Published on May 17th, 2016 | by Prospect2
Brexit could cost you an arm and a leg!
By Sarah Page, Prospect Research Officer
With the UK having an exemplary health and safety record, some may question the European Union’s value to worker protection: does the EU make any difference?
For opponents of EU membership, the deregulatory ’red tape’ bandwagon is available to jump on. It gained considerable impetus in 2010 when the Coalition Government took office and has been trundling around the EU, forcefully steered by David Cameron’s Conservative administration.
Claims in the UK that we have ‘gold-plated’ health and safety law prompted a series of government-sponsored reviews and the ‘red tape challenge’. However their analyses, including reports from Professor Löfstedt, Director of King’s Centre for Risk Management, and Martin Temple, former director-general of the EEF, could find no evidence; while the true problem tarnishing the reputation of health and safety regulation – that is, media-generated myths – have been largely debunked by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) through its very successful campaign. Hopefully you have noticed the welcome decline in health and safety being ridiculed. But you may not be aware of the extent to which the deregulatory agenda has found favour in Europe.
So returning to the question – does this matter? – my reaction is a resounding yes! Particularly when donning a trade union lens in place of a health and safety practitioner lens. As a practitioner and former HSE inspector, I recognise the successes that have been achieved through our legal framework generating a mature health and safety culture in many organisations and sectors. The construction industry epitomises advancing standards when you consider the internationally-acclaimed success of the construction of the London 2012 Olympics site against its dark fatal accident past. The UK has set new health and safety benchmarks for the world.
However, it would be jingoistic to ignore the EU influence when you also recognise the project’s emphasis on health and relative appreciation of the needs of migrant workers. So perhaps it is no surprise that, also in 2012, the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) published an evaluation of the implementation of EU regulation which concluded favourably that ‘The current portfolio of health and safety legislation and Approved Codes of Practice has contributed immeasurably to health and safety in the UK.’
Yet for me it is the trade union frame of reference that most strongly influences my personal take on the European question. As a torchbearer of the union effect – that is, the proven reduction in worker accidents and ill-health when our health and safety representatives are effectively involved in health and safety decision-making – I am unequivocal about its vital contribution to protecting the UK workforce. This relies heavily on social dialogue and while the Health and Safety at Work Act, the law providing for worker consultation, predates the Single European Act, it is Europe we have to thank for the provisions and guidance that support a collaborative approach. This is informed in part by the tradition of works councils that is the norm in other member states.
Consider too ‘risk assessment’, a pragmatic approach at the heart of today’s health and safety management success. The implication to risk assess is there in the Health and Safety at Work Act, but it is the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations that make explicit the duty on employers to risk assess as a means of identifying appropriate precautions. The Management Regulations formed part of the ‘6 pack’ UK response to the 1989 health and safety Framework Directive.
These are merely two examples of how the EU has strengthened health and safety protection for UK workers, giving us a stronger voice and say in risk control measures. Other examples include the requirements of our regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, which has had to tighten some UK law: for instance, on asbestos.
Prospect members will know all too well how hard-hit HSE has been by reviews, cuts and ministerial interference and that it is alarmingly stretched. We should be thankful therefore that we as workers, and as HSE stakeholders, are protected by the powers vested in our EU allegiance. Brexit could cost us an arm, a leg…. who knows what price? Far better to seek to improve the EU from within than risk what TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says: ‘Bad bosses will be rubbing their hands with glee if Brexit gives them the chance to cut workers’ hard-won protections.’