The Forum of Private Business (FPB) has described changes agreed this week to workplace health as a landmark moment for SMEs and a long-awaited victory for common sense.

The not-for-profit business support organisation said the removal of strict liability for employers, finally agreed by the Lords on Tuesday evening (23 April), not only means health and safety (H&S) becomes a less burdensome task for employers, but should help make workplaces across the country safer.

Removal of strict liability means businesses cannot be held responsible for accidents that are either not their fault, or unavoidable. It said the new focus on making employees more aware of and responsible for their own actions was something its own research had shown strong support for from small business owners.

The new measures had been due to come into being on 6 April as part of the common commencement date (CCD), but was held up by the House of Lords which asked MPs to reconsider the changes, part of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. However, Parliament rejected these calls and on Tuesday the Lords finally agreed the measures, which will now take effect on the next CCD, 1 October.

“This is a deregulatory measure which means as long as an employer takes reasonable steps on H&S then they shouldn’t be subject to prosecution for things they couldn’t possibly have predicted or prevented,” said FPB's head of policy, Alex Jackman.

“It’s a fact of life that accidents, unfortunately, sometimes do just happen with nothing that can be done to prevent them. This new approach to H&S goes a long way to recognising this. For too long the entire onus has been on the employer as part of a blame-game approach that has cost businesses millions, and has also tarnished people’s view of what’s a very serious and important subject.

“People have lost faith in H&S, with organisations such as the Health & Safety Executive pilloried in the media, but along the way that’s dangerously undermined the issue in the eyes of the nation. We hope this new approach can help rebuild and restore faith and trust in workplace H&S, while at the same time freeing businesses to get on with trading during difficult economic times.”

Twice a year the FPB updates its H&S guide to help businesses remain legally compliant. It has warned that while the new changes come into effect in October, businesses still have a duty of care, much the same as now.

Mr Jackman concluded: “While these changes are welcome, business owners must not be lulled into a false mindset that they are no longer governed by H&S requirements, or that their duty as an employer has ended. It hasn’t – and this is a dangerous way of thinking. The average cost of a H&S investigation after a breach of regulations is £20,000, so it’s very much the case of prevention always being better than cure.”