Employment Knowhow: Health and safety

Employers have common law and statutory duties relating to the health and safety of their employees, volunteers, contractors and visitors. In particular, the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (“HSA”) provides that an employer must maintain a safe working environment, and provide information and training to employees on reducing the risks posed by any hazards. An organisation must conduct a risk assessment, identifying potential hazards and the risk of harm, and decide on reasonable steps to prevent any harm. If an organisation has five or more employees it must record any significant findings from the risk assessment and have a written statement setting out its general health and safety policy and how this is being implemented.  The substance of an organisation’s health and safety policy and training will vary depending on the nature of the industry in which it operates, the work being carried out, the physical environment and the outcome of its risk assessment.  

Stress at work

Employers are often clear on their obligations to take reasonable steps to reduce the hazards caused by the physical environment in which they operate; such as exposure to dangerous substances, manual handling and working at height. Employers are under the same duty, however, in respect of their employees’ mental wellbeing; in particular protecting them from excessive stress in the work place. In 2016/17, work-related stress was thought to contribute to around 40% of all work related illnesses.  However, the true percentage may be much higher than this as many other reported illnesses have a strong correlation to stress, such as IBS. Failing to protect employees from work-related stress is a common cause of workplace grievances.

Working abroad in high risk environments

Aid agencies and other international organisations need to pay particular attention to their duty of care towards employees, contractors and volunteers operating in high-risk countries. Employers need to continually review and improve security measures and risk assessments in response to changing conditions in the field. Organisations also need to watch out for signs of psychological harm in their aid workers and offer appropriate support before, during and after deployment, especially after any traumatic incident.


Employers owe specific duties to new or expectant mothers in the workplace. These include the following requirements:

  • To regularly review the workplace risk assessment
  • To alter their working conditions or hours of work to avoid any significant risks identified
  • Where this is not reasonably possible, to offer suitable alternative work on terms that are not substantially less favourable or if none is available to suspend them on medical grounds on full pay.

Health and safety law is normally enforced by the HSE and local authorities. Failure to comply with an employer’s duties, however, may give rise to claims for personal injuries, unfair constructive dismissal and pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

This page was updated on the 1st August 2018.

This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of July 26, 2018.