The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (“HSWA”) celebrates its 35th anniversary on 31 July 2009. This anniversary provides an opportunity to consider to what extent the HSWA has achieved its aims.

The Robens Report

The HSWA was created largely as result of the Robens Report on Safety and Health at Work published in June 1972. One method of assessing the relative success of HSWA is to consider whether the problems identified by the Robens Report have been addressed by HSWA.

The Robens Report itself ran to over 80,000 words but at its heart was the desire to see a reduction in the number of work related fatalities. The report also identified two other principal issues:

• there was too much health and safety law;

• health and safety law was too complicated;

The question is how far has HSWA been able to address these issues?

Reducing fatalities

The number of employees killed at work has fallen from 651 in 1974 to approximately 180 in 2009. This reduction demonstrates that HSWA has brought about a fundamental improvement in work place safety. This improvement holds true even if, as the HSE accept, up to 50% of the reduction can be attributed to the changing nature of employment.

Too much, too complicated

Prior to HSWA there were approximately 30 Acts and over 500 regulations dealing with health and safety in the workplace. The situation was confusing and unfair in that it afforded some employees greater protection than others.

The HSWA was a significant departure from what had come previously in creating overriding and universal responsibilities for both employers and employees. The employer’s duties under section 2 and 3 of HSWA embraced the concept distilled in the Robens Report that “those who create the risk are best placed to manage it”.

The HSWA was successful in reducing and simplifying health and safety law and to some extent especially given the multitude of statutes which it replaced. However, the Robens Report had always envisaged that the new Act should only provide a framework for managing health and safety which was to be supplemented by more specific regulations. However, the Robens committee could never have foreseen the massive influence that European legislation would eventually have. From the first set of European inspired regulations in 1978 through the introduction of the ‘six pack’ in 1992, and continuing today EC requirements have undoubtedly added complexity to UK health and safety law.

The goal setting regulations have also been supplemented by a fairly bewildering array of ACoPs and other quasi-legal guidance. These supplementary provisions have allowed for flexibility but have also made compliance with the law increasingly complex.

In many respects the shift from numerous health and safety regimes to the HSWA with its universal duties has cut down and simplified the law. However, the proliferation of regulations and the move from prescriptive to goal setting legislation has created complexity and confusion. One might conclude that HSWA has been effective in simplifying the basis of health and safety law but that compliance with the law has become increasingly difficult.