• Chris Streatfeild
  • 29 March 2017

BREXIT and Health and Safety: All change; No change; or No idea?

1974 is a key date that every safety professional knows. It was the year that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 came into effect. It was also just a year after the UK joined the EEC. On 29 March 2017, we trigger Article 50 – so removing us from the EU. In another 40 years, will we look back to 2017 as the date when we ‘took back control’ of Brussels bureaucratic ‘’elf n safety’ regulations? Or will we have buyer’s remorse when we realise the safety and trading benefits of EU Directives and harmonised safety standards? The short answer, who knows – but we can at least debate the challenges and opportunities ahead.

On 30 March 2017, nothing in practice will have changed from a health and safety perspective. UK primary and secondary legislation will remain in place and fully effective. Assuming the Great Repeal Bill progresses as anticipated even direct effect legislation such as the REACH Regulations will continue to apply. (REACH though will be an example of health and safety legislation that falls clearly in the complicated box – so its application in a few years’ time – who knows?)

The HSE, the UK’s main health and safety regulator, has been somewhat quiet on Brexit – albeit we understand that they have been active behind the scenes making the relevant case for health and safety. Being realistic, the complexity of the upcoming negotiations is such that health and safety will not be front of the queue – trading arrangements and immigration will get the lion’s share of air time. So, the HSE has a difficult job ahead in making its voice heard.  The HSE December 2016 Board Paper stated that:

“EU Business: We will continue to meet our EU health and safety obligations while the United Kingdom remains a member of the EU. What place health and safety has in Brexit will be decided as part of the UK approach and objectives for the exit negotiations. We are happy to receive views from stakeholders on what they think should happen to health and safety to help inform any future discussions.”

The draft HSE Business Plan 2017/18 (March 2017) reinforces the HSE’s ongoing commitment to:

“…ensuring the regulatory framework remains effective. This includes making sure that we are delivering the government’s regulatory agenda and supporting the UK’s exit from the European Union.”

What will happen in the coming years is less clear. Without analysing the detail and application of EU Directives and Regulations, how the UK will, should, could mutually align/recognise legislation and standards is unclear. If we wish to trade with the EU, we will still have to meet the applicable legislation and standards that apply. The UK is rightly recognised as a global leader in H&S – it would seem therefore unlikely that we would adopt lower standards. It seems self-evident that we will at least ensure our laws are of an equivalent standard. The challenge will come where politics and economics get involved. If we ‘don’t like’ the standard what do we then do? (Too complex here to discuss the options!)

In relation to standards, BSI has stated it:

“remains confident that membership of the European Standards Organizations – CEN, CENELEC and ETSI – should not be affected by Brexit.”

However, BSI also makes clear that UK participation is not guaranteed, so it is seeking feedback to support the case for continued BSI/UK membership in these organisations.

So, what can/should the UK health and safety community do to ensure the best possible outcome? It would be easy to ‘keep calm and carry on’.  The risk, however, could be we end up by default with new safety trading barriers due to the lack of harmonised standards; duplicate or conflicting health and safety laws; and perhaps worst – giving licence to businesses to treat H&S as an afterthought – counter the amazing progress made in the last 40 years.

However, I am very much a ‘glass half full’ person. The UK is leaving the EU – so how do we maximise the opportunities, not only for UK plc, but also ensure that H&S issues command the attention they deserve? My main recommendations are:

1. Get involved:

There are likely to be consultations coming out from the Government, HSE, IOSH, BSI and trade associations. Make sure your voice is heard by actively supporting and responding to them.

2. Global outlook:

We are seeing a much more global approach in safety standards setting. ISO, IEC and other international NGOs are increasing their profile and reach. The UK will no longer be able to sit behind the EU – so we will need to ensure we can properly represent the UK’s positive experience when influencing and developing global standards.

3. Safety is great:

Let’s shout about how good the UK is. The health and safety community has a great opportunity to leverage off the changes that lie ahead by championing the message Safety is Great. Let’s encourage the Government/HSE to promote the Great Britain campaign as vehicle to promote UK H&S best practice to a global community.

4. Innovate:

Perhaps the greatest strength of the UK is our innovation and entrepreneurialism. We are good at solving problems. Let’s properly invest in R&D and ensure health and safety is an essential element of the intellectual property (IP) and/or performance standards that will naturally follow. If we take the lead, it is more likely that others will follow.

The next few years will be challenging – uncertainty is perhaps an understatement. However, the safety community has an amazing opportunity to highlight the overwhelming benefits that good health and safety standards bring to businesses and UK plc – make sure your voice is heard.