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6th July 2016

What does ‘Brexit’ vote mean for the future of UK Health & Safety law?

It is estimated that two thirds of UK occupational safety and health regulations introduced between 1997 and 2009 originated in the EU. This statistic alone displays the weight of influence the European Union has on UK law in this field.

Industry experts believe that despite ‘Brexit’, it is unlikely there will be wholesale changes to the legislation currently in place, even though there is now an opportunity for the UK to devise its own framework.

Michael Connarty, former chair of the UK Parliament’s EU scrutiny committee recently noted that 90% of EU Legislation in force in the UK would probably have been in force without our obligations as a member state.

The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) head of policy and affairs, Richard Jones, has also recently alluded to the fact that the UK’s health and safety legislation is successful and has found to be fit for purpose when placed under scrutiny by independent reviews.

Furthermore, the UK has an international reputation and is respected for reducing work-related injuries. It also has the best health and safety statistics in Europe.

There are however some elements of the UK’s framework that may be reviewed following the proposed withdrawal. It is suspected therefore that the following may be amended or abolished in due time:

  • The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations currently imposed on domestic clients
  • The Optical Radiation regulations
  • Elements of the Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations
  • Removing the requirement in the Display Screen Equipment Regulations for employers to pay for workers’ eye tests
  • The requirement for written risk assessments for businesses in what are seen as ‘low risk’ sectors

Any further ‘de-regulation’ would most likely be triggered only in the event of a significant economic downturn – a decline in trade and a reduction in investment.

Furthermore, a period of economic contraction may also result in cuts within the UK’s Health & Safety Executive (HSE) which would have an impact on the policing of regulations.

This forecasting assumes that a conservative government remains in power – it is unlikely that a Labour administration would focus its efforts on a perceived reduced health and safety legislative burden on employers.

It is important to remember at this point too that, deregulation merely changes the legal position from a criminal point of view. Employers’ civil liabilities are unlikely to reduce without the existence of significant case law in the immediate aftermath of withdrawal.

Another major factor controlling how much the UK may be able to affect change on health and safety legislation will be any trade deals negotiated with the EU.

If the UK was to be granted membership to the European Economic Area (such as Norway, for example), or become members of the European Free Trade Association (such as Switzerland), then the EU would still have influence over the way the UK trades. This may require maintaining standards of employment conditions which would naturally include health and safety, or leave the UK facing an unravelling of such agreements if seen to be unwilling to comply.

A looser form of membership would allow the UK more freedom, however this may jeopardise any favourable terms for providing services to EU member states.

Taking all of the variables into account it is clear that ‘Brexit’ will give the UK more control of safety and health legislation. However, taking into account the potential trade restrictions, and the UK’s excellent track record in the field, it is unlikely that changes will be far reaching.

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