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The implications of leaving the EU on health and safety in Britain

Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, workplace health and safety regulations have steadily developed into the set of laws, regulations and standards we have today.

Furthermore, many of the regulations and standards British companies have to adhere to have come from European Union (EU) directives and laws, and from decisions made by the European Court.

Therefore, in this article, Ian Patterson, co-founder of Paint Inspection, a coating inspection and surveying company that ensure that industrial structures and transport adheres to the UK’s environmental and safety regulations, outlines the benefits of the UK’s current workplace health and safety regulations to both employers and employees before considering the effect Britain leaving The EU could have on occupational health and safety regulations.

While often maligned by some employers and some areas of the press, workplace health and safety regulations set clear standards and expectations for both employers and employees.

While the responsibility for a safe workplace is ultimately on the employer and it is their responsibility to ensure employees know their obligations under relevant workplace legislation, the onus of many pieces of legislation and directives governing British workplaces is just as much on the staff too. For example, if a staff member spills water on the kitchen floor, doesn’t alert anyone or make any effort to ensure it is promptly mopped up and then another staff member slips and injures themselves, while the injured party may seek damages from the employer, the employer also has every right to take action against and seek remedies from the staff member for causing a hazard in the workplace. In the same vein, while we work with employers and top brass to ensure their structures and freight vehicles adhere to safety standards, it is also the responsibility of the staff to ensure they are adhering to these standards when building or carrying out maintenance work on a structure or vessel or they too could be found to be at fault.

Furthermore, I would argue that having clear workplace standards not only fosters a safe work environment but also ensures the members of staff know they are working in a safe place where every precaution has been taken. In turn, I would also argue that this helps to maintain morale and improve productivity among the staff too – ultimately, if an employee doesn’t have to worry about a loose ceiling tile or faulty light fitting that still hasn’t been fixed, they can concentrate on doing their job.

However, it has to be said, now that it has been confirmed that Britain will be leaving The EU within two years of Article 50 being invoked, this could have a significant effect on the health and safety laws and regulations that currently govern our workplaces. I say this as Theresa May has already announced a Great Repeal Bill that will put an end to the primacy of EU legislation in UK law by repealing the European Communities Act 1974. As part of this bill, all EU legislation would pass onto the UK’s statute books as it is unless Parliament looks to amend it or repeal other specific pieces of EU legislation.

Therefore, as it stands, all of the current laws governing workplace health and safety would remain. I have to wonder though the effect pressure groups may have on the development of Britain’s own health and safety standards in the wake of Brexit. For example, the Open Europe think tank has been critical of how much EU directives cost Britain each year, specifically highlighting such directives as the Working Time Directive and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Therefore, I can’t help but think that, given the arguably very business-friendly changes to employment law the Conservatives introduced in the last Parliament, changes to the laws governing the safety requirements that currently need to be adhered to could all be amended in the name of profit and doing business more easily.

Much will depend though on whether Britain stays in the European Economic Area (EEA) when we leave The EU. I say this, as, in order to retain access to the internal market, Britain would have to continue to abide by many of The EU’s workplace health and safety laws. From a British political point of view, it would certainly be an odd situation to be in given that we would still be bound by the same EU laws and compelled to continue to adhere to the same EU directives that we were before, but now, Britain wouldn’t have any say in the revision of existing legislation or the development of new law.

Therefore, it has to be said that much is still up in the air currently and there is a lot that we cannot be certain about. Once Article 50 has been triggered, it will make the next two years very significant in shaping Britain’s workplace health and safety laws, as well as our place in the world, going forward. While I understand why some consider our workplace regulations and standards to be draconian, I really do hope that they aren’t significantly lessened following Brexit, as they go a long way to ensuring we have safe workplaces that also meet environmental standards that put as one of the world leaders in reducing industrial emissions.

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