Robust health and safety legislation saves lives
Posted on February 14, 2023
There’s been a lot written and said recently about the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. It first went before the House of Commons in September last year and earlier this month it had its second reading in the House of Lords.
This blog has very little to do with politics, but this bill could have a direct impact on Health and Safety legislation in the future, so I have an opinion. And many others across both Houses and across all sectors of the media have theirs too.
A snapshot of examples of recent headlines include: “Retained EU law reform could be an ‘absolute disaster’ for working women, charity warns” (People Management); “Even Eurosceptics should be sceptical about the retained EU law bill” (The Financial Times); “Rishi Sunak urged to scrap Brexit bonfire of EU laws by business, green and workers’ groups” (iNews); “Health and Safety warnings grow around EU sunsetting bill” (Personnel Today); and “It’s not too late to drop Retained EU law bill before it wreaks chaos in our workplaces and courts” (Politics Home).
Bloomberg.com’s most recent article said that the bill to scrap all EU laws retained in the UK at the end of 2023 “risks more confusion and chaos” under the headline: “Sunak Heads Toward Another Brexit Cliff Edge”. This was also reported in the Washington Post – that’s right, it’s making news outside of the UK!
Regardless of where one stood on relations with the EU, the abolition of some 4,000 laws derived from Brussels is exorcising people on all sides of politics no matter the colour of their flag. A cross-party group of MPs, including senior Conservatives, are attempting to assert Parliament’s right to decide on the future of the EU laws – rather than ministers.
Lord Kirkhope (a former Leader of the Conservative Delegation in the European Parliament) wrote in Politics Home quoting former prime minister Theresa May,: “the decision to place existing European Union law on the United Kingdom statute book was taken to provide “maximum certainty” and for any changes to that law to be decided after “full scrutiny and proper debate”. However, this bill removes certainty, scrutiny and debate.
“I acknowledge that there are areas of the law that need improving but this must be done in a better considered manner, with Parliament playing a full role and a proper review process in place and certainly without a self-imposed arbitrary “cliff edge”.”
There’s that phrase again – “cliff edge” – and is particularly apposite when talking about health and safety regulations, because when it comes to the construction industry, for example, around 60 health and safety specific regulations may be affected. These include the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which fall within the definition of retained EU law and will be caught by the bill if it comes into force. In 2004, there were 67 fatalities arising from work at height, last year there were 29. These regulations have clearly had an impact.
The fact remains whether in or out of Europe we have to have the highest standards possible, be it food, business, health and safety of whatever. Our standards should not be set to make it easier or more attractive to invest in this country, because of less regulation. At no time did anyone say: “let’s leave Europe to have higher standards.”
A lot of legislation that we have in place has helped us create one of the safest countries in the world to work in. We aim for “maximum certainty” of getting people home safely and healthily at the end of the working day and at the end of their careers.
The UK’s Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 is like a classic rolls Royce, it’s beautiful and is brilliant in design, but like a classic Rolls Royce it’s probably as not fit for purpose today as it was 50 years ago. Any addition and any improvement should be welcomed especially as the world of work has changed so much in that time, particularly in the last few years.
It’s more difficult these days with home and hybrid working to ensure that the goal setting standard of the 1974 act is adhered to and I think it will have to change anyway at some point to reflect a changing society.
The practical application of the Work at Height regulations saved lives, and it’s not the ‘regs’ in themselves, it’s the thought process that it forces people to make that saves lives and creates a safer working environment.
There are important phrases in health and safety – are housekeeping standards good enough; are the control measures suitable and sufficient; is something reasonably practicable – and I love these words because they allow for continuous improvement. So, any loosening of legislation could allow for a slackening of standards and sporadic development.
I believe fewer people will be injured or die if we keep robust health and safety legislation in place, and we adhere to those good phrases. Rules are rules and are they are there for good reason.