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BREXIT: UK's 'gold standard' health and safety legislation is unlikely to change, says expert

FOCUS: UK legislation is generally seen as the 'gold standard' in health and safety and is unlikely to change substantially in the short term if the UK leaves the EU. 06 Apr 2016

This is part of Out-Law's series of news and insights from Pinsent Masons lawyers and other experts on the impact of the UK's EU referendum. Sign up to receive our Brexit updates by email.

The UK has one of the best health and safety records in the world, and relevant regulation dates back as far as the 19th century when the Factories Act and Health and Morals of Apprentices Act were passed. The foundation of the current health and safety regulatory system was established in 1974 by the Health and Safety at Work Act. UK legislation has one simple principle:  those who create risks are best placed to control them.

The current UK health and safety regime is made up of a combination of some laws that derive wholly from the UK itself and others made under EU directives. Since the UK joined the EU, a series of directives have been issued at the European level and transposed into UK law. For example, an important element of European occupational safety and health legislation is the Framework Directive, primarily implemented in the UK now by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. It establishes obligations for employers to identify, evaluate, avoid and reduce workplace risks. 

Once outside of European trade rules, the UK would be free to 'cut red tape' and deregulate, but political and social realities mean that the impact on health and safety related legislation is likely to be limited. Indeed, even within the EU there are plans to remove or consolidate regulation, to simplify the law and cut costs.

If the UK votes to leave the EU, however, the UK parliament is likely to affirm the status of existing legislation and amend it where needed to take the new relationship with the EU into account. Other countries outside the EU have taken a similar approach. For example, Norway's health and safety legislation accords with the Framework Directive, while Switzerland largely complies with EU standards despite having separate legislation.

The rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU would, of course, no longer be binding on the UK, but it is likely that these would remain influential and relevant in the short term at least.

In the short to medium term, therefore, it is unlikely that UK health and safety law would be subject to drastic change in the event that a decision is taken to part ways with the EU, especially if the country was to remain in EFTA and the EEA.

In the longer term the UK could diverge from EU legislation. Disengagement could well accelerate, and involve a process of determining which primary and secondary health and safety legislation is socially and economically useful to the UK. That could eventually lead to more substantial changes to some regulations, and the removal of others.

Kevin Bridges is a health and safety expert with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.