A guide to health and safety for small businesses

Updated for 2018

Are you up to speed with the health and safety rules for small businesses? If not, our simple guide might help - complying with the law needn’t be time-consuming or complicated.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) is the main piece of legislation covering health and safety at work in Great Britain. If you run a small, low-risk business, it’s usually quite straightforward to abide by the UK’s health and safety laws.

In this article, we’ve taken it back to basics to help you make sure you’ve got it covered.

What are the health and safety obligations of a small business owner?

Generally speaking, health and safety laws apply to all businesses. Whether you’re an employer or self-employed, you’re responsible for the health and safety of employees or members of the public in your workplace.

That said, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) understands that running a one-person IT operation is vastly different to owning a construction business with hundreds of staff. That’s why their rules only require you to take an approach that’s proportionate to the size and type of business you run.

For businesses with fewer than five employees, for example, the HSE doesn’t even require you to write down your risk assessment or health and safety policy.

All that’s required of many businesses is to make sure people are protected from harm caused by their business’s work activities. By doing that, you’ll also be safeguarding the reputation and success of your business.

What counts as a risk?

A hazard, or anything that may cause harm, is a risk. You should work out whether anyone could be harmed by each hazard, and how serious the harm could potentially be.

The HSE’s health and safety toolbox provides links to content relevant to specific types of work, such as:

  • Electrical safety
  • Fire safety
  • Manual handling
  • Slips and trips
  • Working at height

How do I control the risks in my workplace?

Controlling risks is an essential part of managing health and safety in your workplace.

First, take a thorough look around your business and identify things that may cause harm to people. If you have employees, ask for their opinions, as they may see risks you’re not aware of.

You then need to take reasonable steps to stop those risks causing actual harm. Consider who could be harmed if there was an accident, and think about what steps you’re already taking.

All that’s really being asked of you here is to work out common sense ways to make sure accidents don’t happen.

Everyday risks are assumed, so you only need to write down any significant findings - unless you have fewer than five employees, in which case there’s no paperwork necessary.

You’re not expected to bend over backwards to remove every single risk in your workplace, but rather to take reasonably achievable steps to control those risks.

Don’t different types of business pose different risks?

If your business is an office or a shop, the HSE has provided online tools to help you complete your risk assessment.

Businesses with higher risk factors, such as construction or forestry, can consult the HSE’s A-Z of guidance by industry for advice on responsibilities specific to their line of work.

Do I need to do a risk assessment if I’m self-employed and work on my own?

As of October 2015, if you’re self-employed and your work doesn’t pose a risk to the health and safety of other workers or members of the public, health and safety law doesn’t apply to you.

However, the HSE makes it clear that you need to judge for yourself whether your work poses a risk or not.

They give the example of a fairground ride operator whose business is to let members of the public use the ride. This business owner needs to take steps to protect customers from harm.

Do I need a health and safety policy?

A health and safety policy describes how you’ll manage and prevent risks. It explains to your staff and the wider world how you’ll comply with health and safety law. You only need to write it down if you have five or more employees.

You can use the HSE templates to help you create a hassle-free health and safety policy.

Is there anything else I need to do?

If you have employees, don’t forget to consult them on your health and safety policy. It’s important to provide the right training and information to help them comply with your policy.

You’ll also need to provide the necessary workplace facilities, such as toilets and sinks with soap and towels or a hand-dryer, somewhere to rest and eat meals, and an appointed person to take care of first aid.

You can read the full list of requirements on the health & safety made simple section of the HSE website.

How does health and safety affect my business insurance?

If your business has staff, it’s likely that employers’ liability insurance is a legal must-have. Public liability insurance is also a key cover to consider.

Insurers tend to take a common sense approach to health and safety, expecting their policyholders to take the necessary steps to meet their responsibilities.

Complying with health and safety law doesn’t have to take up too much time, money, and resources. Applying common sense will always be a step in the right direction, and the HSE web resources are there to guide you the rest of the way.

If you need some further guidance, trade unions, employers’ organisations, and trade associations are good places to start.

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