Writing this article during the general election campaign, Sarah Friday explores the impact Brexit could have on health and safety legislation.
Since the triggering of article 50, Theresa May has offered assurances that existing workers’ rights will continue to be guaranteed in law through The Great Repeal Bill by a simple “lift and shift” of legislation.
However, pressure from her right-wing backbenchers and Parliament’s ability to remove or revise legislation previously determined by EU directives has fuelled speculation that a deregulatory government might want to make changes.
What could change?
The “six pack” of UK health and safety regulations
These are the most widely quoted health and safety regulations that came into effect after the European Commission issued six directives collectively known as the “six pack”.
The main set – Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, also known as the Management Regs – place a legal duty on employers to carry out risk assessments to ensure workplace safety.
Other regulations in the “six Pack” cover heating, lighting, ventilation, safe use of computer equipment, rest breaks, manual handling and personal protection.
The risk assessment principle is based on prevention, through limiting, or elimination of hazards and thereby minimising risk to workers.
There is concern that as a consequence of Brexit we could see the end as we know it of the principle of risk assessment. Although “good” employers may see the benefit in continuing with the process, others may decide to remove the need for a formal risk assessment.
Rather than accept a lift and shift of the Management Regs around risk assessment, we should campaign for improvement. Moving away from the “cost-benefit” factor the “six pack” focuses on, we could go back to the “so far as reasonably practicable” qualification set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Regs
The loss of free eye tests for DSE users could be another negative change as a result of Brexit. As well as campaigning to defend the regulations around this, we should also push for them to be updated to include new forms of technology, such as laptops and other mobile devices that have come about since the 1990s when the current regulations were written.
Working Time Directive (WTD)
The Working Time Directive currently states night workers should be able to access free health assessments and only work a maximum of eight hours.
The regulations also allow for a mere 20 minutes rest break when the working day exceeds six hours, a maximum of 48 hours people can be required to work averaged out over a 17 week reference period and a requirement for 11 consecutive hours of rest in any 24 hour period – none of which are historically progressive. Individuals are able to opt-out and a number of Napo members have chosen to do so.
The WTD does not deal with the complexity of issues arising from EU directives that have bought more flexible working and zero hours contracts.
These issues that are rife within our economy and increasing rapidly need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
New threat – Trade deals
It appears that TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) is now dead. What now looks likely is that post Brexit we will sign a trade deal with the USA. With this we should expect a lot of cut and paste from what was within TTIP.
This will be a significant threat to workers’ health and safety rights, particularly in connection with chemical control, where the US has lower standards – and in the name of free trade we would have to mirror those.
We also need to consider the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). This could mean that if a government introduces a law around occupational health and safety which a corporation believes will impact their profit; they can claim compensation for this from the taxpayer through ISDS. It won’t take many successful ISDS claims for governments to become reluctant about changing laws to improve worker health and safety.
This is where the big fight is going to be. The prospect of a UK/US trade deal is of serious concern. If this were proposed, trade unions would have to be part of a wider campaign against aspects of it that could lead to a worsening of standards, chemical control and environmental protections.
What will Napo do about it?
Napo will seek to get as much as possible from the regulations into local/national agreements.
Napo will also campaign with the TUC for more than a “lift and shift” of legislation – we want to see improvements. This is going to be difficult! Particularly as the changes are taking place against the backdrop of a chronically underfunded HSE. So we have to hold the Government to account and it is through the trade union movement that this will be achieved.
Napo National Official (Health and Safety)