The “leave” vote: what now for health and safety in the UK?

United Kingdom
Concern is already being expressed as to what impact the vote to leave could have on health and safety in the UK and understandably so, given the raft of European driven health and safety legislation in place. At this stage it is unavoidable that there are more questions than answers. However, sight cannot be lost of the strong UK-led approach to health and safety; an approach that must be expected to continue.

It is well known that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 established the current health and safety system in the UK, with “one simple but enduring principle – that those who create risk are best placed to control that risk”.  The Act remains the most enforced piece of health and safety legislation in the UK.  In 2007 there was the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, again a UK phenomenon and described at the time as “a landmark in law”.  Although critics may question just how successful the Act has been given the relatively limited number of prosecutions brought under it, the intention was clear.  In the UK, there must be accountability on the part of organisations.  In February 2016, definitive sentencing guidelines for Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences became enforceable in England & Wales.  The guidelines have been reported on widely, and introduce a tariff regime which paved the way for a dramatic increase in fines when organisations breach safety.  Again, a UK led initiative: the guidelines are a product of the Sentencing Council of England & Wales, an independent, non-departmental public body of the Ministry of Justice.

In October 2015, HSE published a “European Comparisons” paper, summarising the UK’s performance in contrast to other EU countries.  The paper highlights a number of findings.  Firstly, the UK consistently has one of the lowest rates of fatal injury across the EU.  Further, UK businesses were reported to be more likely to have documented health and safety policy, and more likely to undertake regular health and safety checks, than businesses in many other EU countries.  Statistics concerning: injuries resulting in sick leave, and time off work for work related health problems, also reflect favourably on the UK.  It is results like these which prompt the HSE to describe the UK as having one of the best combined health and safety records in the world, a model which continues to be used by many other countries as a basis for their own framework.  Indeed, organisations often employ their UK based safety management system regardless of which country or continent operations are taking place. 

Nevertheless it is inevitable that with such a vast quantity of European regulations forming part of the UK’s safety management system that there are questions and confusion following Friday’s vote: what happens now? 

Regulation of safety in the oil and gas industry is just one of many talking points, with the impact of European Directive, the Offshore Safety Directive 2013/30/EU still being widely felt.  Described as “the single biggest change affecting domestic offshore health, safety and environmental management in many years”, the industry remains in a state of transition.  Despite the UK safety regime being commonly regarded as “world class” the changes required by the Directive were extensive.  The industry worked hard with the regulator, investing a great deal of time in interpreting the Directive, consulting on proposed changes, adjusting to the new processes and educating their organisations.  Will this new regime vanish quicker than it took to implement it?

Although there seem to be few answers right now, what can be said is that it is most likely EU influenced health and safety legislation will continue in force, with new European led legislation continuing to be introduced and implemented at least in the short term.  Long term arrangements may seem less clear as the UK will need to seek to align its standards.  In the meantime, the only option available is to treat the UK health and safety regime as business as usual.

Find out more about the possible legal implications of a Brexit here.