The EU referendum on the 23rd June could have a significant impact on all areas of laws, regulations and working practices in the UK. One aspect that could be particularly affected is health and safety regulation.

The EU lays down a variety of health and safety legislation, as originally agreed in Article 153 of the Lisbon Treaty. These regulations deal with all facets of the workplace; from safety in the working environment to protection of workers’ rights. The EU regularly updates and amends its regulations, and all nations within the union are bound by them.

Therefore, a vote to leave could raise serious questions over a fundamental part of the UK’s health and safety infrastructure.

What legislation is under threat?

A consistent complaint amongst detractors of the EU is that health and safety regulation is implemented unevenly across the continent, and far too strictly in this country. A recent infographic from health and safety consultants Arinite shows that interpretations and conviction rates differ greatly between different European nations. This is especially true when it comes to the Working Time Directive, employee consultation, fire and explosions, and working from height.

Indeed, these are the areas that are most likely to be subject to change in the event of a Brexit, particularly if the government is inclined to make labour laws more flexible.

In terms of Working Time Rights, there may well be changes to the entitlement to paid sick leave. A 5.6-week holiday entitlement is also part of current EU law. However, an attack on this could prove extremely politically unpopular.

The Agency Workers Regulations 2010 has faced criticism for being costly to businesses, and could also face the axe.

Finally, some within the government and business pressure groups have complained that EU health and safety laws are often cumbersome and unnecessary. A Brexit may well see these laws streamlined and scaled back.

It is worth noting that these changes would not happen overnight. If Britain leaves the EU, there would be a two-year transitionary period where Britain would still have to follow EU regulation.


What does this mean for UK businesses?

If the UK does decide to leave, then the outlook for businesses depends on the government’s post-exit approach. It may be that the UK cuts off formal partnerships with the European community altogether, in which case radical changes to regulation could occur.

An alternative is that Britain continues to participate in the European Economic Area, whilst withdrawing politically from the EU. In this case, much of the existing health and safety regulation may actually continue. For example, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland have a similar arrangement under the European Trade Organisation (EFTA). However, they are still subject to most EU workplace health and safety laws.

Changes may still occur if Britain decides to remain in the EU. European leaders could then be more sympathetic to British calls for the reduction of red tape in business regulation. This could lead to the renegotiation of treaties, targets and directives.

Whatever the case, businesses face a degree of uncertainty about the future of health and safety in the workplace.