Members News Human Resources

Criminal and civil law apply to workplace health and safety

Picture of Graham Hyslop
Graham Hyslop 15, June 2022

Under health and safety law, as an employer, you have a responsibility to protect workers and others from risk to their health and safety writes Graham Hyslop from HR Services Scotland


As an employer, you must protect your workers and others from getting hurt or ill through work.

If you don’t:

  • a regulator such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or local authority may take action against you under criminal law
  • the person affected may make a claim for compensation against you under civil law

Neither HSE nor local authorities have the responsibility for applying civil law or setting the rules for the conduct of civil cases.


Health and safety law (criminal law)

Under health and safety law, as an employer, you have a responsibility to protect workers and others from risk to their health and safety. For straightforward guidance on how to comply with the law, read Health and Safety Made Simple: The basics for your business (

Health and safety law is mostly enforced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the local authority. Responsibility for enforcement depends on the type of workplace.

For your workplace, find out who enforces health and safety law at Enforcement allocation – HSE and LAs Working together – HSE.



Health and safety law for the UK is made up of:

  • Acts of Parliament
  • statutory instruments (regulations)

The main piece of legislation is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA).

Certain work activities have specific regulations, such as those for construction work or working with asbestos. Help from the HSE can be found on Legislation owned and enforced by HSE and Local Authorities.


Complying with the law

No one has to have been harmed for an offence to be committed under HSWA – there only has to be a risk of harm.

The most important thing is what you actually do in the workplace. Paperwork alone does not prove that you’re complying with the law. More resources on Managing risks and risk assessment at work – Overview -HSE.


Not complying with the law

If you do not comply with a regulation relevant to your work activities/environment, you’ll normally be committing a criminal offence and could:

  • get verbal or written advice
  • get an improvement or prohibition notice
  • be prosecuted

If HSE have to help you put things right, you’ll need to pay for their time. This is called a fee for intervention (FFI) HSE: Fee for Intervention – What is FFI?.


Civil law – Compensation claims

If you meet your responsibilities under health and safety law you will considerably reduce the risk of being found negligent under civil law. Neither the Health and Safety Executive nor local authorities enforce civil law or set the rules for the conduct of civil cases.

Under civil law, if someone has been injured or made ill through your negligence as an employer, they may be able to make a compensation claim against you. You can also be found liable if someone who works for you has been negligent and caused harm to someone else.

If a claim is successful, a court may make a judgment against you, and award money (‘damages’) to compensate for the pain, losses and suffering caused. This is not the same as a conviction under criminal law.


Employers’ insurance

In most cases, employers must have employers’ liability insurance Get insurance for your business – HSE. This will enable you to meet the cost of compensation for your employees’ injuries or illness. It’s a criminal offence if you do not have it.

Your insurer can give you guidance on managing and controlling risks. They may ask you to keep certain types of evidence to show you’ve taken steps to manage the risks your work creates. Do not be tempted to overstate the measures you have or are planning to put in place to manage the risks as this may put you at a disadvantage if you have to defend a claim.


Dealing with a claim

If a claim is made against you, refer it to your employers’ liability insurance provider as soon as possible and allow them to act accordingly.

For further assistance or information relating to Health and Safety, please feel free to contact Graham Hyslop, our Business Development Manager on 0800 652 2610 or via email at



Statutory Employment Increases