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Health and safety at work

"I started getting really itchy red patches in between my fingers. My doctor said it was a skin condition called dermatitis and I probably got it from the cleaning products I was using at work." Jasmine, London

When you think about it, most of us spend a large part of our lives at work. So it makes sense that the conditions we work in have a big impact on our health. At one extreme, lax health and safety procedures at work can kill or seriously injure people. At the other, things like uncomfortable seating and computer screens can cause aches and pains, which make life miserable.

You could be at risk from psychological illness as well as physical injury. For example, being over-stretched or bullied at work can lead to stress and depression.
To avoid these things, both you and your employer should take action to make sure your workplace is a safe and comfortable place for you to be.

What should my employer be doing to make sure I am safe at work?

Your employer should do everything they reasonably can to protect you from any harm to your health while you are at work. What is reasonable will depend on the type of job you have.

People who work in places like factories or building sites should be given proper training and safe equipment, protective clothing, and hard hats if appropriate. If you are sitting at a workstation all day, you should be in a chair that is comfortable, and have regular breaks from looking at a computer screen.

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All workers should have access to a first aid kit and there should be an accessible emergency exit in case of a fire. There are lots more rules about work conditions, like the temperature of the office, hygiene standards and access to drinking water and toilets. To find out more about these have a look at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website (see Links to Other Websites to the right).

How do I know what the dangers are and what my employer is doing about them?

Every business must have a health and safety policy. If there are more than 5 employees, the policy must be put in writing, explaining how health and safety will be managed and who is responsible for what. Your employer should identify what the dangers are at your work, how much risk you are at, and what they are doing to minimise the risk.

Your employer should communicate with you about any health and safety issues which arise at work, or if you have a trade union safety representative then they will probably discuss these issues with you instead.

What should I do to make sure I am safe at work?

Follow safety procedures set down by your employer, for example, use any protective clothing you are given. If your work involves using machinery or complicated equipment, you should be given proper training about how to use them. Make sure you have understood health and safety instructions before you work with anything which could be dangerous.

Avoid mucking about or practical jokes which could go wrong, cause an accident and result in you facing disciplinary action or even dismissal!

If you are concerned about your safety or the safety of others at work then raise this with your manager. If you are treated detrimentally for raising your concerns then you can bring a claim to the Employment Tribunal.

I am not an employee, do I still get protection?

Yes, everyone in a workplace has a right to work without exposure to unnecessary health risks.

I had an injury at work - what steps should I take?

Report it to your manager or safety representative. Make sure they record it in the accident book (all work places should have one).

If you feel it is serious enough, go and see your GP and explain how your work caused your injury. Your GP might say that you need treatment and maybe time off work to recover.

If you are losing out on wages or are unable to work for more than a few weeks you might be able to claim benefits, see the Directgov website to find out more about this (see Links to Other Websites to the right). You may also be able to claim compensation from your employer. You should speak to an experienced adviser if you are in this position, see below for who to contact.

What can I do if my working conditions are affecting my health?

If you feel that your health is suffering at work, try speaking to your manager about it, you might be able to solve the problem easily. If you have a safety representative at work you could speak to them too.

If your work is failing to sort out the problem, you should seek advice from someone with experience in this area about taking the matter further. This could be the HSE or an adviser at your local advice centre. You might be able to get compensation from your employer if your work has made you ill, or if you lost your job because of work-related health problems.

Special Protection for Under 18's, Pregnant Women and New Mums:

Employers have to be extra-careful about risks to under 18s. If you are in this age group, you are bound to have less experience of the workplace than older workers and will probably be less aware of risks. Your employer should not expose you to dangers you might not have the experience to cope with.

Pregnant women and new mums also need special treatment and any risk assessments should take this into account. For example, pregnant women should not be lifting heavy boxes or standing up all day. If you cannot do your usual work safely then your employer should find you suitable alternative work or suspend you on your usual pay until you are able to safely resume your work.

December 2011

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