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Health and safety

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Every employer must provide a "safe system of work". In the industrial revolution from 1802 the Factories Acts required workplaces to be cleaner, ventilated, with machinery fenced. The Acts restricted child labour and limited the working day. They targeted mines, or textile mills, before the Factories Act 1961 spread to all "factories": where an article is made or changed, or animals are kept and slaughtered. The Employer's Liability (Defective Equipment) Act 1969 made employers automatically liable for equipment with defects supplied by third parties. Because individual employees tend not to litigate, to ensure enforcement, there are inspectors under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, enforced by the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE can delegate enforcement to local authorities. Inspectors have the power to investigate and require changes to workplace systems. HSWA 1974 section 2 also foresees that employees will set up their own workplace committees, elected by the employees and with the power to codetermine health and safety matters with management. Health and safety regulations remain in line with the European-wide harmonised requirements of the Health and Safety Directive.

The most important protection for people's health has been the National Health Service (NHS), founded by the National Health Service Act 1946. The National Health Service Act 2006 entitles everyone to health care in the UK, and is funded through the tax system. If people are injured at work, they may be treated regardless of their means to pay. There is also the right, under the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, to statutory sick pay.  People at work can also sue for compensatory damages whenever they are injured and employers have breached a statutory duty. They can claim for the injury itself, loss of income, and relatives or dependents may recover small sums to reflect distress. Employers are vicariously liable for all agents acting for them in the "course of employment" whenever their actions have a "close connection" to the job, and even if it breaks an employer's rules. An employer only has a defence if an employee, on a "frolic of his own", was not placed by an employer in a position to cause harm. Under the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969, employers must take out insurance for all injury costs. Insurance companies may not sue their employee to recover costs unless there is fraud. Until the mid-20th century there was an "unholy trinity" of defences: common employment, volenti non fit injuria, and contributory negligence. These are gone, but a fourth defence taken advantage of by employers is ex turpi causa non oritur actio, that if the employee was engaged in any illegal activity they may not claim compensation for injuries. In Hewison v Meridian Shipping Services Pte Ltd Hewison concealed his epilepsy so that he could work offshore, and so was technically guilty of illegally attempting to gain a pecuniary advantage by deception under the Theft Act 1968 section 16. After being struck in the head by a defective gangplank he suffered worse fits than before, but the Court of Appeal, by a majority, held his illegal act precluded any compensation.

Tort law remains relevant when there is scientific uncertainty about an injury's cause. In asbestos disease cases, a worker may have been employed at a number of companies where he was exposed to asbestos, but his injury cannot with certainty be traced to any one, and some may be insolvent. In Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd, the House of Lords held that if any employer had materially increased the risk of harm to the worker, they could would be jointly and severally liable and could be sued for the full sum, leaving it up to them to seek contribution from others and thus the risk of other businesses' insolvency. For a brief period, in Barker v Corus the House of Lords then decided that employers would only be liable on a proportionate basis, thus throwing the risk of employers' insolvency back onto workers. Immediately Parliament passed the Compensation Act 2006 section 3 to reverse the decision on its facts. It has also been held in Chandler v Cape plc that even though a subsidiary company is the direct employer of a worker, a parent company will owe a duty of care. Thus shareholders may not be able to hide behind the corporate veil to escape their obligations for the health and safety of the workforce.


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