Did you know that, as a director of your business, you are personally liable for breaches of the health and safety legislation?

This means you cannot avail of limited liability and potentially a successful prosecution could cost you your business, or even your home. Also, there have been several cases where self-employed individuals who employed others have been successfully prosecuted in court for breaches in health and safety.  

Complying with these obligations is often overlooked by business owners, and the increased risk can lead to serious liability for businesses and their owners.

Health and safety legislation applies to all employers, employees (including contract and temporary) and self-employed people in their workplaces. There are rights and obligations for both you and your employees and substantial fines and penalties can be imposed if the law is breached.

Your responsibilities extend beyond your employees to visitors, customers, suppliers, sales reps and anyone else visiting your premises. They also apply to employees representing your business off site, even when they are partying at an event hosted by a supplier or a customer.

The law and you

In a nutshell, your obligations under the law include providing

  • A safe workplace with safe plant and equipment
  • Instructions and training for employees on health and safety
  • Protective clothing and equipment to employees

You are also required to:

  • Prevent risks from use of any equipment or substance and from exposure to physical agents, noise and vibration
  • Prevent any improper conduct or behaviour likely to put the safety, health and welfare of employees at risk
  • Appoint a competent person as Safety Officer of your business
  • Carry out a risk assessment and produce a safety statement

Safety statement

A risk assessment must be carried out to:

  • Identify any hazards that are present  
  • Assess the risks from those hazards
  • Come up with procedures to deal with those risks

The law also requires you to prepare a safety statement based on the risk assessment. This should contain details of those members of staff who are responsible for health and safety. Employees should have access to the statement and it should be reviewed regularly by you.

Carrying out the risk assessment and creating a safety statement are not as daunting as they might appear. The Health and Safety Authority has created a tool particularly for small and medium sized businesses which is simple to use, even by those with little knowledge of health and safety.  And it’s also free.

The BeSMART tool poses a series of questions about hazards within your business, the controls you may or may not have in place and what extra controls your business needs. It will then produce a report, which includes a risk assessment and safety statement and key actions for your business, based on the information you have submitted.

Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about employers’ responsibilities when it comes to health and safety.  There are common assumptions that it is all about avoiding common workplace accidents, like slips and falls, injuries that might be caused by equipment or how hazardous chemicals are stored. 

The reality is that the legislation is much broader than this, taking in a range of workplace health issues. It covers everything from what should be in first aid kits, to the types of protective clothing certain employees should wear, to use of computer screens and issues like workplace bullying and stress. Find out more about risks faced by particular types of businesses.

Bullying and stress

As an employer, you are obliged to take appropriate steps to ensure that the health of your employees is not endangered in the course of their work.  You have a duty to prevent improper conduct or behaviour, which includes bullying. 

The HSA defines bullying as direct or indirect behaviour that could “reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.”  You need to ensure that you have procedures in place whereby complaints are dealt with immediately.  Ignoring such complaints could leave you exposed to a claim for damages. 

Employers must ensure that the demands placed on employees while at work are reasonable. An employee may be anxious or stressed because of workplace incidents. Remember employers cannot shirk their responsibilities because the source of the stress is from customers or others who don’t work in the business.

Check out more about workplace health issues.

4 Action Points

1

Take health and safety seriously. As a business owner and manager, take the time to understand your responsibilities and where you and your business might be at risk.

2

Assess risks and create a safety statement. Use the free BeSMART tool as your starting point but call on expert help if required.

3

Educate and train your employees. Ensure that there is a full induction process for new recruits. Train and retrain existing employees. Have written policies and procedures. Create a culture of open communications where issues and concerns are shared with you.

4

Get professional help. Engage a professional at an early stage, particularly if there is a complaint. Not to do so may prove to be more expensive in the long run.