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Discrimination, health & safety FAQ

Common questions about discrimination law and health and safety

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Discrimination law FAQ

What is the law on discrimination at work?

It is illegal to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sex, sexual orientation, race, religion or belief, disability, or trade union membership or non-membership; this applies not only when recruiting or dismissing staff, but also during the course of their contract. So, for example, wages, promotion chances, training, fringe benefits and the allocation of work are all areas where a company must ensure that discrimination does not take place. The key regulations and Acts of Parliament that outlaw such discrimination are:

Sex Discrimination Act 2000

Equal Pay Act 1984

Employment Equality Regulations (Sexual Orientation) 2003

Race Relations Act 1976

Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000

Employment Equality Regulations (Religion or Belief) 2003

Disability Discrimination Act 1995

Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992

The UK government is introducing new laws covering discrimination on grounds of age by 2006.

For further information, see ACAS.

What are the main provisions of the Equal Pay Act 1970?

The Equal Pay Act 1970, as amended by the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983 and the Sex Discrimination Acts 1975 and 1986, rules that women should be treated equally to men (and vice versa) in a similar job, or in a different job which is awarded an equal value in a job evaluation scheme.

According to the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983, a woman or man can also seek equal pay to someone of the opposite sex if their work is of equal value in terms of the demands that it makes. Employers can only justify differences in pay where there is a considerable variation between a woman's contract and a man's contract.

Carrying out a job evaluation assessment is a good way for employers to make sure their payment systems are fair. This is a method of working together with employees to assess the value of each job to ensure that everyone receives fair pay. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has produced a handbook on the use of job evaluation.

Further Information

For further information see the ACAS and Equal Opportunities Commission web sites.

How does the law tackle sex discrimination at work?

Sex discrimination is covered by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, which make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the grounds of sex or marital status.

Discrimination falls into two main categories:

Direct - Where a person receives detrimental treatment on the grounds of their sex

Indirect - Where an employer sets criteria that appear to be open to everyone, but in reality are mainly only achievable by people of one sex, or people of a particular marital status. If an employer states that all applicants must be over six feet tall, for example, an employer could be accused of discrimination against women unless it can be proved that the job demands it

Sexual harassment

This consists of unwanted sexual advances (verbal, physical or gestures) that make a person feel threatened or humiliated. Sexual harassment is usually dealt with by company grievance and disciplinary procedures.

If a victim claims unfair dismissal or sex discrimination, the case will be referred to an employment tribunal and if an employee leaves his/her employment because of sexual harassment, they may be also be able to claim constructive dismissal. In such cases, a conciliation organisation such as ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) or the Equal Opportunities Commission will usually work with both parties to try to bring about a voluntary settlement.

Positive discrimination

Showing preferential treatment to certain groups that are usually discriminated against is illegal unless there is a special reason, such as recruiting a woman to work in a woman's refuge.

However, 'positive action' is legally allowed where certain groups that are under-represented in an organisation are particularly encouraged but no groups are excluded. This might include stating: "We welcome applications from women" on a job advertisement. However, from that point onwards all candidates must be judged on their individual merits.

The UK government has introduced new legislation banning discrimination at work on the grounds of sexual orientation, effective from December 2003 (as part of EC policy on unfair discrimination across Europe). The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 will outlaw direct and indirect discrimination in employment and training on the grounds of sexual orientation and also outlaw harassment and victimisation on those grounds. The Regulations apply to discrimination against lesbians and gays, heterosexuals and bisexuals and cover perceived as well as actual sexual orientation.

Further Information

For further information see the ACAS and Equal Opportunities Commission web sites.

How does the law tackle racial discrimination at work?

Race discrimination is covered by the Race Relations Act 1976, under which direct and indirect discrimination and victimisation on the grounds of a person's colour, race, nationality and citizenship or ethnic or national origins are illegal. Racial discrimination is:

Direct - Where one person is treated less favourably than another on grounds of race

Indirect - Where an employer sets criteria that appear to be open to all, but in reality are mainly only achievable by certain people. Requiring job applicants to have Maths GCSE rather than 'the ability to do basic accounts', for example, excludes anyone who was not educated in the UK even if their skills are adequate

Victimisation - Where there is bullying and harassment. Staff can complain of direct abuse under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 or under the Equal Pay Act 1970

If a person feels they have been a victim of racial discrimination, an employment tribunal may be held. A conciliation organisation such as ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) or Equal Opportunities Commission will work alongside both parties to try to achieve an outcome that both parties find satisfactory.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 extended the scope of the 1976 Act to include the work of public authorities, such as the work of the police, local authorities and tax inspectors. The UK government is proposing (2002) further changes to the Race Relations Acts in line with EC Employment and Race Directives.

Further Information

For further information see the ACAS and Equal Opportunities Commission web sites.

What must a small business do to comply with disability discrimination law?

The provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 cover all employers from 1 October 2004, including those with fewer than 15 employees.

The Act protects the rights of a range of people with sensory, mental or physical disabilities, including people who use wheelchairs, blind and partially sighted people, deaf people, people with arthritis, people with long-term illnesses and people with learning disabilities.

Businesses affected by the law include shops, restaurants, cafes, hairdressers, dry cleaners, opticians, high street solicitors, independent cinemas and garages. The Act covers other services a business might incidentally provide, such as toilets, car parking and information.

A business of any size cannot refuse to serve a person with disabilities or provide a lower standard of service because of a person’s disability. From 1 October 2004 small businesses may also have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’, either to physical barriers preventing people with disabilities using a service, or by providing a service by a reasonable alternative means, like bringing goods to the person or helping them find items.

The law does not specify exactly what ‘adjustments’ a small business should make, and they will depend on individual circumstances. So, for example, a small firm with a limited budget for changes would not be expected to make physical alterations on a scale affordable to a larger company. There is no legal requirement to make changes which are impractical or beyond the means of a business.

Adjustments might include:

Making sure premises are well lit and providing clearer signs

Installing a ramp and a handrail at the entrance to a building where there are steps

Replacing a door handle with one that is easier to reach and to grip

Lowering a reception desk so that it is more accessible for people who use wheelchairs

Using colour contrast to ensure entrances and exits are easier to use

The law allows a business to refuse service in some circumstances but not because of a disability – examples are listed on the government’s disability website. The site also includes a checklist of good practice and contacts for further information.

What is the law about age discrimination, and what guidance is there for businesses about age diversity in the workplace?

As part of the European Directive on Equal Treatment, the UK government is introducing new discrimination legislation effective from 1 October 2006 outlawing age discrimination at work.

There already exists a voluntary Code of Practice on Age Diversity in Employment which sets standards for employers for age diversity and which the law will follow. 'Age Diversity at work - a practical guide for business' sets out guidance in six key areas, namely recruitment, selection, promotion, training and development, redundancy, and retirement. Some indicators that a business is not discriminating against older workers are that all age groups apply for jobs, that age is not an issue in selection, that there is a mixed-age workforce at all levels, that workers of all ages take up training opportunities, and that redundancy procedures are based on business needs rather than age. The document also lists business benefits of employing a mixed-age workforce, which include improved rates for keeping staff, higher staff morale, fewer short-term staff absences, higher productivity, better public image, and a wider range of skills and experience.

Age Positive in the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible for age discrimination and related matters.

How is a business affected by equality and diversity law?

Employment Equality Regulations 2003 cover workers in businesses of all types and sizes in both the private and public sectors (in England, Scotland, and Wales). They cover how a business recruits, sets terms and conditions, pays, promotes, trains, transfers, and dismisses staff. The Regulations apply particularly in two areas, namely sexual orientation and religion or belief.

The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations outlaw direct and indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, heterosexual and bisexual), and cover discrimination on grounds of perceived in addition to actual sexual orientation.

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations outlaw direct and indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment on the grounds of religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief (but do not apply to someone belonging to a political party with strongly held views).

Workers can make complaints to an Employment Tribunal within three months of an alleged act of discrimination taking place. The Department of Trade and Industry has further information on equality and diversity law.

Health and Safety Issues FAQ

Are employees regularly using VDUs entitled to eye tests at their company's expense?

Under the Display Screen Equipment Regulations, a VDU user is entitled to a full eye and eyesight test by an optician or other qualified person at their company's expense. The optician decides how often tests need to be made after the first test. A company may offer its own quick eye test, but this is not a substitute for an employee's right to a full test.

Further Information

See the Health and Safety Executive for further information.

Must a company provide free drinking water for its employees?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.3004) state that employers must provide an adequate and free supply of drinking water at easily accessible places in the workplace, together with cups (unless the water comes from a drinking fountain). The water should be marked as drinking water if there is a chance employees will drink from another water source not suitable for drinking, unless that source is marked as not for drinking.

How do the health and safety regulations apply to businesses using computers?

Under the Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 no.2792), if a business employs staff who spend a lot of time using computers, it has a duty to:

Assess and reduce risks - Risks include aches and pains in the upper limbs, sometimes known as repetitive strain injury (RSI), as well as headaches and stress. To reduce these risks, employees should be made aware of correct posture for computer use and take regular breaks from looking at the screen.

Ensure that workstations meet the minimum requirements - These include the provision of adjustable chairs and non-glaring lighting. They also encompass the general working environment, including issues such as overcrowding in the office. For further information about the minimum requirements for workstations, see the Health & Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland.

Plan breaks or changes of activity - The length and timing of breaks is not specified in the regulations, but they should relate to the intensity of work. Breaks should allow employees to stop using a computer for a while. This might involve performing another task, such as photocopying. The regulations state that frequent, short breaks are better than longer, less frequent ones.

Provide eye tests on request - Employees can ask for regular eye tests, which the employer must pay for. If the test shows that special spectacles are necessary to do the job, then the employer must pay for these.

Provide health and safety information and training - Employees should know how to use their workstations correctly. This includes, for example, the correct height to sit at in relation to the screen.

How much office space should an individual office worker have?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.3004) state that the total volume of an empty room divided by the number of people working there should be at least 11 cubic metres (where the height of the room is not taken as any higher than 3m). Exceptions to this rule are structures that are normally small, such as sales kiosks and rooms used for meetings. This rule is intended to meet the general rule that rooms, in an office complex or otherwise, where people work should be spacious enough for employees' health, safety and welfare. Regulations about workstations and seating also state that workers should have enough space to carry out their normal work.

Is it legal for an office space to have no natural light?

An office or other workplace does not need to be lit by natural light. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.3004) state that every workplace should have suitable and sufficient lighting, although it does add that as far as possible this lighting should be by natural light. Employers must also have emergency lighting in place in areas where the failure of lighting would cause danger to employees. The regulations also suggest that employers have regard for the effects of lighting on worker's eyes so that eye-strain is avoided as well as glare from lighting which is too bright.

Is there official guidance on health and safety workstations and on seating and posture appropriate for office work?

The Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.2792) set out the legal health and safety requirements that employers have to employees using workstations and these relate particularly to the use of screens, keyboards, desks, chairs and computer software.

Screens must be adjustable, for brightness and contrast and so they can be tilted and turned. They must also be free of reflective glare. Keyboards must be tiltable, durable and easy to use. Desks must be large enough to allow equipment used on them a choice of positions. Chairs must be stable and adjustable. The office environment must be suitably spacious for individual workers, properly illuminated, free from glare and noise and with adequate humidity levels. Computer software must be appropriate for individual users and not used to measure a user's work without their knowledge.

The Health and Safety Executive provides specific guidance on seating and posture appropriate for office work at a desk. Important factors to consider are good lower back support, having forearms parallel to the desk, limiting wrist movement and having a space in front of the keyboard to rest hands on.

Is there official guidance on what is a reasonable office working temperature?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.3004) do not specify what temperatures are legally acceptable to work in, simply stating that employers have an obligation to ensure that temperatures in indoor workplaces are reasonable. Employers must also make thermometers available so that temperatures can be measured in the workplace. Employers should provide heating or cooling where appropriate to achieve a reasonable temperature in the workplace. Most guidance on the subject suggests that temperatures between 16 and 25 degrees are the best for indoor work.

What are an employer�s duties under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations?

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.2051), a European Union directive introduced in 1993, employers have a number of duties:

An employer must make an assessment of risks to employees and others and keep a record of this if there are more than 5 employees

An employer must take special account of any risks to new and expectant mothers and to young workers

An employer must have plans to maintain health and safety in the workplace and have procedures in place to deal with emergencies

An employer must appoint and train people to implement health and safety regulations and train and inform all employees in health and safety issues relevant to them

What are the �six-pack� health and safety at work regulations?

The 'six-pack' regulations are six health and safety at work regulations introduced in 1993. They implemented European Union health and safety directives meant to ensure that European Union member states had the same standards to allow for fair competition between businesses working within the Union. In the UK these regulations were already effectively in force under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The six areas covered by the regulations are:

Management of Health and Safety at Work

Manual Handling Operations

Display Screen Equipment

Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare)

Provision and Use of Work Equipment

Personal Protective Equipment

Further Information

See the Health and Safety Executive for further information.

What facilities do I need to provide for my employees?

According to Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines, an employer must provide adequate 'welfare facilities' for all of its employees, unless this is unrealistic in terms of time, trouble, cost or physical difficulty. Welfare facilities include washing, toilet and changing facilities, as well as somewhere for staff to eat and drink during breaks.

There should be sufficient toilet facilities for the number of staff. For example, if you employ between six and 25 people, you should provide two toilets and two washbasins. If possible, there should be separate toilets for men and women. The toilets must be clean, well-lit and well-ventilated. There should be toilet paper and disposal facilities for sanitary products. Soap should be provided, as well as hot and cold running water and a facility for hand drying. If your staff are stationed in a remote area, you may need to provide chemical toilets.

Drinking water must be provided for staff. This ought to be free from contamination and easily accessible. Cups should be provided (unless it is a drinking fountain).

If the duties of any of your employees require them to wear specialist clothing, you must provide a changing room. The changing room should contain, or lead directly to, clothing storage and washing facilities and they should be well-ventilated and of an adequate size for the number of staff using them.

There should be a suitable area for workers to use during breaks. This should contain facilities for washing and a means of heating food and water.

Good hygiene levels must be prevalent. As well as providing the above facilities, you must ensure that they are well-maintained and in a good, clean condition.

What fire safety precautions do employers have to take?

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, every employer has a duty to ensure that their workplace has appropriate fire-fighting equipment and is fitted with detectors and alarms.

Non-automated fire-fighting equipment, such as fire extinguishers, must be easily accessible and clearly labelled. Employers must make sure that, in the event of a fire, there are set procedures to follow, for example, for evacuating the building and contacting the emergency services.

To make this easier, employees should be nominated to implement these measures and be trained accordingly. Standing arrangements should be made with the emergency services and if there are any toxic or unstable chemicals on the premises, they should be made aware of this prior to any call-out.

The premises must have sufficient fire exits for the number of staff employed. These exits must be clearly marked, lead as directly as possible to a safe area and be kept clear at all times. If routes require lighting, then there must be an emergency power supply in the event of the failure of the main system. To ensure that employees are aware of the evacuation procedures, fire drills must be held regularly and all equipment must be well-maintained and checked to see that it is in good working order.

Employers must also formally assess the risk of fire in the workplace, as part of a wider risk assessment. See the Fire Precautions (Workplaces) (Amendment) Regulations 1999 (SI 1999 no.1877) and the Fire Precautions (Workplaces) Regulations 1997 ( SI 1997 no.1840).

A risk assessment should start with identifying fire hazards and the location of people most at risk in case of a fire; fire precautions should then be judged against these risks, with any improvements made if it is thought that existing precautions are not adequate. A record should be made of a risk assessment, and a review process put in place. A full guide to fire safety - Fire Safety: an employer's guide - is available online. It has checklists for:

Fire warning and detection

Means of escape in case of fire

Means of fighting fire

Maintenance and testing

Emergency plans

Fire safety checks at shutdown

What first aid facilities do employers need to provide?

The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 state that there should be adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to enable first aid to be given to an employee if they are injured or become ill at work. The regulations outline the minimum provisions. If the business deals with chemicals or machinery that present any specific danger, suitable precautions for these must be available.

An employer must provide a suitably stocked first aid box and appoint a person to take charge of first-aid arrangements.

The first aid box should contain the following:

A first aid guidance leaflet (available from the Health & Safety Executive [HSE])

Twenty individually wrapped adhesive sterile dressings

Two sterile eye patches

Four individually wrapped triangular badges

Six safety pins

Six medium-sized (about 12cm x 12cm) and two large-sized (about 18cm x 18cm) individually wrapped, sterile, unmedicated wound dressingsOne pair of disposable gloves

Items on this list can be replaced by different, but equivalent, contents. The first aid box should not contain medicine.

The appointed first aid officer should be responsible for taking charge when an accident occurs, calling an ambulance if necessary and ensuring that the first aid box is restocked. This person should only administer first aid if they are a qualified first-aider.

There should be at least one qualified first-aider within an organisation and one for every 100 employees. Details of approved first aid courses are available from the HSE. First aid needs to be available throughout the working day, so employers may need to have more than the minimum number of first-aiders to fulfil this requirement. Employees must be kept aware of the first aid arrangements and should be able to contact a first-aider easily.

Further Information

For more information, see the Health and Safety Executive, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (SI 1999 no.2342).

What health and safety regulations apply to using VDUs and microfiches at work?

The Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No.2792) cover the use of VDUs and microfiches at work. The regulations mean employers must:

Assess the risk of workstations with VDUs and reduce risks to the lowest level possible

Plan VDU work so that VDU users have regular breaks in their work. However, the regulations do not specify how often breaks must occur. The Health and Safety Executive advises that breaks should happen before tiredness sets in and effects productivity and that short regular breaks are better than longer, occasional ones. Breaks should be part of the normal working day

Provide eyesight tests to VDU users

Give appropriate health and safety training to VDU users

In the regulations a user is defined as someone who habitually uses display screen equipment as a significant part of their normal work. The regulations also apply to health and safety issues concerning the whole workstation, so include rules and guidance on using other equipment such as keyboards, telephones and printers.

What toilet facilities must a business provide its employees?

Under The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (SI 1992 No. 3004), employers must provide proper toilet facilities at easily accessible places. They should be well ventilated and lit and clean. There must be separate toilets for men and women. The regulations set out the minimum number of water closets that an employer must provide. These are, for each sex:

one for 1-5 employees

two for 6-25 employees

three for 26-50 employees

four for 51-75 employees

five for 76-100 employees

and an additional one for every additional 25 employees.

There are also rules for the number of urinals, ranging from 1 for 1-15 workers to 4 for 91-100 workers, with an additional 1 for every extra 50 workers.

Further Information

For further information see the Health and Safety Executive web site.

What advice is there on protecting business premises from flooding?

The Environment Agency runs a flood warning and advice service; the Agency's National Flood Warning Centre (NFWC) is the focus for information designed to help protect people and property in flood risk areas. Local authorities usually provide practical assistance at a local level.

The Environment Agency suggests that individual people and businesses can also do a lot to help themselves from flooding. Their website allows a business to check whether its premises is in a flood risk area, and then gives advice on preparing for a flood, and what to do during and after a flood. The site includes advice on using sandbags and other flood protection products, and a Damage Limitation Guide. It also contains details for Environment Agency offices.

The NFWC Floodline number is 0845 988 1188.

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