How the EU Referendum could affect UK health and safety laws

On June 23rd the UK made a bold decision to leave the EU. It was the nation’s biggest vote, which saw the country very much divided, with the Leave campaign coming out with a majority of only 52%. Leaving the rest of Europe puts the UK in a position of uncertainty with a host of changes set to happen.

A considerable proportion of the UK’s health and safety regulation originates in Brussels. This has its foundation in Article 153 of the Lisbon Treaty. Under this agreement, the EU provides a framework of legislation for all areas of working life which includes workplace safety, labour relations, and working hours. These regulations are amended on a regular basis and theoretically are enforced throughout the 28 countries which make up the European Union.

How are EU health and safety laws perceived by the business community?

This has long been a controversial issue within the business community. There are many who see the system of regulation as necessary for trade within the common market. Although some UK business owners will not agree, there are lots of arguments that EU health and safety laws help protect the wellbeing of workers.

On the flip side, some business interest groups have been unhappy with regulations and consistently complained about EU health and safety laws. They argue that the legislation produced in Brussels is bureaucratic, cumbersome and hinders commerce. Some organisations will be pleased with the outcome, as it will allow British government to shape its own health and safety framework, without restriction.

Another source of contention is the inconsistent implementation of health and safety laws on the continent. According to Darren Smith, a consultant for Health and Safety consultants Arinite, Britain is amongst the strictest in following the rules. Other European countries are much more lax, which can be seen in difference of interpretation, of the Working Time Directive. Employee consultation, fire and explosions and working from height.

What legislation could be re-evaluated?

With all the criticism, a Brexit will see a clamour for reform. This could really pick up traction, given that the current government is generally inclined towards cutting ‘red tape’ and restructuring labour laws.

To start with, Working Time Rights could be altered. Currently, EU workers are entitled to a minimum of 5.6 weeks of holiday per year, along with an allocation of sick leave. However, changes to holiday entitlement would be hugely unpopular amongst the public, it would be very difficult to push through and change. A much more likely scenario is cutting paid sick leave.

The Agency Workers Regulations 2010 has been attacked on grounds of cost to businesses, and could face the axe.

There could also be a whole range of health and safety regulations which are considered a burden and time consuming, which would be reconsidered.

What is the outlook?

One of the most important thing to remember, none of these changes will happen overnight. Now we know we are leaving, there will be at least a two-year transitionary period in which all EU law would still be in place.

What happens after this transitionary period is very variable. Much of it will depend on what kind of relationship a post-exit UK forms with Europe. Some Leave campaigners are calling for a complete withdrawal from all participation with the EU. This would enable the UK to have unchallenged alterations of Health and Safety law and regulations.

Alternatively, the Brexit will see the UK leave the EU but remain a part of the European Economic Area. This is a position occupied by Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland under the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). However, we must take into consideration that this does not mean free trade, without any legislations. All nations in the EFTA still comply with almost all of the EU workplace health and safety laws.

Due to the likelihood of the UK becoming part of the EFTA, the majority of EU laws would not be transformed by the Brexit.

With the UK stepping out of the European Union it will be fascinating to see what changes might just happen in our work places.

Marco SaccaAuthor: Marco Saccà is an Italian journalist based in London, where he works as a digital marketing executive and freelance writer. He loves writing about business, entrepreneurship and startups.

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