The law relating to an accident at work, or industrial disease, has been through a number of changes over recent decades.
Britain began with the basic duties:
– To provide a safe system of work (making sure the job is done safely)
– To provide a safe place of work (making sure the work environment is safe)
– To provide a competent staff of men (to ensure other employees were safe workers)
– To provide adequate plant and material (to ensure the employee was provided with appropriate equipment to do the work safely)
These laws are part of the law of negligence. This means that a judge would consider whether the actions of the employer were reasonable, considering a number of factors such as the cost, the likelihood of something causing injury, whether other injuries had happened before, and so on.
In the law of negligence there must be:
- A duty of care (in the workplace there nearly always is between employer and employee) and
- A foreseeable risk of injury if that duty of care is breached (i.e. is it likely that if the employer does not suitably look after the employee is it predictable the employee might be injured?)
Joining the EU – a step up
The European Union however introduced stricter and more specific health and safety laws. Countries that are part of the European Union must copy these laws into their own national laws, the idea being that all the member states will have the same laws so as to foster unity and so forth.
For example, when the European Union introduced the Manual Handling of Loads Directive in 1990, Britain followed by introducing the Manual Handling and Operations Regulations 1992, which copied the EU law into Britain’s own law.
Whereas before 1992 if someone suffered an accident at work lifting something heavy the case would be decided on the law of negligence as above (i.e. was it predictable the employee would be at a risk of injury?) after 1992 the case would focus on the stricter and more specific 1992 Regulations, which specified a risk assessment must be done and so forth.
The effect therefore was to upgrade and enhance British health and safety law to higher standards. Between the early 1990s and 2013 Britain’s workers were arguably some of the best protected and safest in the world.
2013 – an unexpected change?
In 2012 the Government was bringing in a new law (The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013) to deal with a number of unrelated things when at the very last minute, and still no one knows why, the Act was amended to include a section that stated the EU health and safety laws would not have automatic effect in UK civil law (they do still have automatic effect in criminal law but they are barely used in this way so it is little consolation).
What this means is that whereas in the past if an employer did not comply with one of the EU health and safety laws, such as not carrying out a manual handling risk assessment, they would be automatically liable for compensation, now there would be no such automatic right.
This therefore acted as a break away from EU law years before the Brexit vote.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of Workplace Health and Safety Laws – Effect of Brexit