The UK and the EU flags

No matter what industry you’re in, if you are a UK resident you are more than likely at the moment wondering whether the EU referendum outcome will affect – amongst other things – your job. With reform promised on the Remain side and Leave by definition rendering changes, the UK is likely to experience at least some level of alteration in some areas. But what about health and safety?

Read Health and Safety Brexit Predictions for 2019

Right now – 7 days before the vote – think-tank polls are offering an ever-changing picture. YouGov reports Leave with a 7 point lead, with Ipsos MORI naming Remain a strong 18 points ahead. Published just 2 days ago, the most recent ORB poll is suggesting 49% Leave and 45% Remain. Taking all polls into account, Leave leads with just a 4 point margin (as of 16 June 2016, BBC Poll Tracker) but this is likely to sway in the coming days as voting day, June 23rd closes in.

UPDATE: On Tuesday 21 June, Leave has the lead with just 2 points as Remain gains ground. Current polling sits at 44% Leave, 42% Remain, with 13% still unsure how to vote.

Boris JohnsonHealth and safety legislation has been mentioned throughout the many arguments put forward and counteracted by each side, mainly as a shootout from the much debated subject of workers’ rights. Supporters of Remain argue that the EU has played an integral role in introducing and protecting paid holiday, anti-discrimination, maternity leave, paternity leave and environmental regulations. The Leave campaign expectedly denounces the worries that Brexit would tarnish what’s been achieved in workers’ rights, with ex-London Mayor and avid Leave campaigner Boris Johnson passionately claiming that “We do not need the European Union to guarantee our humanity”.  

Before I continue, there are a few basic facts that we can look to first, aside from the arguments. Health and safety law in the UK is a combination of regulations made under the European Union and others made under the UK’s Health and Safety at Work (HSW) Act 1974. Some, on the other hand, were implemented under both the EU’s European Community Act and the HSW Act. In the event of Brexit, regulations made under HSW would not be affected, but those made by both the EU and UK combined may merit review.

To get a bit of a hint at the general consensus of safety personnel, I spent time looking at various articles that have been published within the community. Four pieces of work proved useful to my research: found on SHP Online, Health and Safety at Work (HSAW), Citation and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Here I will summarize the main points to offer a rounded take on the situation.

The EU is seeking to deregulate across the board

Both the article by Richard Clarke on SHP Online and Kevin Bridges on HSAW suggest the EU is moving towards deregulation in areas including workers’ rights and health and safety legislation. This desire has come about due to negotiations between the EU and America on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as an agreement is sought to allow ‘regulatory harmonization’ between the two continents. The argument is that simplifying laws will drive growth and jobs throughout the EU. However, Clarke points out that in the event of a Brexit, the UK could choose to retain these regulations. This point is fairly neutral, and could be used to support either side of the debate depending on the stance taken.

The UK is the ‘gold standard’ for health and safety across Europe

In Great Britain, the concept of health and safety dates back to the 19th century which saw the UK government pass the Factories Act 1833 to improve working conditions for children. We are still setting the standards to date. The UK has one of the best health and safety records in Europe and throughout the world, writes Bridges, a partner at Pinsent Masons. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive is renowned for the experience it draws upon, and is often sought for advice overseas. However, as Bridges points out and was mentioned earlier in this post, the health and safety record in the UK is down to a regime made up of both UK and EU laws combined.

The EU has facilitated a massively positive impact on health and safety with the 1989 Framework Directive

The Trades Union Congress has made no secret of the fact that it supports a Remain vote. The organization claims that 41 out of the 65 new health and safety regulations introduced between 1997 and 2009 originated in the EU. Furthermore, since the Framework Directive came into force in Britain in 1999 the number of worker fatalities per year in the UK has fallen significantly from 368 to 142 (most recent figure for 2014/15). The purpose of the Framework Directive is to obligate employers to evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks, and the TUC argue that this is not something we want to withdraw from.

In Brexit, the UK would be able to choose which regulations work for us

This point is argued on both sides of the debate. The Citation article tells us that 57% of respondents to a survey of EHS professionals saw Brexit as an opportunity to tailor UK safety standards to UK conditions. On the other hand, the TUC tells us that the UK would seek to remove certain regulations that are in force protecting workers today, such as the requirement for employers to provide eyesight tests for display screen equipment users, and the need for small, low risk businesses to carry out written risk assessments. Within my own research, it was also the worry of someone within the Oil & Gas industry that the UK government would ‘cherry pick’ which pieces of legislation it wants to keep. Bridges, writing for HSAW, suggests that if the UK votes to leave the EU the country will be able to regulate and deregulate as it sees fit – although, he highlights, impacts are likely to be minimal due to both social and political realities and he finishes the article on the claim that in the short term, a vote either way is unlikely to have an impact on health and safety legislation.

Any changes would not be immediate

Across all four of these articles, there is consensus that things will likely stay the same for a matter of time regardless of whether the country votes to leave or remain in the EU. The Treaty of the Functioning of the EU meant that the UK gave authority to the EU regarding working environment, which covers workers’ health and safety as mentioned by Clarke on SHP Online. This entanglement would be hard to reverse in the event of Brexit, Clarke argues. Citation puts forward the claim that;

Whatever the result, nothing will change rapidly in terms of UK law. However, a leave vote would certainly result in more UK specific laws over time; a remain vote would lead to a renegotiation of treaty terms which would examine the cost of EU regulation on UK businesses.

The jury’s out on what EHS professionals will choose to vote. A Cedrec poll cited by SHP Online found that 54% of respondents (made up of EHS personnel in the UK) support a Remain vote, whilst 36% back Leave and 10% are still undecided. Contrastingly, a Health and Safety at Work Magazine poll cited by Citation concludes that 46% of health and safety professionals surveyed intended to vote Leave, with 41% for Remain.

As with any political debate, everyone has their own opinion and experiences that influence their intentions. I urge you to read all four articles cited in this post – and more! – to kick off your research into the effects of the referendum on health and safety in the UK, if you haven’t already. It’s clear that within the EU the UK has managed to maintain its status as a leader in health and safety, but what remains to be decided is whether the EU’s input is required or unnecessary – I’ll leave that one up to you.

I hope this post has been helpful in bringing together a few facts, statistics and arguments from a selection of neutral and sided articles within the health and safety community.

The four articles used to create this post are: