The European Union - Health and Safety Issues

The European Union - Health and Safety Issues

13th November 2015

We’ve probably all heard quite a lot of talk on news and current affairs programmes on Britain leaving the European Union and the government has now promised a straightforward “in-out” referendum by the end of 2017.  This pledge by the Conservatives was an integral part of their election manifesto and it’s basically a vote in which everybody here in the UK can take part in with a Yes or No answer.  The traditional times to hold a referendum are May and September and there are those who think that the referendum should be held as soon as possible which could mean May, 2016.  However, the timing of the referendum has not yet been settled. 

Of course, we will all have to think long and hard before casting our votes on what would be best for the country, best for our industry and best for ourselves as individuals.  The Conservative administration believes that Britain is being held back by the EU which it thinks imposes too many rules on business and charges billions of pounds each year in membership fees for what they see as very little in return.  The government also wants to regain full control of Britain’s borders and reduce the number of people coming to work in this country – one of the main principles of EU membership is “free movement”. 

It goes without saying that leaving the European Union will impact on many aspects of our lives and every industry is under the influence of the EU, whether through EU Regulations (which apply directly to UK law) or Directives.  This means that if the UK does leave the EU then our legal system will need to introduce UK legislation to bring in its provisions.  Today, we’re taking a look at what leaving the EU will mean for health and safety here in the UK.

When it comes to occupational health and safety the UK ceded authority to the EU when it comes to protecting workers’ health and safety in the workplace.  While it appears that the day to day responsibilities of health and safety professionals stem from the legal requirements set by Europe, whether these regulations would still be in force following a “Brexit” is unclear.  One of the main claims of the Out Campaign is based on the need to reduce regulatory burdens on business caused by European legislation.  The transfer of authority from Europe back to the UK could be difficult to implement as UK workers have come to expect certain rights and standards within the working environment in line with other EU countries. 

Recent developments in Europe lead us to think that in future Europe could become a force for deregulation.  Within the EU, the ongoing Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT) is currently reviewing whether regulations can be removed or consolidated.  Last year 53 legislative proposals were withdrawn and since 2006, according to REFIT, more than 6,000 acts have been replaced. 

The negotiations between America and Europe on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are setting some parameters for regulatory harmonisation which may lead to the revocation of more legal requirements.  Europe’s success in future may well hinge on simplified and reduced compliance requirements and in the event of a Brexit, the UK could opt to retain these regulations. 

Although it’s still early days when it comes to the EU referendum, health and safety professionals here in the UK should be considering to what degree the EU is responsible for creating the conditions that support their role and what the future of health and safety in the UK would be in and out of Europe.