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Small Business Health & Safety: When Are You Liable?

That’s a bit of a scary sounding title but it is a very good question – as a small business owner, what are you responsible for when it comes to health and safety and what could you have to answer for if an accident does happen? Let’s get straight to the point; if you have employees, it is your duty to take necessary and appropriate steps to protect them from harm. Just because there are only three of you in the company, doesn’t mean you have less responsibility. You’re legally bound to provide these protections or you open yourself, and your business, up to legal action.

If you’re new to having employees or are only just getting started with your business then it’s time to get on top of health and safety. Legislation is always in the process of being updated and added to so we’ll start with the basics. Let’s take a look at the ways you should be operating to avoid health and safety problems and what responsibilities you have in certain situations.

Insurance

First of all, we have to address the fact that you legally have to have workers’ compensation insurance. The reasons are twofold; injured workers can claim compensation for costs incurred by a work accident and it means you’re protected from the cost of that claim. And as that insurance is a legal requirement, not having the coverage required could end up hurting your business even if a claim doesn’t.

If all of this is news to you, then get reading up on business insurance because the consequences can be serious.

Training

As mentioned at the start of the article, you need to provide reasonable protection for your workers during the course of their work, and training is a big part of that. It might feel silly to train someone how to pick something up or how to sit at a desk, but by doing so and have them acknowledge their training by signing something, might just protect your business from harm.

It’s also worth noting, that should an accident occur because an employee has not followed health and safety training, you should also be covered. Just ensure training is up to date, comprehensive and appropriate for their role. If your training fails to meet any of those standards then liability rests with you.

Equipment

Working hand-in-hand with training, safety equipment, or PPE, must also meet certain standards. It must be appropriate for the task; employees must be shown how to use it properly, know when to use it, and it must not be defective. That’s a lot of bases to cover if you’re in an industry such as construction, but easier if you work in an office. Again, if you fail in these criteria you might be open to liability.

Now we’ve covered off the basics of avoiding any work accidents and covering yourself from liability with good-old preparation, let’s look at a few common confusions about liability in certain situations.

Onsite

An onsite work accident will probably fill you with dread that somehow you’re failed in your health and safety duties, but it might not always be the case. For example, if you’ve had to hire someone to fix a piece of equipment on your premises and you provided all the necessary safety precautions, like warning signs and roping off the area, but the contractor leaves trip hazards that lead to an injury, then it is very unlikely you will be held responsible for that; the outside contractor would be instead. The reason is, you provided the correct protections but the contractor did not follow them (or their own, most likely) and the injury was caused because of their actions.

However, a slight amendment to that would be that you did all of the above but did not give the contractor proper instructions not to leave items in a specific place or did not leave adequate room for repairs to be done, leading them to work outside the cordoned off area.

As you can see, liability can be very complex but the long and short of it is that if you do everything required to keep people safe, you are fulfilling your duty.

Offsite

Whereas with onsite accidents you may assume you’re always responsible, with an offsite accident you might always assume you’re not. You’d be correct if your employee was hurt because the place they were visiting didn’t provide clear safety instructions and protection, but wrong if they were hurt because equipment provided by you malfunctioned.

Of particular concern is liability related to car accidents, as they’re quite a common occurrence. If you provide the vehicle and the accident occurs because of lack of maintenance, then you’re taking the blame. But if the vehicle is theirs and is poorly maintained, it may be on them. However, you have to take precautions to ensure they are a safe driver, such as checking their licence and asking for vehicle MOTs.

There is also something called vicarious liability which means you can be held accountable for the actions of someone operating on your behalf, in this case driving. For example, if you send someone on a job and they have the accident, you could be accountable due to vicarious liability, but if they decide to take a detour to deliver a personal letter on the way and then crash, you’re in the clear.

Remote

If you’re unfamiliar with remote workers, they’re usually office workers of some sort who work from a location other than your primary business location. This can be a few days or hours away from the office, or it’s agreed they are constantly a remote worker – the idea is that it’s flexible and can be a lot cheaper for small businesses.

Healthy and safety for remote workers is governed by similar rules as those offsite – you’re responsible for equipment you provide and you should ensure their workspace is suitable for what you’ve hired them to do, even if it’s within their own home. For example, if you provide them with a computer, you’ll have to ensure it’s set up to prevent common computer-user issues, like RSI, and that it’s PAT tested. It’s best to treat them as you would any other worker, asking them to have training on anything that directly affects them and ensuring all training is up to date.

Author Bio

Abigail Crosbie works for Your legal Friend, part of the 2020 Legal group, as Marketing Executive and Content Writer. She has a First Class degree from Lancaster University and now specialises in providing content of topics for a variety of legal websites and online sources.

Article advice given is relevant at time of publication, but legislation and laws can change and is varies between countries. 

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