The decision of the UK electorate to withdraw from the European Union last week will certainly change the political and economic environment, but what impact will Brexit have on Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) standards? We consider the likely implications and whether big changes will necessarily happen.
Every business is influenced by the EU in some way, whether through EU Regulations, which apply directly to UK law, or Directives, which obligate the UK to introduce legislation to bring in its provisions. But now that future UK governments are freed from this requirement, will they start to repeal health and safety legislation that has its roots in Europe yet is perceived by many businesses to be excessive red tape? Let’s look at the facts.
Although many UK Health and Safety regulations are based on EU directives, the foundation of the UK regulatory regime lies in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA). The HSWA is recognised throughout the world as the ‘gold standard’ and has been responsible for a significant reduction in the number of workplace fatalities and injuries over the past 40 years. Indeed when the EU released the Health and Safety Framework Directive in 1989 requiring employers to evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks, the UK discovered that it duplicated much of what was already captured in the HSWA and Regulations that had been made under it. The UK was at the forefront of robust health and safety management and remains so to this day. The working conditions and expectations that employees have become accustomed to will almost certainly limit the political appetite to change UK legislation too much.
Further evidence that suggests that little will change can be found in successive reviews of health and safety regulations all of which have concluded that, on balance, European regulation is positive, is not a burden and there is no evidence of “gold-plating”. The independent review of Health and Safety Legislation conducted by Professor Löfstedt in 2011 in which he examined the scope for reducing the burden of health and safety regulation concluded that ‘in general, there is no case for radically altering current health and safety legislation’. In all likelihood the laws we have today would probably still have existed without the EU, and it seems unlikely that having set an expectation that people will return home healthy and free from injury, the government or the Health and Safety Executive would seek to dilute the statutory requirements that have been so successful.
Although leaving the EU could have an impact on legislation, it is unlikely to prove immediate or fundamental. The need to maintain a strong trading relationship with the EU and the widely-acknowledged strength of the UK’s current regulatory framework suggests that there will not be a dismantling of health and safety standards.
One thing is for sure, nothing will happen soon. Although the government will ultimately be able to remove laws from the statute books, existing legislation will need to stay in place at least for the two-year renegotiation period in accordance with Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Until this transition period is over, the UK will continue to apply its risk-based health and safety system, which includes laws from EU directives. Thereafter we expect the fundamental principles of risk management as enshrined in The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and other statute to remain.