The EU Commission has taken the UK to court over the wording of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act which, it claims, means the UK does not fulfil its obligations under EU law.
But the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) says that if the EU Commission wins it will turn back the health and safety clock by 40 years.
At the moment UK health and safety law works by balancing the risk with the costs of compliance – but if the EU Commission’s action is successful then this will have to change.
IOSH says that effectively this will mean that Britain will no longer be able to deal with big risks and leave trivial ones alone – and the dangers presented by envelopes, paperclips and plant pots will have to be treated in the same way as those presented by scaffolding and electrical equipment.
In this week’s hearing the EU’s legal service said the issue was the wording of section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees at work “so far as is reasonably practicable”.
The EU says that this effectively provides a get-out clause from Directive 89/391, which requires employers “to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to the work, primarily on the basis of…general principles of prevention”.
Under the EU Directive – which takes precedence over national law – the only time a balancing rule should be applied is under exceptional circumstances, which are extremely limited.
The case was started in 2005 but the hearing comes less than a month after the Health and Safety Commission called for a common-sense approach to health and safety which focuses on real risks which could cause harm and suffering rather than petty health and safety.
IOSH president Neil Budworth said: “If the UK Government loses the case, health and safety in this country could be turned back 40 years.
“All of our current legislation will have to be re-written and employers will be required to assess every risk, regardless of how small that risk is.
“The effect of this will be profound. It will drown many companies in red tape at a time when our profession, and the Health and Safety Executive, are doing their utmost to balance the scale of the risk against the effort to control it.
“The call by the European Commission for the UK to change its method of assessing risk comes despite the fact the UK has one of the best health and safety records in Europe.
“If this decision goes against the UK Government, all of the work we’ve put in to win confidence in the present system will be lost. We urge the Government to defend this case to the hilt, and call for the EC to drop this ridiculous case.”