All employers have a basic responsibility to make sure that their employees are safe while they are at work. This is known as a ‘duty of care’ and is something that the courts in the UK take very seriously if employers breach it. There are lots of different elements to the duty of care, but some of the principal areas of concern include making sure that staff have been properly trained (and training is updated on an ongoing basis), providing the right equipment for the role, and creating a safe working environment. If these are not met, and an accident or incident occurs at work, an employee may be able to make a claim against an employer.
A varying duty
The nature and extent of a duty of care will depend a lot on the job in question and the industry involved. For example, if an employee is operating heavy machinery or working with toxic substances their employer will need to pay far more attention to safety procedures and preparation than where employees are working at a computer all day. However, even in an office environment employers are still required to take all steps that are reasonably possible to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees.
Examples of an employer duty of care
The list of what constitutes an employer duty of care is long and broad but these are some examples of how the duty works.
A safe working environment. There is no set formula for what constitutes a safe working environment but many factors have a role to play here. In particular, lighting is crucial to avoiding accidents and injuries such as eye strain. Employees who suffer an injury because of a trip or fall in an area that wasn’t adequately lit may well have a cause for action against an employer who didn’t make sure that the working environment was safe. Safe equipment that is suitable for the job is another important element in a safe working environment.
A clearly defined job. Employees should understand what employers require from them in order to successfully fulfill their role, as this helps to avoid confusion and accidents. It’s important that employees aren’t asked to do something that is outside of a job description. For example, the 1992 Manual Handling Operations Regulations require employers to automate to avoid hazardous manual handling operations wherever possible. Where this isn’t possible, employers must try to do what they can to avoid injury to employees as a result of manual handling – if this is not done, and an employee suffers an injury, there may be a breach of the duty of care.
Avoiding relaxing health and safety laws ‘one time.’ It’s not acceptable for employers to ask employees to go outside their job description, or health and safety law, to do something ‘just this once.’ For example, an employer who asks an HR professional to carry a heavy box down the stairs could well in breach of their duty of care.
Other employees. If an employee is injured at work by another employee who was negligent then the law can hold the employer responsible as part of the duty of care. This is called ‘vicarious liability’ – the employer is made responsible via the offending employee – and all employers must have insurance to cover compensation to an injured worker where this arises.
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