Health and safety 101 for small businesses

Written with:Lighthouse logo

Changes to employers’ fire safety responsibilities

As an employer, you’re responsible for fire safety in business and non-domestic premises (including workplaces, commercial premises, and all premises the public have access to).

You’re known as the Responsible Person under the fire safety legislation of England and Wales (the Fire Safety Order). The Responsible Person has a duty to keep people in the building for which they’re responsible safe from fire.

Section 156 of the Building Safety Act 2022 will come into force in England and Wales on 1 October 2023. This new law expands the duties of the Responsible Person.

From 1 October, RPs will have additional duties, including to:

  • provide occupiers of the premises with clear, easy to understand information about relevant fire safety matters;
  • make sure that only competent individuals are appointed to assist the RP;
  • record their completed fire risk assessment;
  • record their fire safety arrangements;
  • record the RP’s contact information, including a UK-based address;
  • establish whether any other RP has duties in respect of the premises, and identify themselves to the other RP, giving their name and address; and
  • share all relevant fire safety information with new RPs when leaving their position.

There are further responsibilities for RPs in respect of ‘higher risk buildings’.

Not meeting these duties will be an offence. It could put employees and other building users at risk. Plus, you could be fined. From 1st October 2023, there will be increased fines for certain offences, though these increased fines will only apply to offences committed after this date. They will not apply retrospectively.

So, make sure to read the government's clear guidance for RPs on how to meet their duties here.

Good health and safety is an important core value in any business. It creates good culture, trust and a safe environment – your business will be better as a result of putting health and safety procedures in place.

Put simply: it makes good business sense!

As a small business, it’s good to not over-complicate health and safety practices and policies. There are some tools that can help with those initial, important steps when it comes to planning your health and safety and making sure you’re on the right track.

We'll look at this more a little later in this guide – but for a quick tip, we’ve found that using Trello (which you can do for free), can definitely help you keep an eye on what’s important.

And, of course, this small-business health and safety guide, which is written alongside our expert partners at Lighthouse Risk Services, will help you on your way.

Introduction to: health & safety 101

Questions we answer in this guide

  • When does a business need to worry about health and safety?
  • What does health and safety compliance cover?
  • What are the essential materials that our experts recommend you have in place?

Why is health and safety important in the workplace?

A good health and safety policy is important for both your employees and those you engage with on a business level because:

1. it builds consumer and customer trust – and your reputation will be better for it (which can then result in better sales)

2. it can help you manage the level of your insurance premiums – insurance claims based on health and safety mean higher premiums; being in a position to avoid health and safety incidents occurring should mean you’re paying a lower insurance premium than otherwise

3. having a good health and safety policy, and a good health and safety training policy alongside it, can help generate confidence from sales partners, employees and shareholders and ensure that everyone knows where the risks lie in your business and how they’re being responsibly managed

4. demonstrating that you’re responsible about staff welfare and their safety helps to attract talent and retain great employees

The right environment means far less risk of accidents, a lot more confidence in management and, importantly, cultural strength.

If you care about your workers, they’ll feel appreciated and be happy workers.

When staff are happy and feel valued, they’re more likely to feel accountable for their role and behaviour within the business, and productivity is generally also optimised.

5. it allows you to pass any relevant inspections, so you can display, with confidence and compliantly, the appropriate certificates that are required for licence permissions and renewals

6. many businesses require proof of health and safety compliance as a condition of any partnership or sales relationship. It’s typically regarded as an essential ‘hygiene’ factor for all good businesses from the start.

Whether you’re making a food product with the aspiration of distributing it via a supermarket or an online delivery service; or you’re wanting to sell your services to another business; or you’re looking to collaborate with someone else (e.g. an agent, distributor or joint-venture partner) so you can grow your business, other businesses will want to be absolutely certain that in linking their brand name and reputation to yours, they’re not taking any unnecessary risks.

Because of this, your essential health and safety compliance will generally also be a key factor in securing investment funding from seasoned investors and/or gaining access to other forms of financing, potentially even loans and grant funding.

7. it creates educated, responsible and accountable staff, who help to keep the working environment safe and who know the implications of not taking it seriously

8. it reduces long-term sick and stress-related leave, which is good for your staff and managers

Benefits of health & safety for businesses

Does every business need to be health and safety compliant?

In other words... who needs to be bothered and who can crack on and not worry?

It's what you do that matters

The size and age of your business doesn't matter.

Whether you’re tiny or huge, new or established, health and safety is all about what you do, not how big or how old (in business terms!) you are.

Some businesses won't need to worry much about health and safety requirements. For example, if you’re working from home, you’re unlikely to need to fuss too much about it, especially if you don’t meet your customers in your home.

But for other types of business (further explored in this guide), compliance with, and effective management of, health and safety risks will be critical to them achieving their short- and longer-term objectives.

Don’t forget, however, that health and safety is a moving feast. As your business grows, what wasn’t a big deal before, could become a very big deal very quickly.

So always keep your business plan in mind when evaluating what health and safety requirements mean for you today, as well as in the foreseeable future.

How much do business owners need to worry about health and safety?

Are you renting as a business tenant?

Commercial tenants: you, not the landlord, will typically be liable for health and safety in the premises you rent. Your lease should outline the exact breadth of your obligations and responsibilities.

They generally include responsibility for electrical wiring, carpets and stairways, bannisters, power sockets, ceiling tiles, rubbish, obstructions, toilet and kitchen facilities, drains and pipes, cables, spillages and leaks, for example.

On top of having a robust health and safety approach, you should also ensure you have good insurance cover in the event of problems with any of the above items, so that you can afford to keep everything safe and in working order and quickly fix anything that might endanger someone on site.

(Residential landlords typically take on greater health and safety responsibility for their tenants.)

If you have 5 or more employees, the law requires you to have a written health and safety policy that's understood by, and accessible to, all your employees.

If you have fewer than 5 employees, you may not need to provide any paperwork, but it'd still be sensible to do so – not only for the reasons and benefits that we set out above already but also because employees have a habit of multiplying and creating growth opportunities, meaning more work and the need for more staff... ... and before you know it, you may well have 5 or more employees and fall within the mandatory legal requirements. Being organised now means that it'll be a far smoother transition and a lot less work at that stage.

Who do you want to sell to as a business?

The answer to this question also affects your health and safety position and how much you need to think about it.

If your customer is a business with its own health and safety obligations, it may require you to demonstrate compliance with the standards that it must conform to, before it will agree to trade with you.

Which businesses carry the biggest health and safety risks?

Some of us really should be cracking on with our health and safety policy from the very outset because, regardless of the number of people we employ, it'd be dangerous not to do so.

Below is an illustrative list of business areas and activities where it’s super important to have robust health and safety policy and procedures, largely because these are businesses that typically experience the most potential for health and safety incidents:

  • warehousing businesses

  • businesses operating workshops

  • businesses operating garages for vehicle repairs and maintenance, as well as vehicle sales

  • factories

  • construction-related work

  • businesses where staff are working ‘at height’, like harness-based window cleaners and maintenance crews, roofers, scaffolders, electricity supply service engineers, etc.

  • businesses handling dangerous chemicals or allergens

  • food production and/or food-handling, -distribution or -retailing businesses. This includes coffee and snack shops, pop-up food booths/vans as well as home kitchens or other places where food products may be prepared

  • beauty, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical businesses. This includes venues where beauty products and/or their ingredients may be prepared and/or stored

  • spas and cosmetic or medical treatment businesses

  • sports, fitness and leisure businesses – from personal trainers to those running sports gyms, fitness classes and leisure centres

The above list isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you a clear indication of where the risks often lie.


Heat map of business risks

Health & safety for different types of business

Health and safety risks for small businesses starting out


Ignoring health and safety is a big risk for many businesses.

Not knowing what you don’t know…

Waiting until disaster strikes…

…they’re not great strategies.

Some common specific risks of not getting it right include:

  • problems getting affordable insurance cover and/or any cover that protects you where you need it most

  • injuries to staff/others, attracting costly personal injury claims and damaging your reputation as a responsible and desirable employer, as well as disrupting staff productivity

  • costs of replacing damaged equipment and/or facilities, as well as costs of replacing, temporarily or permanently, injured staff

  • investigations by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – the regulator for health and safety compliance, which can result in:

    • fees charged by the HSE to cover the cost to them of their intervention

    • the possibility of an improvement notice, which will tell you what’s wrong and the changes you need to make. You would then have 21 days to make these changes

    • maybe a prohibition notice – this would be given if your actions could result, or are resulting in, serious personal injury. This notice stops you conducting whatever is causing this until you've made it safe to continue

    • prosecution – and ultimately the risk of a fine by the courts for breaking health and safety law

    • serious reputational damage affecting your ability to realise all the benefits that we listed at the start of this guide

Why is health & safety so important for businesses?

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