Health and safety is no longer enough in the new world of work

The Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) is an incredibly important piece of legislation and one which gave workers and employers their first basic rights pertaining to the workplace. But the act is over forty years years old and while no one questions that it was a turning point in the way things were, today’s world is virtually unrecognisable to that of 1974. The modern generation of workers are very aware of their rights, what they are entitled to demand, from working hours to pay to the temperature of the office and this means lawsuits if employers can’t keep up and comply. This is imperative for businesses that must go further than the official guidelines demand if they are to attract and retain the best talent and allow them to thrive. They must be offered freedom as well as safety.

The HSWA’s primary purpose is to protect people; to help employers to protect their workers and in doing so protect themselves from any repercussions when accidents inevitably occur. But protecting people and reducing the risk of harm is now only half the story. In today’s technology driven, on-demand culture, much more needs to be done. Changes are still essential in overcoming cultural issues about safety. For example, you only have to look at the difficulty some construction sites have in getting workers to wear the correct safety equipment or reports of an electrician remarking that they all ‘expect a belt of electricity every now and then’ as if it goes with the territory. Well, it doesn’t.

This is where it becomes most apparent that not enough is done, construction remains a disproportionately dangerous industry where improvements in health and safety are still needed. The improvements require significant and permanent changes in duty holder attitudes and behaviour. Yet, reducing risk is only a baseline so should become second nature and, once this is accomplished, making staff feel well, happy and productive is where the focus should now shift.

This is happening, however. For example, there is a growing belief that intelligent workplace design, flexible working hours and flexible working locations help to bring businesses in line with culture by using their resources as effectively as possible and restore a work-life balance that once seemed to erode with each new year. The mere existence of these types of ideas show just how big this issue is, it is not a case of providing someone with a desk, phone and computer and telling them to get on with their job, generation y demand more and they will probably legally get it.

The HSWA has been amended over the years in light of new information and related regulations such as the Environmental Protection Act and Control of Asbestos in the Air Regulations but companies are realising that they must voluntarily go further still to create the best environments possible for new and existing staff  in a fast pace, ever-changing culture.  It is no doubt difficult for companies, particularly small ones to comply when culture is constantly changing but the rules stay the same.  Compliance can be made more visible if you are in serviced offices but it is ultimately still your responsibility to ensure you have a health and safety policy in place and it is adhered to (you must still ensure that your employees have the right equipment and do so even if they spend a proportion of their time working from home).

Another easy way to comply is to carry out workstation assessments; these will highlight any potential dangers, downfalls or necessary improvements and will give employees the chance to voice their any grievances or opinions.  With leases getting shorter and shorter and office moves ever more frequent, there is no better time to get it right and once it is right in the office, applying the same principles to other working locations is a doddle.

The government can’t create the perfect document which will prevent all accidents and related injury or legal action, after all nothing lasts forever, we’ve established that, but what is possible is a reinterpretation of the existing HSWA, flesh on its bones. A third of the UK population now works from home for at least part of the time and nearly one in five are self employed. It is mobile technology which allows this to happen and technology is getting smaller, faster, and more mobile to meet with and exceed the demands of the mobile generation it has created.  No wonder it is hard to keep up with this modern generation game and the government need to do more than just keep up appearances. The 129 pages of the HSWA in all its 1970s glory remain relevant, but they are only part of the picture in the 21st Century.