Brexit - 5 Considerations for Workplace Health
The clock is ticking, and whether or not we get an extension, Britain will soon leave the European Union. Deal or no deal, chaos or no chaos, uncertainty hangs in the air as nobody knows for sure what the outcome will be. Many industries will be affected, but a quick Google search of “Brexit” shows that the main talking points surrounds freight, farming, the economy and immigration. While these are all important topics, there has been little mention on the impact of workplace health and safety.
Employers have a legal obligation to reduce dust and harmful pollutants for their workers to ensure a safe and suitable environment. Yet the majority of occupational health directives in the past 20 years have derived from EU legislation. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) ministers are also promising a “Green Brexit”, but this has largely focused on the agriculture, fishing and food industries, not the environmental impact of workplace health and safety.
In this article, Robin Travis, Managing Director at dust suppression experts Renby, explains his five considerations for workplace health, and how the UK can grab Brexit as an opportunity as we near the home stretch.
Prevent Dust Danger
Around 12,000 lung disease deaths each year are estimated to be linked to past exposures of toxic substances at work. Workplace air monitoring is essential, as some dusts (such as respirable) are small enough that they are invisible to the naked eye, and cannot be naturally filtered out through the nose or throat, causing serious health problems with prolonged exposure.
Ranging from mildly serious to life-threatening, some conditions can be worsened by breathing in dust, including silicosis, asthma and lung cancer. There is a standard to control hazardous substances such as dust in the workplace, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002, however the UK-instrumented act implements several European Union directives. Before the 29 March hits, these regulations must be considered, acted upon and rectified immediately to establish if our national exposure limits need to change.
The mental and physical health of workers proves critical to their productivity, leading to many business benefits. Yet it’s often not looked at as a main priority in a business or government strategy. There has been a lot of talk around the NHS and the benefits and potential drawbacks of Brexit, but far less has been said on the health and safety arena of the workplace. Despite financial concerns and urgency surrounding the leave date, legislation should not be watered down for profits to take priority, as both go hand in hand.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 is a home-grown, UK legislation, but a lot of our current goal-setting framework for health and safety stems from EU directives. One of such is the proactive health and safety risk assessment which was laid down in the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC. The risk assessment gives us actionable principles concerning the prevention and protectors of workers against accidents and illnesses. With the EU’s legislation control going, we should take advantage of the UK’s world-leading health and safety culture to create new regulations and obligations for risk assessing.
There have always been issues surrounding asbestos exposure. Some companies are guilty of being too relaxed around the toxic fibres, due to the financial impacts of rectifying asbestos in buildings. However they must think long-term as asbestos can strike after more than 20 years, leading to a number of diseases including lung cancer.
After Brexit there is unlikely to be a massive change in the way that the UK regulates asbestos, as the country has been one of the leading influential factors on the EU’s asbestos regulations, also introducing the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002. The HSE is also heavily involved in the development of laws in the UK and EU. However there is still doubt from industry experts which suggests that we need to improve regulations. Officials such as Hugh Robertson, Senior Policy Officer for Health and Safety at the Trades Union Congress, stressed recently: “There are still millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products in the UK’s infrastructure, and toxic exposures are still a fact of life for many workers. We must ensure that, in the future, current protections are not only maintained but improved.”
The UK chemicals industry is regulated through a framework largely based on EU legislation. REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) ensures that all EU companies register chemicals with the European Chemicals Agency before they are sold, to ensure human health and environment protection, which benefits both the employer and the workforce The UK has said that if there is no deal, companies which are REACH-registered would no longer be able to sell into the EEA market without transferring registrations to an EEA-based organisation. Companies should take preparatory action now, in the last-resort event that this may have to happen later.
Despite former Brexit secretary David Davis pledging that Brexit will not plunge Britain into “Mad Max dystopia”, some remain unconvinced. The government has itself said that it must prepare for every possible situation. It remains to be seen how the leave vote will impact the environment and health and safety at work, but the government and businesses need to take into account the above points to ensure that the UK’s world-leading reputation in health and safety continues.
Nobody knows the outcome yet. One thing that is for certain - we need to know the regulations sooner rather than later. For a smaller business it may be easier, but for the larger guys out there it will take them much longer to respond. We don’t need or want any more chaos.