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GMB Birmingham & West Midlands Region

Health and Safety

The best way to improve your employment conditions is to get as many of your work colleagues to join GMB. The more GMB members in a workplace, the more power you will have to influence your employers attitude to employee benefits. 

The information provided here refers to your minimum statutory rights. GMB negotiates with employers on behalf of our members to improve on these basic rights. You should therefore check your rights under your contract or written particulars of employment and any collective agreements to find out what your employer offers. 

Unless otherwise stated, the information provided applies to employees. If you are not an employee or are unsure of your employment status contact your shop steward in the first instance.

The law changes frequently so always check with your local GMB Workplace Representative for the very latest and up to date employment issues advice.

1. I Think That There Is Asbestos In My Workplace. What Should I Do?

Asbestos is an extremely hazardous substance. Breathing in air containing asbestos fibres can lead to asbestos related diseases including cancer.

There are three main types of asbestos:

Blue asbestos
Brown asbestos
Chrysotile - White asbestos

For the untrained eye asbestos can be difficult to identify and doesn’t necessarily have a colour. It is most commonly found in buildings built or refurbished before 1985. Examples of materials containing asbestos include insulating boards, boiler lagging and ceiling tiles.

Asbestos fibres are released when the materials containing asbestos are damaged through construction work e.g. drilling into insulating boards or when the material becomes worn or breaks.

In 1999 the UK banned the use and import of white asbestos, brown and blue have been banned for some time. However, there is still a lot of asbestos present in workplaces and other buildings which could present a risk to building and maintenance workers as well as other workers.

From 21st May 2004, Regulation 4 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 requires people in control of work premises (this could be the owner, the occupier and/or a managing agent) to:

  • Determine the location and condition of materials likely to contain asbestos.
  • Presume materials contain asbestos unless there is strong evidence that they do not.
  • Make and keep an up to date record of the location and condition of materials containing asbestos or presumed asbestos in the building.
  • Assess the risk of anyone being exposed to asbestos fibres from these materials.
  • Prepare a plan on how these risks are to be managed.
  • Review and monitor the plan.
  • Provide information on the location and condition of the materials to anyone likely to disturb them e.g. contractors or building maintenance workers.

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 also require employers to prevent asbestos exposure to employees working with asbestos or if this is not possible control exposure to the lowest possible level e.g. through the use of protective equipment.  Employers must carry out an assessment of the likely exposure (who and how much they may be exposed to) before starting any work with asbestos. 

The Asbestos (Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 1998 requires work with certain types of asbestos materials e.g. asbestos insulating board to be licensed.  Anyone carrying out such work must have a licence from the Health and Safety Executive and must comply with the terms of the licence.  

Employers and contractors who fail to comply with these regulations face heavy fines and even prison sentences. 

Workers who think that they are being exposed to asbestos at work should contact their GMB Representative who has access to specialist advice. 

2. What are the Weight Lifting Limits for Males and Females

There are no legally binding weight limits. However Regulation 4(1) of the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 sets safety standards for manual handling.

Your employer must:

  • avoid the need for manual handling as far as is reasonably practicable;
  • where that is not possible, assess the risk of injury to employees; and
  • reduce the risk of injury from manual handling as far as is reasonably practicable.

Avoiding the Need for Manual Handling

Your employer must try to eliminate the need for manual lifting. If this is not possible your employer should consider using mechanical lifting, for example by using a fork lift truck.

Assessing the Risk of Injuries to Employees

Under the 1992 Regulations your employer must carry out a risk assessment.  This must take into account the tasks; the loads involved; the working environment; an individual’s capacity; and whether movement is hindered by personal protective equipment or clothing. 

Reducing the Risk of Injury

Your employer must reduce the risk from lifting as far as is reasonably practicable.  This means reducing the risk until the cost of further precautions - either in time, trouble or money - outweighs the benefits.  Your employer must consider using mechanical aids.  Even small measures such as a sack truck can reduce the risk of injury. 

Your employer should also consider training in lifting technique. 

This should look at:

  • how to recognise potentially harmful manual lifts;
  • training in good handling technique;
  • using mechanical aids;
  • how to use any safety systems in place for preventing injury.

3. What Are The Maximum And Minimum Temperatures For Working?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (Regulation 7) require employers to ensure that the temperature in all workplaces during working hours is ‘reasonable’.

There is no legal definition for a maximum or minimum temperature.  However, the Workplace Regulations Approved Code of Practice states that the minimum temperature should normally be 16 degrees Celsius.  Where work is of a physical nature 13 degrees Celsius is allowed.  There is no recommended maximum temperature. 

Where temperatures are likely to be high, employers should take ‘all reasonable steps’ to achieve a reasonably comfortable temperature, for example by:

  • insulating hot plants or pipes;
  • providing air cooling plant;
  • shading windows;
  • sitting workstations away from places subject to radiant heat;
  • providing, free of charge, a plentiful supply of cool drinks;
  • ensuring that staff take regular breaks;
  • relaxing clothing rules to allow staff to wear cool, loose fitting clothes. This should not include clothes provided for protective reasons.

In chilled temperatures for some food production, employers should consider:

  • enclosing or insulating the product;
  • pre-chilling the product;
  • keeping chilled areas as small as possible;
  • exposing the product to workroom temperatures as briefly as possible.

This should also be coupled with rotating chilled and warmer work; personal protective clothing; and breaks in warm areas. 

Employers should provide thermometers around the workplace to allow Safety Representatives to monitor workplace temperature.

4. Can My Employer Charge Me For Personal Protective Equipment Such As Safety Shoes?

The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 say that where there is a risk of injury or ill health to a worker that cannot be reduced or removed, your employer must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) free of charge. This is also the case if you are employed through an agency or on a temporary contract. 

PPE includes most protective clothing and equipment e.g. hard hats, safety spectacles, and face masks. 

PPE is the least effective form of protection from hazards at work.  It only protects the worker from the risk of injury, rather than removing or controlling the hazard at source.  It should always be used as a last resort.  The 1992 Regulations state that the type of PPE required should be determined by risk assessment.  It is vital to involve and consult the workforce when selecting equipment.  

All PPE should be CE-marked.

CE equipment conforms to the standards required under the 1992 Regulations. Under the Regulations your employer must also:

  • Maintain, clean and replace PPE where necessary
  • Provide storage for PPE when it is not being used
  • Ensure that PPE is properly used
  • Ensure that training, information and instruction on using PPE is given to employees.

Ordinary work clothes, uniforms and work clothing not worn to protect the worker, are not PPE.  So it is lawful for a contract of employment to allow the employer to charge for such clothes, or to insist on the worker providing them at his/her own cost.  It is important to negotiate suitable terms and conditions to prevent this happening (a worker can pay extra for PPE if he or she decides to upgrade the PPE for reasons of personal comfort).

5. What Rest Breaks Am I Entitled To?

The Working Time Regulations 1998 provide statutory rights to a rest break for most workers in Britain. The Regulations entitle you to:

  • a 20 minute rest break for every 6 hours worked (drivers of vehicles over 3.5 tonnes should have a break of 45 minutes after 4.5 hours of driving);
  • 11 consecutive hours of rest per 24 hour period;
  • one day off each week (This day off should be taken with the 11 hours referred to above meaning that you are entitled to at least 35 consecutive hours off work once a week).

Young Workers

There are tighter legal controls on the working hours of young workers aged between 16 and 17. Their working hours are limited to:

  • 40 hours a week
  • eight hours in any one day, and
  • night working is prohibited between 10pm – 6am or 11pm – 7am.

There are some exceptions for young workers employed agriculture, retail trading, postal or newspaper deliveries, a catering business, a hotel, public house, restaurant, bar or similar establishment, or a bakery,  However working between the hours of midnight and 4am is prohibited other than in exceptional circumstances.

Where a young worker (i.e. 16 to 17 year old) is required to work for more than four and a half hours at a stretch, he or she is entitled to a rest break of 30 minutes. If a young worker is working for more than one employer, the time s/he is working for each one should be added together to see if they are entitled to a rest break. A young worker’s entitlement to breaks can be reduced or excluded in exceptional circumstances only. Where this occurs, the young worker should receive compensatory rest within 3 weeks. 

A young worker is entitled to 12 uninterrupted hours in each 24-hour period in which they work. The rest may be interrupted if periods of work are split up over the day or do not last long. 

A young worker’s entitlement to daily rest can be reduced or excluded in exceptional circumstances only. Where this occurs, the young worker should receive compensatory rest within 3 weeks.

Young workers are entitled to two days off each week. This cannot be averaged over a two-week period, and should normally be two consecutive days. 

If the nature of the job makes it unavoidable, a young worker’s weekly time off can be reduced to 36 hours, subject to them receiving compensatory rest 


Drivers of vehicles under 3.5 tonnes and those subject to tachograph rules are entitled to ‘adequate’ rest periods, rather than a prescribed time period.  The rest should be adequate enough to prevent accidents and injuries caused by fatigue or irregular working patterns. 

Some occupations requiring continuity may be exempted from the rest break provision these include:

  • Some security guards/caretakers
  • Some NHS jobs
  • Work at docks or airports
  • Gas, water and electricity production or distribution
  • Refuse collection
  • Industries where work cannot be interrupted on technical grounds
  • Where there is a foreseeable surge of activity including tourism and agriculture

However, workers in these occupations are still entitled to periods of equivalent compensatory rest which should be taken as soon as possible after their breaks have been delayed.    It may be possible to ensure that these exemptions are only invoked when management are caught out by unexpected events e.g. power failures or major incidents. 

You can complain to an employment tribunal if your employer refuses to allow you to have rest breaks.

6. What is a risk assessment and who should carry it out?

Regulation 3 of the Management of health & Safety at Work Regulations (1999) specify the need for employers to carry out a risk assessment to assess the risks to workers, and others, who may be affected by their work or business. 

Carrying out a risk assessment sounds like a complicated and bureaucratic process but it doesn’t have to be. The function of a risk assessment is to establish a safe a system of work possible. This is achieved by the elimination, or more likely, the reduction of any risks associated with the job being done. The first step is to identify the hazards presented by the job. 

Sometimes there is confusion in the terminology used in the risk assessment process:

  • A Hazard is something with the potential to cause harm. This would include electricity, dust, chemicals, working at heights, working alone and dealing with the public (this list is not exhaustive).
  • The Risk is the likelihood that harm will occur during the course of work activities. This is more difficult to evaluate as it is attempting to predict what may happen. In determining the risk there are two types of evidence to consider:
  • Firstly there is empirical or real evidence such as accident records or early retirement statistics due to injury or ill health.
  • Secondly there is anecdotal evidence from reports within your industry but from other workplaces.

There is also the need to consider the extent of the risk. This takes account of the numbers of people who might be affected and the extent of any damage done. This is useful in prioritising which measures need to be dealt with first in order of the seriousness of the potential outcome.

Who should carry out the risk assessment?

Risk assessments are the responsibility of the employer. The employer should appoint one or more “competent persons” to carry out the risk assessments. A competent person, as defined by HSE under regulation 7 of the Management of Health & Safety at Work regulations, does not necessarily have to have qualifications to carry out this responsibility. They should have sufficient training and knowledge, or experience, and other qualities to be able to undertake the task. In addition GMB safety representatives should be involved in the risk assessment in order to contribute their experience and knowledge to the process. However risk assessments are not their responsibility and even with their involvement it remains the employers’ responsibility.

7. What Facilities And Time Off Is A Safety Representative Entitled To?

The Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations 1977 state that Safety Representatives should be given ‘facilities and assistance’ to carry out inspections in the workplace and inspect the premises following an accident.

This includes:

  • Employers must provide Safety Reps with relevant health and safety information [Reg 7(1)];
  • Allowing Safety Reps private discussion with members [Reg 5(3) and 6(2)]
  • Allowing Safety Reps to publicise actions to be taken following inspections (Guidance Note: para 21)
  • Allowing Safety Reps to bring in ‘technical advisors’ (Guidance Note 26)
  • Time off with pay for the investigation of potential hazards and members’ complaints (Reg 4(2)
  • The right to carry out an inspection of the workplace (Reg 5): every three months, after a notifiable accident or dangerous occurrence, after substantial changes to the workplace or work process, after new information is received from the Health and Safety Executive, a supplier or manufacturer
  • The right to consult with members, HSE/Enforcing Authority Inspectors and the employer (Reg 4)
  • The right to attend designated training courses (Approved Code of Practice to Reg 4 (2))
  • The right to attend Safety Committee meetings (ACoP to Reg 4(2))
  • The right to be consulted ‘in good time’ on relevant health and safety matters
  • Details of GMB Safety Reps’ recommended facilities are given on page 9 of the GMB Safety Reps’ Handbook
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (section 2(7)) place a duty on employers to set up a Safety Committee within 3 months of being requested to do so by two trade union appointed Safety Representatives.  Section 9 of the SRSC Regulations also gives this power to Safety Reps

8. What Is The Law On Toilets And Washing Facilities?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, require all employers to provide access to toilet and washing facilities, and (within workplaces) a supply of drinking water. 

Toilets and washrooms must be kept clean, adequately lit and ventilated; provide adequate protection from the weather; ensure privacy for the user; and provide toilet paper, soap, clean hot and cold (or warm) water, and towels or an alternative means of drying.  Toilets and washrooms must be provided at readily accessible places.  The facilities do not have to be within the workplace, but they should if possible be within the building.  Where arrangements are made for the use of facilities provided by someone else, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that they are available when necessary (i.e. not locked when workers need access to them).

The use of public facilities is only acceptable as a last resort, where no other arrangement is possible.

Sufficient facilities should be provided to enable workers to use them without undue delay. The minimum numbers are set out in the tables below - the 2nd table may be used if the facilities are only used by men. More may be required if a great many workers need to use them at the same time, or when facilities provided for workers are also used by members of the public.

Minimum number of toilets and washbasins

Number of people at work Number of Water Closets Number of Wash Stations
1 to 5 1 1
6 to 25 2 2
26 to 50 3 3
51 to 75 4 4
76 to 100 5 5

Minimum Number if Used Only by Men

Number of people at work Number of Water Closets Number of Wash Stations
1 to 15 1 1
16 to 30 2 2
31 to 45 2 2
45 to 60 3 2
61 to 75 3 3
76 to 90 4 3
91 to 100 4 4

If you require any more advice or information on this issue please contact your GMB Regional Health and Safety Officer.

9. Am I Entitled To Have An Eye Test For VDU Work?

The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 require employers to provide, upon request, an appropriate eye and eyesight test to VDU users.

The eye and eyesight test should be conducted by an optician, or a doctor who is suitably qualified.  The test should include a vision screening test and an examination of the eyes. In practice, this means a full eye test as carried out by an ophthalmic optician, although many companies offer the more limited vision screening tests. Vision screening is not a full eye and eyesight test, which employees can insist upon. 

The employer can specify which optician carries out the tests, although many VDU workers simply visit a High Street optician. The cost of the test must be met by the employer.

The DSE regulations require that eye and eyesight tests be provided:

as soon as practicable after existing display screen users have made their request; 

when somebody is newly recruited or is transferred to carry out VDU work and at regular intervals thereafter, depending on the judgment of the optician or doctor (this will vary for individuals, with yearly or two-yearly intervals being the most common); and

when users are experiencing visual difficulties, such as eyestrain or problems with focusing, which may reasonably be considered to be related to the VDU work.

Following the eye test, the optician may prescribe "special corrective appliances" (normally spectacles) to be worn when carrying out VDU work. For instance, some people who already wear spectacles or contact lenses may need a different lens for correcting their vision to work at the screen.

If the optician prescribes glasses specifically for VDU work, the employer must pay the cost of these. However, the 1992 Regulations limit the employer’s liability to the cost of providing a “basic appliance”. The employer is not obliged to pay for designer frames, or for optional treatment to lenses (tints, special coatings etc). If employees want a better looking or “nicer” pair of glasses, most employers will pay a proportion of the costs (e.g. £50) and expect the employee to fund the excess.

If you require any more advice or information on working with VDUs please contact your GMB Regional Health and Safety Officer.

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