The law says that employers are responsible for the safety of their workers while they are at work. Workers have an obligation to look after themselves as well, but employers must comply with a number of specific, legal requirements.

This guide explains the basic rights to which workers are entitled within the workplace.


Health and safety in the workplace

The law relating to health and safety in the workplace underwent a significant change in October 2013.

The first case to establish that an employer held a duty of care to their workers was decided in 1837. If an employer breached that duty of care and a worker was injured, compensation would be awarded. Various statutes (regulations) aimed at improving health and safety in the workplace then followed.

Statutory protection for workers culminated in the late 1980s with the issuing of a number of European directives. By way of response, the UK government introduced a number of regulations in the early 1990s (for example the Workplace Regulations and Work Equipment Regulations), governing health and safety at work.

These laws meant that employees could also rely on breaches of these regulations when bringing compensation claims against employers.

However, due to the changes which came into force in October 2013, employees can now only rely on breaches of the regulations in very limited circumstances, making it more difficult for injured workers to obtain compensation if they are injured through no fault of their own.


Making an accident at work claim


As soon as possible. When a worker is involved in an industrial accident it is best to report it to a supervisor or manager, put details into the work accident book or complete an accident report form and obtain legal advice so that a claim can be submitted as soon as possible.

Failure to report an accident or delaying obtaining legal advice can cause problems proving that the accident happened or gathering the necessary evidence later. Witnesses may also have problems recalling precisely what happened and documents can get lost.

The law states that injured people should start court proceedings within three years of the date of an accident or the date they first suspected or were told by a doctor that their symptoms or disease were work-related.

The courts have discretion to extend the three year time limit, but this should not be relied upon and it is always better to start legal proceedings within the limit.


Workers can only claim compensation from their employer if they can show that it was more likely than not that their employer was to blame for the accident and that the accident caused their injuries.

This is called the “balance of probabilities” test. Workers can prove that their employer was to blame by showing that they were in breach of a common law duty (negligent). For example, the employer failed to provide a safe place of work, a safe system of work and safe equipment and machinery.

Workers also have to prove that their injuries or disease were caused or made materially worse by their work. Medical experts provide guidance on these issues.

Employers may also be liable if an employee is injured as a consequence of the negligence of a fellow worker. This is known as vicarious liability. If the injury occurs away from the employer’s premises (for example a delivery driver is injured whilst delivering packages), the employee may be able to claim against both the employer and the person responsible for those premises.

To be awarded compensation for an accident, workers have to prove that:

  • Their employer owed them a duty of care
  • The employer breached that duty of care
  • The breach of that duty resulted in their injury.

The first stage is straightforward as it is well established in law that employers owe their workers a duty to take reasonable care of their safety.

The court then asks whether the employer exposed the employee to a foreseeable risk of injury and whether they did everything that was reasonable in the circumstances to reduce that risk.

In order to be awarded compensation in a disease case, workers have to prove:

  • That they are suffering from a disease
  • That their employer failed to take adequate steps to prevent or reduce the risk of them suffering from the disease
  • That their employer knew or should have known that the work undertaken or substance exposed to whilst at work was capable of causing injury to their worker
  • That their disease was caused, or was materially contributed to, by their work or substances they were exposed to at work.

There are two main types of compensation (damages) available for work-related injuries and diseases: general and special damages.

General damages reflect the pain and suffering experienced and the fact that the worker may no longer be able, for example, to participate in hobbies or other activities previously enjoyed.

Special damages include financial losses up to the date of settlement or trial and into the future if a full recovery is not made, such as loss of earnings, pension loss the cost of purchasing replacement clothing or other items, the costs of care and domestic help provided by family or friends, travel costs to hospital, medical expenses (including the cost of private treatment) and the cost of hiring and/or repairing a car.

Courts can reduce the amount of damages if they think the person was partly to blame for the accident or disease (contributory negligence). The final amount of compensation received can also be reduced if the person has received certain social security benefits which have to be paid back to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by the employer or person responsible for the accident.

If a worker is injured at work or is suffering from a “prescribed” work-related disease, they may be entitled to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB). They should contact their local DWP office which will send them the relevant forms to complete. They do not have to prove that their employer was to blame to be entitled to IIDB.


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If you or a loved one have had an accident at work, you may be entitled to make a compensation claim. Get in touch via our online enquiry form for free, no-obligation advice and to discuss your case.