Opinion

Brexit: we need to maintain our safety standards

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Following years of complex negotiations, a Trade and Cooperation Agreement has now been reached between the European Union (EU) and the UK, setting out the framework for future relations.


The deal is a welcome relief to many, firstly because it means that no tariffs or quotas will be introduced. However, there is change ahead for a range of sectors as they come to terms with a whole host of new rules and regulations affecting almost every aspect of the procurement and delivery of goods and services between the UK and the EU.

New rules mean new checks. As the UK will no longer be following the EU product standards, there will be more paperwork, which could cause problems at ports if firms are unprepared. Those wishing to supply goods into the single market, for example, must meet EU rules for product conformity, and this may mean complying with CE marking.

Peter McGettrick: "To some extent it is inevitable that the UK and the EU will move forward on at least slightly different paths."

Although there are no tariffs and quotas for now, the trade deal has not eliminated the possibility of these being introduced in the future. On areas like workers’ rights and environmental protection, if either side diverges too far from the shared rules then we can expect to see mitigating steps being taken.

To some extent it is inevitable that the UK and the EU will move forward on at least slightly different paths. Although EU legislation as it applied to the UK on 31 December 2020 now forms part of our domestic legislation, we can expect that certain parts of new UK legislation will not be implemented in the EU and vice versa. This presents challenges for those in the health and safety space as well as opportunities.

In the UK, the backbone of legal protection for employees is the HSWA 1974, which has stood the test of time. It has been augmented by a number of EU directives, all of which remain in UK law at present.

However, it is important to realise going forward there will be separate systems, with scope for different emphasis on (for example), risk assessment, control measures and safety standards – and that these will evolve in different directions over time.

The big question is whether the UK’s departure from the EU will dilute the UK’s health and safety legislative framework. It is not just health and safety in the workplace that could suffer as a result; the country’s standing as a leader in this fieldspace could be compromised.

In areas that are heavily regulated by the EU, such as in pharmaceuticals, it is possible that these sectors will steal a march in health and safety standards over time. In others, such as oil and gas or renewables, there may be opportunity for the UK to move forward and set the standard for others to follow.

We did see some limited changes take effect from 1 January 2021, but the Covid-19 crisis has made it tempting for businesses to ignore, or at the very least underestimate, the impact the end of the UK’s Brexit transition period will have.

What we do know is that whatever happens in the future, health and safety professionals need to both prepare their organisations for further changes and to seize opportunities, and ensure we are the ones setting the gold standard for the profession. 

Peter McGettrick is a member of the Board of Trustees of the British Safety Council.

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