What effect will Brexit have on health and safety?
Annabel Chadwick explains how several factors may impact the future of UK health and safety laws
As the prime minister prepares to trigger article 50, should employees be concerned that health and safety regulations could be relaxed post-Brexit? Current health and safety laws are a combination of those originating in the UK as well as those created by the EU. While one of the apparent reasons for public dissatisfaction with the EU is so-called Brussels ‘red tape’, could we see a reversal of H&S rules?
All EU member states already had H&S guidelines in place before the 1986 Single European Act was introduced. The UK’s system, based on the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, was considered the ‘gold standard’ and unparalleled in succeeding at reducing work-related injuries and ill health.
While it is unlikely we would see any changes in the short term, as the government enters negotiation with the EU regarding Brexit, there are several changeable factors which could affect the future of UK H&S. First, the strength of the UK economy is likely to influence whether a business has the resources and will to invest in proactive H&S procedures. If the economy struggles, if the movement of workers from abroad is restricted, business could lower H&S in its list of priorities.
Second, there could be changes in UK and EU working environments which could affect H&S rules. As the gig economy grows, more and more people are working for themselves, meaning they are not covered by their clients’ H&S procedures. If this type of work accelerates, the UK could well introduce guidelines to help protect such workers which could subsequently be adopted by the EU as the need arises.
Although some uncertainty remains over the finer details of H&S regulations, the UK will want to continue doing business with the EU. For trade to continue as smoothly as possible, it makes sense for the UK to stay in line with EU guidance.
In January, the EU said its current focus for updating H&S guidelines was three-fold:
Stepping up the fight against occupational cancer (the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU);
Helping businesses, especially SMEs, to comply with rules on H&S at work; and
Addressing issues of growing concern, such as psychosocial risks, musculoskeletal disorders, and ageing.
All three of these issues are equally important in the UK, and it’s highly likely that any improvements made in the EU will be simultaneously brought into UK guidelines, even if Brexit has taken place.
Given the fact that the UK has always been considered a global example of success in H&S, and the fact that it had significant input in the EU’s guidelines, it is unlikely future governments will allow for any removal of rules or for the UK to get left behind in terms of worldwide expertise.
A final note of reassurance is a recent announcement from the UK’s Institution of Occupational Safety and Health that it ‘will continue to promote agreed international standards and to defend against any erosion of health and safety protections’.
Annabel Chadwick is head of COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) at Roberts Jackson