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Will Brexit be good or bad for UK occupational health and safety?

The EU referendum vote has led to financial, economic and political turmoil. But how will Brexit affect UK occupational health and safety? Nic Paton asks practitioners for their views.

Naturally, what with every­thing else going on politically and economically since the vote, this is not something that has been raised in the mainstream media especially, but it is an important question nevertheless. Given that Brexit is set to be a long, drawn-out process – two years at the minimum – it is difficult to make any hard-and-fast predictions at this early stage.

However, the consensus among experts contacted by Occupational Health & Wellbeingin the wake of the June vote is that the conse­quences of Brexit could be felt most keenly in two areas. There is the potential knock-on effect for health and wellbeing spending if we see a downturn in the economy, as well as the possibility of health and safety legislation being amended or watered down, either retrospectively or (more likely) in the future.

As Dr Paul Nicholson, chairman of the British Medical Association’s occupational medicine committee, explains: “The economic climate and how the markets are reacting, as we have seen, is very uncertain. When companies’ profits decline, one of the things they often look to cut is headcount, and health and wellbeing will often not be seen as a profit centre and therefore could be something that gets looked at.”

“I am sure our politicians will be focused on lots of other things initially, but I would not be surprised if there was, in the long term, some abandoning of red tape in the health and safety arena,” he adds.

Professor Diana Kloss, chairman of the Council for Work and Health, agrees this is a worry. “I am con­cerned that the UK’s health and safety and equality law may be watered down. Although the Health and Safety at Work Act was a home-grown product and we had some legislation in the field of discrimination before we joined the EU, most of the laws we have now stem from EU directives and decisions of the Luxembourg court,” she points out.

“For example, before the EU, employers had no obligation to undertake proactive health and safety risk assessments; organisations were free to discriminate against part-time workers, mainly women; there was no universal right to paid holidays; and we had no laws prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

“Of course, exiting the EU does not mean leaving the Council of Europe and we will still have to take into account decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, though UK legislation in the human rights field is also proposed,” she adds.

Curbing some of the excesses of EU health and safety bureaucracy may not, of course, be a bad thing. Nicholson, for one, highlights the EU-led Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations and the need for employers to fund eye tests and glasses for workers using display screen equipment.

“Arguably, why should an organi­sation pay for this when people are reading on computers just as much from home as they are at work? That is the sort of example where perhaps EU law has gone too far. The UK also has a very good track record of its own on health and safety,” he points out.

Similarly, the EEF’s chief medical adviser, Professor Sayeed Khan, highlights the EU’s “rubbish” Artificial Optical Radiation Directive and the potential benefit of being able to remove the need for health surveillance from the Electromagnetic Fields Directive. But he adds: “One bad thing is the potential loss of exchange of infor­mation between the inspectors at the HSE-equivalent [Health and Safety Executive] organisations across Europe.”

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