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Employees in the United Kingdom are legally entitled to work in a safe and secure environment, so it’s important that employers understand what is considered to be an unsafe workplace.
Employers are obligated by UK law to meet strict health and safety requirements, and employees should never feel that they are in danger while performing their duties in the workplace.
In this article, Wilson Browne’s employment law team explains when a workplace can be considered unsafe while detailing the responsibilities an employer has to their workers.
When Is a Workplace Considered Unsafe?
Employees should never be forced to endure unsafe working environments. Under UK law, their employer is obligated to ensure that working conditions meet standards set by the Health and Safety Executive.
If an employee believes that working conditions are dangerous and the employer has done nothing to improve conditions, they could even take their employer to a tribunal. However, different businesses have different working conditions and varied working environments, and there’s no single health and safety law that satisfactorily covers every potential hazard or danger.
For example, an office is a very different working environment to an offshore oil rig, so every employer must do ‘whatever is reasonably practicable’ in order to promote a safe working environment.
Health and safety law can be interpreted differently. For this reason, it’s important that employers seek professional legal advice if they are in any doubt as to whether or not they are providing their workers with a safe workplace.
There are however a broad range of scenarios that could cause a workplace to be deemed unsafe. These include:
- No risk assessment has been carried out
- Hazards and dangers exist in the workplace
- Equipment or machinery is faulty, damaged, or out of date
- No personal protective equipment (PPE) has been provided or PPE is deemed inadequate
- A lack of training has been provided by the employer
- The business is operating without the correct licenses
The list of potential scenarios that can create an unsafe workplace is extensive. Commonly, it’s industries such as construction or manufacturing where health and safety is considered to be most vital. Construction workers for example can be put in danger by faulty or unsafe equipment or by a lack of protective gear such as helmets or high visibility jackets.
But health and safety has to be considered in every workplace. An office could be deemed unsafe if there were faulty electrics or dangerous wiring, or if there are no fire escapes from the building.
Unsafe working conditions can be created by short or long-term problems. A damaged stairwell is just as important to consider in the short term, as exposure to harmful toxins or large quantities of dust in the long term.
Risk Assessments in the Workplace
Employers should note that it’s not just their moral responsibility to ensure that working conditions for their employees are safe, it’s a legal responsibility too. Any business that operates with five or more employees has to undertake a risk assessment to ensure that they have identified any potential dangers in the workplace. Even if you don’t yet have five employees, it’s recommended that you carry out a risk assessment.
A risk assessment is not just a legal requirement; it’s a practical exercise that helps an employer create a safer working environment. Risk assessments again vary from one business to the next. The risk assessment for a hazardous waste disposal company is going to be much more complicated than the risk assessment for a call centre.
There are several important points that all risk assessments have to cover, though. As a minimum, a company has to carry out the following measures:
- Identify any hazards that have the potential to cause injury or illness in the workplace
- Assess how serious these hazards are and how likely they are to cause harm
- Identify measures to either remove the hazard entirely or minimise the risk of injury or illness occurring
- Review the risk assessment regularly in order to maintain a health and safety compliant workplace
What Happens If an Employee Believes the Workplace Is Unsafe?
It’s important to remember that working conditions are always changing, so consequently risk assessments and health and safety policies need to be reviewed frequently. For this reason, employers need to regularly consult with their staff in order to identify any areas that need improvement or the employees already consider to be unsafe.
If an employee is concerned about safety in the workplace, they should always report the issue to management, or to a health and safety representative or committee member if there is one.
Dismissing an employee or treating them unfavourably because they raise a health and safety issue can be a serious case of unfair dismissal. Depending on the circumstances, the dismissal may be classed as “automatically unfair”, in which case the employee has a right to claim unfair dismissal even if they have fewer than two years’ continuous service.
An employer must reasonably address the health and safety complaint being presented.
They must consider if the employee’s belief that working conditions are unsafe is reasonable and, if it is, the employer should take steps to rectify the problem. If the health and safety problem persists or if the employer chooses to do nothing to fix the problem, the employer risks breaching their implied duties of care and of trust and confidence, which could entitle employees to resign and claim that they were constructively dismissed.
If an employee leaves, proposes to leave, or refuses to return to a workplace because of a danger which they felt was serious, imminent, and unavoidable, it may be unlawful for an employer to dismiss that employee or treat them unfavourably (such as by imposing another disciplinary sanction or stopping their pay).
If an employee is dismissed in those circumstances, the dismissal might be “automatically unfair” as above. If they continue to work or are forced to continue working and are later injured, an employer will have a serious legal case on their hands.
Contact Wilson Browne Today for Expert Employment Law Advice
Wilson Browne’s employment law team is ready to help your company navigate the ever-changing world of employment law. With years of experience, as well as expert legal knowledge, our solicitors are here to help you understand your obligations as an employer.