The penalties for breaches of these obligations are the same as for safety breaches and cannot be ignored - particularly as multi-million pound fines are increasingly being handed down for health and safety offences irrespective of any harm caused.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has put occupational health front and centre of recent campaigns, making its intentions on the subject clear. With targeted inspections now being carried out, businesses must ensure compliance - and, at the very least, that they have in place a proactive, maintained and properly resourced and enforced policy which addresses both safety and health.
Launched on 18 September 2017, the HSE's 'Go Home Healthy' campaign is designed to tackle ill health in the workplace with a particular focus on occupational lung disease, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) and work-related stress (WRS) - all of which were identified by the regulator as priorities as part of its Helping Great Britain work well initiative.
The campaign reminds employers of their duty to protect workers' health, and identifies the main areas for HSE focus. In particular, the HSE will be:
- prioritising interventions, inspection activity and enforcement in sectors and activities where occupational lung disease and/or MSDs pose the highest risks, and evaluating these findings to inform future approaches;
- maximising the effectiveness of investigations and publicity arising from enforcement outcomes;
- conducting pilots in sectors with high reported levels of WRS – initially schools, healthcare and prisons - to promote the Management Standards approach and, where appropriate, consider the development of customised guidance to encourage wider adoption;
- evaluating and reporting on the pilot process at six-monthly intervals to encourage and enable other sectors to take similar ongoing action, independent of direct HSE support.
HSE has also published sector and thematic health plans under the umbrella of the Helping Great Britain work well initiative, covering the same three themes on work-related health and setting out in detail the HSE's focus over the next three to five years. The plans cover 19 industry sectors including energy, construction, logistics and transport, utilities, manufacturing, and waste and recycling.
The priorities and resources committed to each of the 19 sector plans vary. The HSE states that the majority of its elective resources will be focused on agriculture, construction, logistics and transport, manufacturing, public services and waste and recycling, as the sectors where "the health and safety challenges are greatest and where our interventions can have the greatest impact". The HSE also intends to continue its focus on industries that create major hazards, and those subject to statutory permissioning regimes.
Each of the 19 sector plans sets out:
- the sector's health and safety performance;
- its top three strategic priorities for the next three to five years;
- the actions that the HSE proposes to take.
Many of these actions include targeted site inspections. The construction and waste and recycling industries have already been warned that they must pay closer attention to how they manage workplace risk or face serious penalties, as the HSE's targeted inspection initiative got underway in those sectors.
The main focus for many of the most significant industry sectors is on preventing major accidents, reducing work-related ill health, managing the risks of ageing infrastructure and improving leadership, sector cooperation and worker involvement. The HSE's plans for achieving this include:
- a programme of targeted interventions focused on the highest risk activities, including engaging with senior leadership through an expanded programme of interventions;
- collaborating in the development of risk reduction programmes and designs;
- collaborating with other regulators and government departments across regulatory boundaries;
- leading and engaging with others to improve worker competence and involvement;
- ensuring that the regulatory framework supports the safe adopting of new technology.
Embedded within the plans is a commitment to work with businesses and other stakeholders to improve health and safety. The HSE recognised that improving workplace health in particular is not something it can do in isolation, as "[e]ffective impact across the spectrum requires collaboration and joined up approaches involving many stakeholders within and without government".
There is a growing recognition that health issues, and mental health issues in particular, cannot be ignored and that they are as much an issue as physical safety, drawing the same rights and obligations. For businesses, the message is clear: health and safety duties include a duty to safeguard, so far as is reasonably practicable, health and wellbeing alongside physical safety concerns.
Kevin Bridges is a health and safety law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.