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Employees' health and safety responsibilities

Employers have legal responsibilities to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. As an employee you have rights and you have responsibilities for your own wellbeing and that of your colleagues. This article explains what these responsibilities are, and how you can meet them.

What are your rights?

Your rights as an employee to work in a safe and healthy environment are given to you by law and generally can't be changed or removed by your employer. The most important of these rights are:

  • as far as possible, to have any risks to your health and safety properly controlled
  • to be provided with any personal protective and safety equipment free of charge
  • to stop work and leave your work area, without being disciplined if you have reasonable concerns about your safety
  • to tell your employer about any health and safety concerns you have
  • not to be disciplined if you contact the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI), or your local authority, if your employer won't listen to your concerns
  • to have rest breaks during the working day
  • to have time off from work during the working week
  • to have annual paid holiday.

What are your responsibilities?

Your most important responsibilities as an employee are:

  • to take reasonable care of your own health and safety
  • if possible to avoid wearing jewellery or loose clothing if operating machinery
  • if you have long hair, or wear a headscarf, make sure it's tucked out of the way as it could get caught in machinery
  • to take reasonable care not to put other people - fellow employees and members of the public - at risk by what you do or don't do in the course of your work
  • to co-operate with your employer, making sure you get proper training and you understand and follow the company's health and safety policies
  • not to interfere with or misuse anything that's been provided for your health, safety or welfare
  • to report any injuries, strains or illnesses you suffer as a result of doing your job, your employer may need to change the way you work
  • to tell your employer if something happens that might affect your ability to work, like becoming pregnant or suffering an injury. Because your employer has a legal responsibility for your health and safety, they may need to suspend you while they find a solution to the issue or problem, but you will normally be paid if this happens
  • if you drive or operate machinery, you have a responsibility to tell your employer if you take medication that makes you drowsy. If you have, they should temporarily move you to another job if they have one for you to do.

Personal protective equipment

Your employer must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to you free of charge. You must use this correctly and follow the training and instruction you've been given.

In some jobs, failure to use PPE properly can be grounds for disciplinary action or even dismissal. However, you can refuse to wear PPE if it puts your safety at risk, because it doesn't fit properly for example. Ask your employer or the firm's safety representative for the right size. Sikhs who wear turbans can legally refuse to wear head protection on religious grounds, but Sikhs who don't wear turbans must wear head protection.

What should you do if you have concerns?

If you have concerns about health and safety at work, you should first of all discuss them with your employer or immediate boss. If you have a safety representative, they might be your first point of contact. If you have an employee representative, such as a trade union official, they may be able to help you as well.

Your employer mustn't expose you to avoidable risks at work, and if you've pointed out risks without getting an answer, you can get confidential information and advice from the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive's Freephone helpline.

  • Health and Safety Executive's helpline 0800 0320 121 (Monday to Thursday 9.00 am to 5.00 pm and 9.00 am to 4.30 pm on Fridays)

As a last resort, you can get in touch with HSENI inspectors. Health and safety inspectors have powers to enforce the law and if you take this course of action, your employer mustn't discipline you, or put you at a disadvantage in your job as a result. An example of this could be not paying you for the time you refused to work because of unsafe conditions or passing you over for promotion.

Where can you get help?

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues for residents of Northern Ireland. You can contact the LRA on 028 9032 1442 from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.  

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. You can find your local CAB office in the phone book or online.

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