Brexit and our place in the world

Executive director - policy, IOSH

The European Commission has said that “health and safety at work is one of the areas where the EU has had the biggest impact – with a solid legal framework covering the maximum number of risks with the minimum number of regulations”.

With a possible change in our relationship with Europe in the offing, would leaving the bloc make the UK safety and health landscape look any different and would we remain as influential among the remaining members?

Our robust Health and Safety at Work Act has had a profound impact on EU law. The act’s “so far as reasonably practicable” qualifying phrase was included in the 1989 Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work (not without dissent), which became a strong foundation of EU safety and health regulation.

A more recent test of reasonable practicability in the European courts confirmed its continuing strength. It seems likely that UK organisations would support the retention of this position on proportionality if the UK was outside the EU.

The UK health and safety system has been tested in recent years and been found generally fit for purpose. The 2011 Löfstedt review noted how the UK’s regime was improving health and safety statistics, though it urged rationalisation and consolidation of regulations. The review suggested that around 90% of all EU laws in force in the UK would have been enacted even if we had never joined. It is unlikely the UK government would jeopardise our safety standards unless there was a proven alternative that met the well-established objectives.

There are those who depict the EU as a force for deregulation. The Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme, which is reviewing whether regulations can be removed or consolidated, confirmed that, in 2014, a total of 53 legislative proposals were withdrawn and since 2006, more than 6,100 acts had been replaced.

There is also a UK-led shift towards less prescription in the safety and health arena. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations sought to further the selfregulation
agenda through a focus on health and safety management rather than structural changes. More recently there is further evidence of a move away from prescriptive regulation – the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 are often cited as an example.

In a less prescriptive legal framework employers will seek clarification of what they need to do to comply. Increasingly, organisations and OSH professionals are openly sharing good practice to provide some practical clarity for implementation by others. An effective deregulatory agenda requires evidence-based examples and collaboration across all stakeholder groups to achieve proportionate management of safety and health issues.

A vote to exit would be followed by negotiations expected to last two years. The predominant view is that, even if the UK decides to leave the EU, it would wish to retain a relationship to the union similar to that of Norway or Switzerland. Our well-respected framework would be likely to continue to influence the EU landscape. However, to ensure this position, UK health and safety networks (social partners) would need to work during the transition to maintain European partnerships to continue to champion UK legislation as the international framework for the future.


Shelley Frost is executive director - policy at IOSH. She was formerly head of sustainability at Aggregate Industries UK and has held a number of senior positions in the health and safety and sustainability arenas, from regulatory, policy and strategy to operational management.

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