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Health and Safety Act

The Pitfalls

(November 1978)

From Militant, No. 430, 3 November 1978, p. 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On October 1st the long awaited and much heralded regulations governing the role of safety representatives and safety committees took effect.

These regulations are a land mark in the history of the TU movement. For the first time a trade union can now appoint its own watchdog who has the legal right to put the place of work under thorough examination.

Regular inspections can be carried out to root out hazards and dangerous practices. Reps can visit the scene of an accident and examine its causes, and demand from management and the Health and Safety executive a wide range of information necessary for the job. The safety representative is entitled to time off with pay to perform these tasks and attend safety courses.

Step forward

Undoubtedly, these new regulations represent a tremendous step forward for the eight million workers now covered and for all those affected by industrial pollution and hazards, whose health has for so long been in the hands of lawyers and safety officers appointed by management. Industrial accidents – estimated to cause 1,400 deaths and over 300,000 serious injuries each year – and diseases, have become subjects of increasing concern not only to trade unionist and environmentalists but to the population as a whole.

But these regulations are being met with stiff opposition from sections of the TU movement who regard them as a retrograde step. The major bone of contention centres on section 7 of the Act which transfers to the worker responsibilities already established under previous legislation, such as the Factories Act, as solely the responsibility of the employer.


For example, the Act calls upon every employee to take reasonable care not only of the health and safety of himself but of other employees. In fact, it is now a criminal offence to put oneself or others at risk! If the employee fails to comply, improvement notices and even prohibition notices can be served, which carry a maximum penalty of £1,000.

In other words they can be sacked on the grounds that they represent a potential hazard to themselves and to other workers! Management, it is claimed, could use this section to avoid paying compensation, and even dismiss workers. Since the passing of the Act, there have been many reports of employers asking workers to sign written declarations that they are responsible for their own safety. It is quite evident that many employers will try and exploit every loophole to dilute the duties that this legislation imposes on them.

Another contentious issues centres on the definition of the phrase ‘reasonably practicable’ which occurs in every section of the Act. This is defined in terms of the cost of improving health and safety as balanced against the risk of injury or ill health. If the risk is insignificant compared to the cost then it would not be ‘reasonably practicable’ to do anything about it.

The ILEA, London’s largest employer, has just been forced to issue a statement clarifying the meaning of the phrase but even this is ambiguous. In their bulletin Health and Safety at work they note that the phrase ‘reasonably practicable’ occurs a great many times in the Act and many staff are unclear about its implications.

There can be no general definition; the factors involved (e.g. cost, risk) vary widely in different circumstances. Only the courts will have the power to authoritatively interpret this phrase, in dealing with cases referred to them. It is likely that over the years a good deal of case law on this point will build up!

Finally, there is nothing in either the regulations or the Code of Practice that commits the employers to do anything about the reports from the safety reps or committees. Trade unionists will need to be vigilant, and ensure that they have a thorough understanding of the Act and its limitations. We must use the power we have won to the full, while fighting for day-to-day trade union control of the workplace to end the bosses’ rule of ‘profit before safety’.

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Last updated: 10 September 2016