EU health and safety laws have protected workers’ rights, says TUC

'We would be foolhardy to risk losing this significant success for workers


Today is the TUC’s International Workers’ Memorial Day, which commemorates those who have lost their lives through work-related incidents and issues.

Such tragedies are all the worse because they are avoidable – and unions are determined that they should not be repeated.

This can be best done by building stronger unions and campaigning for stricter enforcement with higher penalties for breaches of health and safety laws. Stricter regulation, backed by effective enforcement and strong trade unions, saves lives.

A report published today by the TUC has pointed to the role that membership of the EU has had on health and safety protections at work in the UK.

This is a huge benefit of itself, and one that is frequently overlooked in discussion of ‘overweening’ EU regulation. However, it is also worth reflecting on the costs that are saved by having a healthier, safer workforce.

The UK had health and safety protections prior to their implementation in EU legislation, of course, but the new directives did lead to changes in existing laws on display screen equipment and manual handling.

And as the years have gone by, unions across Europe have managed to extend these provisions, requiring successive governments to expand the protection for workers relating to noise, harmful chemicals and work at height, as well as protection for specific groups of workers, like pregnant women and part-time workers, and specific regulations covering areas such as construction work, asbestos and offshore work.

Putting a figure on how many injuries these measures have prevented is difficult, but since the 1989 directives came into place fatalities at work have fallen from 1.4 to 0.46 per 100,000.

This continues a downward trend that began with the introduction of the 1974 legislation. Some of these changes will be a result of structural changes in the workplace but much of it is also attributable to legislation, regulation and enforcement.

In some areas we can point more directly to the benefits of specifically European legislation. Research by Nautilus the seafarers’ union points to the beneficial impact of recent EU restrictions on particulates in fuels in seafaring vehicles.

The Sulphur directive came into effect in January 2015, limiting the maximum allowable sulphur content in marine fuels used within the European Emissions Control Area (ECA) from the previous limit of 1.0 per cent to 0.1 per cent. The Government’s own consultation on the sulphur content of marine fuel found that:

‘In 2008, the burden of particulate air pollution in the UK was estimated to be equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths and is expected to reduce the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by 6 months on average, at a cost of around £16 billion per year.’

In areas where this regulation is not in place, such as the South West of England and Ireland, the maximum sulphur content is 3.5 per cent.

Giving an extra six months life-expectancy to everyone in the UK is obviously beneficial, but what about the costs that this regulation places on UK businesses? There have been a number of reviews of health and safety regulation in the UK. One by Professor Lofstedt found:

‘The increasing influence of the EU in health and safety regulation has provided a number of benefits to the UK.

The more prescriptive nature of much of EU legislation may have helped small businesses who often welcome greater certainty over what they are required to do.

Where EU Directives have been implemented, it has provided an opportunity to consolidate a number of previous sets of regulations.

Furthermore, the Directives provide a level playing field across Europe, which can help competitiveness, particularly as UK health and safety law was already well established’.

The review by Lord Davidson also found little evidence that the much maligned gold-plating of EU legislation (improving on what is required by EU law) of UK health and safety legislation.

Such regulation has serious benefits for the UK, not just for the safety and well-being of workers – which is the main point – but in economic terms too.

Professor Lofstedt provides a case study where one regulation (the Manual Handling Operations Regulations) had resulted in a ‘a six per cent reduction in sickness absence and 50 per cent fall in lost time due to accidents directly as a result of measures introduced to comply with the law’.

European Union health and safety regulation has prevented avoidable deaths and injuries at work, it has saved money for businesses through loss of staff time, and it has done so without becoming a costly bureaucratic burden, despite sniping from Eurosceptics about the costs to small businesses.

It represents a significant success on behalf of workers and the European Union, and we would be foolhardy to risk it.

Kam Gill is a policy officer for the Trades Union Congress

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.