Health and safety law is vital for startups as well


The Health and Safety at Work Act is over a year old but many startups might not realise how it applies to them.

With New Zealand’s economy continuing to impress the rest of the world with its “rockstar” status, it’s no wonder that startups are popping up everywhere.

From the computer game startup offering unlimited paid-holiday, to the long list of impressive startups emerging in Wellington, New Zealand is making headlines around the world because of its ability to breathe life into business ideas.

All of this is great, but to what degree does the startup mentality mesh with knowledge of health and safety law? It’s hard to imagine the likes of Uber’s Travis Kalanick worrying about health and safety law too much.

Indeed, his business model is all about “disruption” — which is often just Silicon Valley talk for breaking the law. Kalanick’s attitude towards the legal system is that it should answer to him, not the other way around. It’s easy to imagine Uber as a one-off, but Silicon Valley is rife with fraudsters who believe that bending the law is what building a startup is all about.

It’s not, of course. It’s perfectly possible to be a great startup and keep your business well within the law. Netflix is a perfect example of “disruptive innovation” without abusing the legal system. The company has completely changed the way people watch TV and film, its profits continue to soar, and it did all this while remaining a safe and legal business.

Does Health and Safety even apply to me?

The issue of startup exceptionalism when it comes to health and safety law — and the law in general — runs deep. Many startups are often completely unaware that health and safety law even applies to them. Their business only has six people in it, and those six people spend most of their time in an office, so why should it matter?

In the UK, a business of more than five people needs to perform a written risk assessment. This doesn’t need to be a complicated or difficult process, but it’s important that it gets done for the sake of accountability. If one of your six members of staff slips and breaks their knee on your slippery floor, who’s at fault? Could it have been prevented? A simple risk assessment could have alleviated that potential danger.

As a safety inspector in the UK, I’ve inspected many traditional workplaces, but there are also many less traditional workplaces which I’ve visited which require inspecting nonetheless. Pinewood Studios in London is one such workplace. While it’s famous for its blockbuster films and for having characters like James Bond and Han Solo walking around the set, the employees still need to be wary of health and safety.

The fact that Harrison Ford was nearly killed during the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens at Pinewood Studios should underline the fact that no industry is above the need for health and safety.

As for New Zealand, the HSWA offers guidance on what risks a business should expect based on its industry. It argues that a risk assessment is only needed where there isn’t already existing advice from Worksafe New Zealand. For office-based startups, there is a lot of risk which can be minimised and Worksafe New Zealand spells all of this out.

In short, no matter how big your startup is, health and safety does apply to you. True, if your business is just a few people in an office working on computers, the amount you will be legally required to do is minimal. However, you are still required to do some things.

In the UK, for example, it is the law that all employers should provide their staff with drinking water and other basic facilities. This should go without saying, but this too raises important legal questions, such as ‘how many toilets do I legally need to provide my staff?’ British law has an answer to this question.

In New Zealand, there is no specific law about the ratio of staff to toilets. However, the law is only a year-and-a-half old. Ideally, startups would be savvy enough to provide their staff with basic facilities, without having to be told. It’s for reasons like this that health and safety is important.

Inspections can be a legal requirement

Alongside the things you will be responsible for doing as an employer, there are also the things you will be responsible for making sure other people do. Namely, inspections from outside experts.

From my own experience, I’ve met many businesses who are surprised to discover that regular work equipment inspections are written into British law and that annual safety equipment inspections are recommended by HSE. A large number of businesses I’ve worked with have never had their work equipment inspected because “it’s only a few years old”.

This is especially true of startups, where everything in the workplace is new, but this kind of thinking is wrong. If anything, newer equipment needs more inspections to check that it’s been properly set up.

In New Zealand, Worksafe performs inspections itself. Though, depending on your industry, you may be required to make sure additional inspections happen. For example, if you have a warehouse, some kind of rack inspection is a legal requirement across the world.

For an example specific to New Zealand, the inspection of cranes needs to be performed by a number of different people at different points. As the business owner, the responsibility is ultimately yours to make sure this happens.

While some inspections might be a legal requirement, in other cases, they are services which the government recommends but doesn’t insist on. With regards to the latter, imagine these services as investment in your startup. Just as with anything else, money spent wisely on safety will help your startup to make money further down the line.

As startups evolve, HSWA will evolve

Because HSWA was only introduced last year, it has the potential to adapt to the new world of work. In an era where more people are working from home, who — if anyone — is responsible for worker safety?

However the future of work may look, the important thing to remember is that health and safety still matters. So long as humans are accident prone, there will be a need for health and safety law of some kind.


About the author
Justin O’Sullivan is the owner and founder of Storage Equipment Experts. His business provides pallet racking inspections and safety training to other businesses across the UK and Ireland.