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Common sense must prevail

Posted on March 23, 2023

I’ve been wondering recently what construction industry professionals have been saying on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform Bill) and its potential impact on Health and Safety. I came across the headline: “UK government ‘woefully out of touch’ on health and safety standards” on the excellent Safety & Health Practitioner website.

The piece reported new research by Unchecked UK supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), investigating what the nation’s businesses think about regulation.

The survey found that 79 per cent are unwilling to accept lower health and safety standards as part of the Bill, with just seven per cent saying they are willing to accept lower standards.

Other key findings – which clearly play into wider conversations about the impact of Brexit and our national prosperity – are interesting too:

  • 68% think that these plans will cause more uncertainty for UK businesses.
  • 64% think that these plans will not boost economic growth in the UK, compared to 27% who think it will.
  • 63% think that these plans will restrict access to trade markets for UK businesses.
  • 53% do not believe that these plans will simplify regulation for the benefit of UK businesses.

Backwards steps

The equally excellent Construction News has been closely covering the story and most recently in relation to Work at Height regulations, which they state (rightly) are very popular in the sector. The publication says that “the prospect of losing the Work at Height rules has brought forth a torrent of protest from every corner of the industry.”

The author adds:

“If these regulations went, there would still be general legal protection under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. But the act is not specific to work at height, which is why the industry is alarmed.”

In my snapshot of comments, Suzannah Nichol, Build UK CEO says that jettisoning Work at Height rules would be a massive step backwards and has called on the government to ensure this does not happen. Rob Candy, Scaffolding Association CEO says: “Work at Height is not a burden” and the HSE will probably still follow the “good and clear” regulations even if they are abandoned through this bill.

Gwyneth Deakins, a senior HSE officer makes the same point, while Brian Berry, CEO of the Master Builders makes the point that I too have often made, namely workers would be left unprotected even in less dangerous situations than being up scaffolding, such as an office worker changing a light bulb.

More than 30 million people go to work every day in this country and between 20 and 30 people die falling from height every year. Prior to the Work at Height regulations it was double that. The current figure is still too many, but without the regulations we could return to those darker days.

There’s a method for building scaffold in the Work at Height regulations called ‘SG4’. When the sector first started talking about it, every scaffolder said it would take too long to follow, but we adapted and learned to put the scaffold up in the same amount of time.

It’s similar, to my mind, to asking people not to put on their car seatbelts. These days when you get in a car there’s an annoying beep until you have and I don’t think now there is anyone saying: “I hate belting up.” Similarly, does anyone in construction want to be unsafe working at height?

Shameless and unprincipled

David Mosley of the National Access & Scaffolding Confederation, says: “Most companies and operatives within the industry work safely to established best practice and guidance.” He adds:

“Without the relevant legislation, however, or even with a diluted version of the regulations in place, it is likely that less scrupulous operators would lower their standards, which would obviously have a detrimental effect on safety.”

Another reason health and safety in the UK works is because if you don’t comply, your company’s reputation will be damaged. It helps weed out the shameless and unprincipled. What does it say about a company if it allows a worker to work at height unsafely? It creates a narrative that the worker is not valuable. Is that the reputation we want for our country?


Health & Safety is good for business, because it’s about management and control and doesn’t rely on luck. And don’t think this ‘debate’ is just about health and safety. This retained EU law bill covers more than 3,000 statutes across public life from farming to travel, from employment rights to consumer protection. To allow them to disappear or ‘sunset’ is, I think, reckless without properly listening to concerns.

We’re a civilised society and can’t go backwards on a political whim. It’s hard to believe that we might be considering getting rid of something just because of where it comes from.

I hope common sense prevails.

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