Brexit workplace safety

How might UK health and safety law be effected if Britain leave the EU?

The UK is facing arguably its biggest decision of recent times this Thursday 23rd June – do we remain a member of the EU, or do we leave? If we vote to leave and the UK Government goes ahead with Brexit, we will enter a long period of adjustment which will of course effect our current workplace safety and health legislation, much of which has been heavily influenced by our EU membership.

The European Union was set up as a political and economic union of 28 independent countries and the UK has been a member of the EU since 1973. The union aims to ensure free movement and maintain common ideals and policies – through a system of shared laws.

Much of the discussion over the last few weeks has focused on EU law currently in force in the UK. By handing control over to the UK government, legislation could be revised or eradicated.

Read on for our whistlestop tour of how the EU has shaped our legislation and our round-up of what may happen in the world of health and safety if the country chooses to exit the EU later this week.

Which workplace health and safety laws come under the EU?

The UK government established the basis of UK health and safety law in 1974. But since then it has been both underpinned and strengthened by EU legislation;

The Health and Safety Framework Directive

–       Establishes obligations for employers to evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks.

Working Time Directive 1993

The Working Time Directive was implemented in response to stress, depression and illness – caused by employees overworking;

–       Employees must work no longer than 48 hours a week

–       All workers are entitled to 20 days’ paid annual leave a year

General Safety Regulations

41 out of 65 health and regulations introduced between 1997 and 2009 originated in the EU. These include;

–       Management of musculoskeletal disorders, noise, work at height or machinery

–       Regulations for construction work, asbestos, chemicals, off-shore work etc.

–       Equal pay

–       Protection against sex, age and race discrimination

–       Paid leave for parents

–       Protection for temporary workers

What could Brexit mean for workplace safety and health law?

Leaving the EU would give the UK government complete control over workplace health and safety legislation. They would have the ability to revise the laws currently in place, or abolish them altogether.

Much of our existing law has become an amalgamation of UK and European law. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, are both UK laws.

Yet, in joining the EU, the UK government had to make a number of modifications to bring UK legislation in line with EU health and safety standards.

With the UK holding one of the best health and safety records across the world, we believe it is unlikely that they will make any major changes to the current legislation – but we can’t be sure.

Working time directive – could we have to work more hours?

The UK government opposed the 48-hour weekly working limit when it first came into force in 1993 and businesses in the UK still have the option to opt-out.

For those who have not opted out, the directive has resulted in 700,000 fewer people working more than 48 hours a week which will have undoubtedly had a positive effect on their work/life balance.

It is a concern that work/life balance will further suffer in the UK if the working time directive is no longer supported by the EU and if there is further encouragement from the government to opt-out.

With 440,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety reported in 2014/2015, failure to uphold the Working Time Directive is likely to have a negative effect on employee safety.

Business Travel and Brexit

One thing leaving the EU would change for sure is how individuals access healthcare while travelling in Europe.

Currently, EU members who fall ill or suffer an accident in Europe, can access free or reduced healthcare. In leaving the EU, treatment could be costly and insurance rates are likely to increase.

Travellers with infectious diseases could also be deterred from receiving care, creating a potential risk to public safety.

For individuals who travel abroad for work, suffering from an accident or illness could prove detrimental if they are turned away or do not have the funds to cover their care. If an accident occurs as a result of health and safety breaches, it is the company that could end up paying out in health care and compensation. Businesses will have to ensure that their travel policies, risk assessments and insurance are in-line with changes to healthcare access abroad should we exit the EU.

Time to adjust

Luckily, in the event of an exit vote, a 2-year notice period would begin where existing EU legislation would continue to apply. It could take a further few years for new legislation to take effect, as drafting and agreeing new legislation will take time, giving businesses time to adjust and plan for any new or amended legislation that comes into force.


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