• Hayley Saunders
  • 18 July 2018

Brexit – implications for health and safety in the UK

Brexit continues to cause uncertainty across the UK political, economic and social landscape, and domestic health and safety law is no exception. With much of the UK’s health and safety legislation being derived from EU policy, extricating UK health and safety law from the EU is an intimidating prospect for legislators. Many people who voted to leave the European Union see Brexit as an opportunity to dispense with ‘red tape’ and regain greater control over the legislative direction of the country. However, whether this is realistic or not remains to be seen.

The EU-driven regulatory framework is now so enshrined in our law that stripping this back completely may do more harm than good. It is important that each piece of legislation is judged on its own merits and effectiveness and not discounted just because it is derived from the EU.

Any changes to health and safety law are likely to be slow and it will take time for the true impact of Brexit on the wider health and safety framework to become evident.


Risk of detrimental deregulation

Many are concerned that leaving the EU will lead to detrimental deregulation of health and safety in the UK as businesses and individuals will no longer be obliged to adhere to EU standards.

EU membership has delivered wide-ranging health and safety benefits to UK workers and the current thinking is that, post-Brexit, the UK should continue to adhere to current standards to ensure protection for workers remains at the highest level.

For many industries, including manufacturing and food production, it is important for the UK to retain its position as a leader in the health and safety sphere to continue to attract investment from top companies and keep producing world leading goods.

Ultimately, health and safety goes hand in hand with successful and sustainable business and so business leaders are likely to want to stay as aligned as possible with the high standards of the EU.


Business as usual

While we have been a member of the EU for decades, the UK’s membership of the EU was preceded by the main health and safety statute in the UK, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

The Act has been fundamental to the UK obtaining its position as a world leader in health and safety and is not at all connected to European law. Therefore, it would be remiss to expect that Brexit will lead to a mass reduction in the health and safety obligations of companies and individuals in the UK as these are largely underpinned by the Act.

A lot of the legal requirements associated with EU directives and regulations are already embedded in company systems, corporate social responsibility policies and health and safety performance targets. It is widely felt that if there were to be drastic change, this could increase costs and affect trade.

Businesses based in the UK will want to continue to trade with the EU so they will be commercially motivated to continue to apply effective and efficient risk based management systems which aligned with the EU and the existing, long standing and effective health and safety culture in the UK.


An opportunity

Brexit could herald a new opportunity for the UK to consolidate and simplify the multitude of complex EU legislation that has been adopted, not just around health and safety but more generally as well.

Of course, any simplification of the legislation must ensure compliance with existing standards in order to be effective, but a consolidation exercise could make the requirements easier to comply with, easier to understand and easier to implement for employers and individuals. This in turn would make the UK a more attractive place to do business.

With more control over the letter of the law and the legislative timetable, the government may have the option to modernise UK health and safety law to bring it up to date with emerging technology and new working practices more quickly than our EU counterparts. This could be an excellent development for businesses looking to invest in the UK and positive for the UK’s reputation as a world leader in health and safety.

There is a suggestion that the role of the HSE may evolve post-Brexit. Its enforcement function may diminish and it may become more of a consultative body. This would involve the HSE working with outside bodies to set frameworks to fill the gap left by the EU as a high level advisory body on health and safety. Again, this would mean that the UK could take more control over the direction of health and safety law and practices independent of the European Union and implement requirements that promote growth and innovation in the UK in the future. All of this is speculative and remains to be seen.

Overall, Brexit is likely to have a limited impact on the existing law around health and safety but it will be interesting to see how the UK is able to take a more flexible approach to new health and safety legislation in the future. Our advice is ‘business as usual’ in relation to health and safety. A departure from the EU is no reason to depart from the robust and comprehensive systems our UK businesses already have in place. Watch this space.


Hayley Saunders is a Partner at Shoosmiths LLP.