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For your own good

Dr John Anderson

After “fire!” and “poetry”, few words have quite the power to clear a public space quickly as “health & safety”. But we ignore it all at our peril, says John Anderson

Geoscientist 20.11 November 2010

In a career spanning 40 years I have learned that there is nothing quite like health and safety (H&S) at work to cause my colleagues’ eyes to cross with boredom. But no-one actually wants to be injured, any more than they can, in reality, escape their duty to observe H&S legislation. Nor should they try. Legal health and safety duties apply to all persons at work, whether employed or self-employed. And the term “persons at work” means not only all individuals, but also all corporate bodies and partnerships.

Dangers lurk all around us, even in ordinary situations like crossing the road; but the world of work brings with it a range of hazards and risks that may not be seen or heard or easily detected - but which can all too easily result in severe accidents and long-term disability. Chemicals, dusts, fumes, fibres, noise, vibration, confined spaces (not to mention physical hazards like trips, falling objects, collapsing structures and excavations etc.) - the list is almost endless. But where can one start to get any sort of ‘handle’ on ensuring your own health and safety?

The fount of all knowledge and understanding on H&S issues must surely lie in the original law and regulations in which they are enshrined. Their purpose is to alert those who have a duty of care to what it is they should do. It tells them precisely how to go about implementing methods of prevention and risk control. So what are they?

The first and foremost law in the H&S canon is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which lays duties upon employers, employees, self-employed persons and on senior managers and directors. The next most important is the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which carries within it the dread words “risk assessment”. Nevertheless, it contains lots of other material as well.

Following on, we come to the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, which actually define ‘construction work’ (very wide); ‘contractors’; ‘competence’ (and we are talking technical and health & safety competence) and ‘design’. What you think these terms mean is of no account – what really matters is what the law itself says. The definition of ‘construction work’ includes, for example, site clearance, site exploration, and site investigation and excavation. The definition of ‘design’ includes drawings, calculations, design details, specifications and bills of quantities. Do you use ‘work equipment’ ? Then you will also have to add to this litany of relevant legislation the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998.

There is no way anyone can or should seek to avoid (and certainly not to evade!) any of this important law. “Doing things right from the beginning” is the appropriate reaction. What is more, doing so will bring the added benefit that it might serve to keep you clear of another important and relevant piece of legislation.

The Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007.

  • Dr John Anderson CEng, FICE, FGS is an independent consulting civil engineer and expert witness in occupational health and safety in construction. See