After Friday’s vote on whether to leave or remain in the EU many UK companies are now wondering what the Brexit “Leave” vote may mean for them in the future in terms of health and safety legislation.
UK health and safety legislation dates back as far as the 19th century when the Factories Act and Health and Morals of Apprentices Act were passed. The foundation of the current health and safety regulatory system was established in 1974 by the Health and Safety at Work Act also known as HSWA, HSW Act or HASAWA, which acts as the principal piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in the UK. The primary purpose of the Act is to secure the health, safety and welfare of employees (and other workers) at work.
Current UK health and safety laws are made up of a combination of laws that originated within the UK itself and others from the EU. Since joining the EU, a number of instructions issued at the European level have been incorporated into UK law. A good example of this is the European Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work (Directive 89/391 EEC) which was adopted in 1989. It guarantees a minimum level of safety and health requirements throughout Europe while individual member states can then either choose to maintain or add more stringent measures on top of the Framework Directive.
In the case of the UK this European law became the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 which establishes obligations for employers to identify, evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks.
What Will leaving the EU mean for laws like Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999?
Clearly, by moving outside of the EU the UK would be free to make up its own rules and “cut red tape” as many companies have said they’d like to see in the past.
It’s unclear at this point whether health and safety laws will be hugely impacted. Some argue that there is likely to be little or no impact on health and safety law due to political and social pressures and the need for good health and safety in the workplace. Others have pointed out that the HSE’s “Appraisal of HSE’s approach to negotiating and implementing European legislation” (PDF) contained an Annex which outlined a number of proposals that the Government wanted to make to reduce health and safety regulation.
A great deal will depend on the negotiations that the UK will need to have with the EU, including access to the single market. In the case of Switzerland and Norway, two European economies outside the EU, conditions set by the EU included abiding by all EU single market standards and regulations, including health and safety law. Of course that does not necessarily mean that these same arrangements will apply to the UK.
In the short term, it’s unlikely that UK health and safety law will be subject to drastic change, especially if the UK remains in European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area. In the longer term the UK may decide to make changes and move away from EU legislation. Only time will tell.
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