• International Workplace
  • 6 June 2017

Protecting health and safety after Brexit: a need for new laws?

Health and safety protections are at risk from the Government’s Brexit plans, according to a new briefing published by the TUC, Protecting Health and Safety after Brexit.

The report claims that, although the Government has set out its intention in a white paper to transfer all existing health and safety protections from EU law to UK law, there are no guarantees for what happens afterwards.

The TUC says that the next Government must make sure that a commitment is written into the Brexit deal to, as a minimum, match present and future EU standards for workplace health and safety, otherwise existing protections will be vulnerable to erosion and repeal.

The union for unions comments:

“Since the referendum, the Government has consistently said that it does not wish to reduce existing employment protection. The official Government position, as set out in the White Paper in January, is to protect and enhance workers’ rights in the UK, and during the 2017 General Election campaign the Conservatives promised not to reduce existing EU rights at work, but this commitment is only for the coming Parliament and does not cover future EU rights if there are any improvements.”

The Government has already announced that it is to deal with the transition of EU regulation into UK regulation through a ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which will convert EU derived safety law into UK legislation.

The Great Repeal Bill, yet to be published, is expected to mean that all laws stemming from EU directives, including all the ‘Six Pack’ and the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, will be transferred into UK law. Directly effective laws that apply without the need for specific UK legislation, such as the REACH Regulations, will also be copied onto the statute book to achieve a ‘stable and smooth transition’. This will allow the UK to leave the EU without opening up gaps in the statute book. The Government says that parliament ‘will be able to decide which elements of that law to keep, amend or repeal’ after all the regulations have been transferred, but there will be no guarantees for the future, or assurances that existing rights will be protected unless there is a strong non-regression clause.

The TUC added;

“Despite promises that they will not reduce existing regulation, the Government’s record is not encouraging,

“Two years ago they forced through a law that removed millions of self-employed workers from any health and safety protection and the Government has already indicated that it wants to reduce existing EU protection. A report for the DWP on the HSE’s approach to Europe contained an Annex which outlined a number of proposals that the Government wanted to make to reduce health and safety regulation. These included repealing the Optical Radiation Directive, repealing part of the Chemical Agents Directive, abolishing the requirement for employers to provide eyesight tests for display screen equipment users, and removing the requirement for small, low risk businesses to make a written risk assessment. 

“The Government’s current deregulatory shopping list was written before the referendum took place, but it is very unlikely that the Government will drop its proposals to cut back on health and safety laws and the Great Repeal Bill might make it much easier for it to do so. Once Britain leaves, depending on any agreement with the EU, further reductions in protection could be pursued.”

The TUC has a list of new regulations that it believes are needed. That includes a commitment to remove all asbestos in the workplace; legally binding regulations on stress; a maximum temperature in the workplace; a duty on all directors to ensure safe working conditions; new standards on silica and diesel exhaust; a requirement on all medium and large employers to have safety representatives and a safety committee; and a new regulation on preventing musculoskeletal disorders.

“The Government also has to tackle the challenges that changes to the working environment and new ways of working could have on health and safety, as the gig economy grows, more and more people are – genuinely or otherwise – working for themselves, meaning they are not covered by the health and safety procedures of those they work for. If this type of work accelerates, the UK needs to introduce regulations to help protect such workers. Restoration of legal protection for the self-employed could be part of that, but a full review of employment status is also needed.”

The TUC has listed the following priorities for its campaign:

  • The TUC is calling for respect for EU health and safety standards to be at the heart of any future partnership agreement between the UK and EU to ensure that UK regulation remains in the future, as an absolute minimum, at the level afforded to EU workers. We will also revisit and intensify attempts to gain improvements in the existing British regulations to try to deal effectively with issues such as stress, carcinogens etc.
  • Britain should commit to ensuring that trade agreements include provisions that ensure both parties respect the Decent Work agenda that includes the ILO core conventions. In addition, the UK must sign up to those ILO health and safety conventions that it has not yet ratified. Trade deals should not contain special ISDS-style courts that allow corporations to challenge laws.
  • Since the referendum there has been a significant increase in abuse and threats against migrants. The TUC will continue to work with groups like Hope not Hate on ensuring that BME and migrant workers are protected from abuse, violence and discrimination at work, and also seek to secure the right to remain for EU migrant workers already here.
  • Our biggest protection against any assault on our rights is strong unions in every workplace. The TUC will be continuing its health and safety organising campaign which aims to ensure that health and safety issues are used to increase and strengthen the trade union presence.