Since the EU referendum, surveys undertaken by independent bodies have revealed the two main reasons for people voting Leave:
Health and safety did not find its way into the top two, but there are some strong opinions in the media as well as political party literature on the matter and what could happen post-Brexit. Some regard EU involvement as something which promotes high standards in all aspects of health and safety. Whereas, others dismiss these same standards, as onerous rules which stifle productivity and reduce the UK’s competitivity.
The EU has, via a series of directives, had a significant impact on health and safety legislation in the UK. Many EU directives have introduced a series of regulations to the UK which were far more prescriptive than any UK-based legislation. Much of the secondary legislation now in operation in the UK is derived from EU directives. In addition to the 1989 Framework Directive, Working Time Directive and Construction Sites Directive, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 and Work at Height Regulations (2005) followed EU directives. As a result, many of the legal requirements are intertwined in company health and safety policies and associated with targets. Whilst these may change in the long term, this will require significant ‘unpicking’. This means change is unlikely to arise in the short-term.
The UK is underpinned by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA). This act preceded the UK’s membership of the EU and is not connected with European law in any way. Furthermore, the UK – along with the HSWA – has an enviable reputation in terms of health and safety policy. It is largely seen as having set a benchmark in Europe.
In the longer term, the UK parliament is likely to follow the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill with a programme that will adapt individual laws as necessary. Again, changes are likely to depend on terms agreed to ensure the UK has access to the single market. The UK may be required to maintain the same minimum employment standards as the EU. These include occupational health and safety. If there is no deal the UK will have more flexibility – but again, these will be subject to the requirements of individual trade deals.
Regardless of law, there are clear business benefits associated with high standards of health and safety management. To maintain a place in the global marketplace, it is in the best interests of the UK industry to continue to champion industry-leading health and safety standards.