Safety gear. Photo: Leslie Lauren
Health and safety: Another reason for staying in
Yesterday tens of thousands of trade unionists took part in activities to commemorate those who died through work. The theme of Workers Memorial Day was “strong laws, strong enforcement , strong unions”. To coincide with the day the TUC produced a report on the effect that the EU has had on our health and safety laws and what the implications of leaving might be.
Put simply, the report states that EU legislation has helped stop illnesses and injuries at work, and saved lives, therefore leaving the EU could put workers in the UK at increased risk of accidents or injuries in the workplace. This is not scaremongering but an acknowledgement of the practical difference the EU has had and the already stated desire of the British Government to deregulate further on health and safety.
Much of the health & safety law in the UK is now underpinned by the EU. Almost two-thirds of new British health & safety regulations introduced between 1997-2009 originated in Europe (41 out of 65 laws).
In 1973, when we joined the EU, there were 368 worker fatalities in Britain; this dropped to 142 last year. Over this period, the rate of deaths fell from 1.5 to 0.46 per 100,000 workers. Now I am not suggesting that some of this reduction would not have happened if it had not been for the EU but there is no doubt that the regulations had a significant effect in the workplace.
Equally important is what the Government has not been able to do because of Europe. The only major regulatory reduction they have managed is the exemption of many self-employed workers from the protection of health and safety regulation, and that was only possible because the Framework Directive (the main piece of EU regulation on health and safety) does not cover the self-employed. If the UK votes to leave the EU, the government would be able to decide whether or not to keep any protections derived from EU laws. There is no guarantee that they would keep health & safety legislation at its current level. In fact the government has already been quite open that it wants to reduce this so-called ‘red tape’ of EU protection. If you read the various reports that have been produced for the Government over the last few years a reoccurring theme has been that the EU has stopped the Government from dismantling the current legal framework by introducing laws to reduce protection by, for instance, exempting small businesses from risk assessments.
That is not to say that what the EU does on health and safety is enough. The lack of action on some of the biggest causes of death or ill-health has been appalling. The failure to agree a new directive on carcinogens is one example, likewise the failure to introduce effective regulation on stress and musculoskeletal disorders, but much of that is because of pressure from our own Government who try to block anything that has a whiff of employment protection about it. That is one reason why the number of new directives has halved in the past five years and this trend seems set to continue, as the European Commission’s most recent work programme abandoned 80 proposals and introduced just 23.
That is why the TUC is not saying that remaining in the EU is enough we also have to argue about the kind of Europe we want. One that is not afraid to introduce strong, effective, workers protection and show workers across Europe that the EU means something positive to them.