilities as an employee are:
- to take reasonable care of your own workplace health and safety
- if possible avoid wearing jewellery or loose clothing if operating machinery
- if you have long hair or wear a headscarf, make sure it’s tucked out of the way (it could get caught in machinery)
- to take reasonable care not to put other people – fellow employees and members of the public – at risk by what you do or don’t do in the course of your work
- to co-operate with your employer, making sure you get proper training and you understand and follow the company’s health and safety employment law policies
- not to interfere with or misuse anything that’s been provided for your health, safety or welfare
- to report any injuries, strains or illnesses you suffer as a result of doing your job (your employer may need to change the way you work)
- to tell your employer if something happens that might affect your ability to work (eg becoming pregnant or suffering an injury) – your employer has a legal responsibility for your health and safety under employment law, they may need to suspend you while they find a solution to the problem, but you will normally be paid if this happens
- if you drive or operate machinery, to tell your employer if you take medication that makes you drowsy – they should temporarily move you to another job if they have one for you to do
Personal protective equipment and employment law for health and safety purposes
Your employer must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to you free of charge. You must use this correctly, and follow the training and instruction you have been given.
In some jobs, failure to use PPE properly can be grounds for disciplinary action or even dismissal. However, you can refuse to wear PPE if it puts your safety at risk (eg PPE of the wrong size could put you at risk because of its poor fit). Ask your employer or the firm’s safety representative for the right size (which must be provided free of charge).
If you are a Sikh who works on construction sites and wear a turban you can legally refuse to wear head protection on religious grounds. This does not apply if you work at sites other than construction sites where, for example the use of safety helmets would still be required.
If you are a Sikh who does not wear a turban you must wear the appropriate head protection.
If you have employment law concerns about health and safety at work
You should first of all discuss your concerns with your employer or immediate boss. Your company may have a safety representative, who might be your first point of contact. If you have an employee representative, such as a trade union official, they may be able to help you.
As a last resort, you can get in touch with the authority responsible for enforcing health and safety employment law in your workplace (either the HSE or your local authority).
Health and safety inspectors have powers to enforce employment law. If you take this course of action, your employer must not discipline you or put you at a disadvantage in your job – for example, not paying you for the time you refused to work because of unsafe conditions, passing you over for promotion, etc.