Greg Wright: Everyone has the right to survive the working day

IT'S the most fundamental workplace right, but we cannot assume it will always be respected.

There is no room for complacency about health and safety at work as Brexit approaches, says Greg Wright Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Everyone is entitled to a safe working environment. Sadly, 144 people were killed at work over the last financial year. despite the existence of health and safety legislation which was supposed to protect them.

The number of fatal injuries in UK workplaces may have fallen by around 85 per cent since 1974, but there is no room for complacency as Brexit approaches. In 2016, there were also an estimated 2,595 mesothelioma deaths due to past asbestos exposure at work. Asbestos is a silent killer that can strike decades after the victim has retired.

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There is near paralysis at the heart of Government because ministers are overwhelmed by the latest twists and turns in the negotiations with the EU.

There is a grave danger that the Government will not be able to focus on unfinished business at home because of Brexit. Some of these concerns relate to fine-tuning health and safety legislation to ensure fewer people die at work. EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, is calling on the Government to stay in the EU’s health and safety regimes after Brexit.

Just three per cent of the firms surveyed by the EEF want the UK to revert to pre-EU health and safety legislation after Brexit. British firms want to raise standards across Europe after Brexit and operate seamlessly when the UK leaves the EU.

Lee Pickering, head of heavy manufacturing at Arco, said: “We agree that a rapid change in regulation post Brexit isn’t the correct approach, as it would cause disruption, but we also believe Brexit affords us an opportunity to review and improve health and safety regulations within the UK.

“What we don’t want to see happen once we leave the EU is the Government using Brexit as a justification for complacency, as there are issues within our current framework that urgently need addressing if we are to ensure the safety of UK workers.”

Arco and the EEF have published a report “Making Health and Safety Work for UK Business - manufacturers’ concerns in a post-Brexit world” which takes a look at the impact of the changes to health and safety fines introduced in 2016.

In the manufacturing sector, fines doubled between 2015/16 to 2016/17 from £12.5m to £25.1m, resulting in an average fine of just under £160,000.

Despite this increase, two fifths of companies have taken no action to review their procedures, while a third of companies have not seen any increase in the involvement of senior management in health and safety since 2012, bucking a long term trend of improvement.

According to the report, the fact that substantial changes in sentencing guidelines and increased fines have not altered company behaviour shows they are not changing management culture. They are merely a “blunt tool” revenue raising exercise, according to the EEF.

The report argues that the revenue raised from fines should be ring-fenced and used to promote health and safety, while courts should have stronger powers to issue orders with the aim of bringing about lasting improvements to health and safety management practices. There is no point in imposing tougher penalties if it doesn’t force companies to make their workplaces safer.

Paul Scholey of trade union law firm Morrish Solicitors said: “Over a million workers get injured every year and 25,000 people are forced to give up work because of injury or illness caused by work. So employers are still taking risks with their workers’ health.”

He added: “The majority of workplace claims settle for under £5,000 - there is no “free lunch” for claimants, and our clients would overwhelmingly sooner wind the clock back so as not to suffer injury, than pocket a few quid for compensation.”

Brexit is supposed to be about taking back control. The Government must use the dawn of a new era to give the courts powers to throw the book at negligent employers while rewarding good behaviour.

We all have the right to survive the working day.