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Written by
on 09 June 2016


The deadline for registering to vote in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership may have passed, but the campaign for both camps are still gathering pace. At some point the headlines have become hysterical, with both sides sharing their worst case scenarios.

The result has been confusion for employers and workers alike, making the voting decision much, much harder. So is it possible to cut through the scaremongering and hype surrounding just one subject – health and safety?

Lessons from history

Britain has a long history of working to improve conditions for workers, such as early bans on employing children in factories and mines. These actions helped to establish the UK as a leader in the field of worker safety.

Perhaps the pinnacle of our efforts has been the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974, which still offers protections and guarantees to British workers more than 40 years later.

The current trade union position

UK trade unions have come out strongly in favour of remaining in the European Union. Members of 10 trade unions, including Unite and Unison, have been advised that EU membership is vital to protecting workers’ rights.

These unions have gone as far as claiming that leaving the EU could present an “unrestricted, unchecked opportunity to attack our current working rights”.

Ignoring history?

A quick check of dates shows that the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force a year before Britain joined the European Community in 1975. This suggests that the UK is more than capable of creating robust laws to protect workers without the assistance of an external legislative body.

It is also interesting to see the HSE’s own updates on EU health and safety directives, which frequently use phrases similar to:

Many of the requirements contained in the Directive already formed part of health and safety law in Great Britain.” The reason is that the Health and Safety at Work Act covers almost every eventuality already.

Although an exit from the European Union could conceivably see the advances made by EU directives repealed, it is extremely unlikely that any government, regardless of party, would dismantle a law that has protected its citizens so well.

Conjecture and confusion

Could it be that trade unions are overstating their concerns to score political points? Absolutely. But if there is any doubt that standards may slip, the Unions do have a duty to their members to inform them. The reality is that the predictions from both Bremain and Brexit camps are based on the interpretation of current trends and worst case scenarios.

Like any referendum however, the decision is personal and everyone in the UK needs to consider the implications for themselves, their families and their employees. Although there could be damage to the economy and international trade, Britain’s own powerful legislation coupled with a history of protecting workers’ safety would suggest that their rights will survive any separation intact.

Now, its your turn

What are your views? Have your say in the comments section below.

A chartered safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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