An EU Exit must not be used as a pretext to dismantle hard won rights and protections including Health and Safety Standards
This was the clear message from delegates at the 8th Annual NIPSA Health and Safety Conference on 24 October 2017 in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast. The theme of this year’s Conference was “The Impact of an EU Exit on Health and Safety”.
Opening the Conference, NIPSA President Carmel Gates opened her remarks by questioning whether the European Union which is dominated by the power of multi-nationals can really represent workers interests. The powerful lobby of the rich means that regulations, laws and the courts are designed to act in the interests of the 1% not the 99%.
She went on to say that whether we are in or out of Europe our Health and Safety protections are being eroded. She quoted the former Work and Pensions minister Chris Grayling MP who stated “of course it is right to protect employees but Britain’s health and safety culture is stifling business”. But she pointed out that these attacks didn’t start with the Tories but under the Blair government with the introduction of the misnamed Better Regulations Taskforce the purpose of which was to reduce regulations in the interests of business. This theme continued with the Tories who promised to reduce the burden on business irrespective of the impact on workers safety and she listed some of the negative effects of the modification or elimination of regulations and laws over recent years.
She stated that the relaxation of building regulations that led to the deaths of innocent people in Grenfell, in the richest borough in London, was a shameful disgrace. This and other atrocities have happened whilst we are in the EU. Recently the Labour Party under Corbyn has tried to bring forward legislation for housing that would strengthen protections for tenants but these have been blocked by the Tories. Former Tory housing minister Brandon Lewis MP said that the requirement for builders to install sprinklers ‘discourages building works’.
Carmel went on to say that an economic system that is based on profit cannot provide adequate protections for workers. The voice of the poor will always be drowned out by the needs of the rich as it was in Grenfell. She stated that is only in a socialist economy when society is based on fairness and run for the benefit of all that workers can expect to be protected.
Carmel praised the work of the Health and Safety Committee and thanked workplace health and safety reps for the very hard work they do on our members’ behalf. .
We were delighted to welcome Owen Reidy, NIC-ICTU Assistant General Secretary, to deliver the keynote address. In his address he said:
“I want to congratulate the NIPSA health and safety committee for organising an excellent conference on the possible threats to health and safety with the pending exit from the EU. I also want to thank NIPSA for the invite to speak at this conference. The conference brought together over 100 elected health and safety trade union reps/experts to take a strategic look at where health and safety may be headed post a Brexit. Unlike many of the conferences/seminars around Brexit and its threats, this conference sought to develop strategies and approaches to address the threat.
We in NIC-ICTU are firmly of the view that progressive workers’ rights and health and safety regulations which have emanated from the EU over the years where not granted to us by the kindness of strangers, but where hard fought for by trade unions and other progressive left parties who have always and continue to argue for a more social Europe. We also believe that one of the benefits of devolution in Northern Ireland has been the fact that employment law, including health and safety legislation has been and remains a devolved matter. Therefore, post a Brexit we believe there is no impediment for the Assembly to transpose into law in Northern Ireland any progressive EU regulation in the area of employment rights. This is obviously based on devolution returning in the short to medium term and the prospects of that remain to be seen. However, in that event, it would be foolish of us to think that if the current Tory government continue with their bungled and incoherent approach to negotiations and lead the UK to a very hard Brexit that pressure will not be applied on Northern Ireland to deregulate further. This is something all trade unions and those of us in this society who want to see better work and better lives for workers must resist.
The ICTU has engaged with all of the political parties at Stormont, the EU negotiators, the UK government, the UK Labour party, the Irish government and our trade union colleagues across these islands promoting the ICTU policy paper on Brexit launched at the BDC in Belfast July 2017. We need to seek to ensure that workers do not pay the price of Brexit and this also means the protection and enhancement of employment law including health and safety law.
In November 2017 the NIC will be launching Better Work Better Lives – the trade union campaign for a fair share for All. Northern Ireland is a low wage economy whereby 1 in 3 workers feel their employment is insecure. Public investment has been cut by 10.2% since 2010 which is affecting communities and services. Public servants have become poorer with the imposition of the 1% pay cap. For these 3 reasons we believe this campaign is necessary. From a health and safety perspective we know that insecure and poorly paid work affects workers mental health. We want NIPSA health and safety reps, NIPSA shop steward and members to work with the entire trade union movement in Northern Ireland to campaign and fight for Better Work and Better Lives for all.”
Keith Morrison, Chief Executive of HSENI addressed conference delegates on the implications of Brexit on health and safety legislation.
Speaking candidly, Keith reassured delegates that the vast bulk of Northern Ireland legislation is domestic and that these rules are highly unlikely to change following Brexit. The health and safety system here, whilst it can always be improved, is recognised as one of the best in the world and HSENI is in no hurry to fix something that isn’t broken.
He explained that some uncertainties did exist around how the EU Withdrawal Bill would transfer across existing EU legislation, but that the main areas of uncertainty related to those areas (e.g. machinery standards and chemicals) where the EU currently has an approval role and new UK systems, or agreements, would need to be agreed. Keith cautioned that HSENI had limited legislative capacity and the Brexit workload was already impacting on other legislative pieces of work that HSENI was trying to progress.
In conclusion, Keith repeated that there was no appetite in HSENI for wholesale changes to a health and safety system that was working well and where standards were already higher than in other parts of Europe and the world. Although political uncertainty remains, Keith assured delegates that HSENI would work hard over the coming few years to manage any Brexit changes in a way that minimises impact on Northern Ireland’s current system.
Launch of New “Gender And Health And Safety” Guide
At the conference we launched a new “Gender and Health and Safety” guide for NIPSA Reps . The guide highlights the difference health and safety risks that female, male and transgender members are exposed to at work and advise on how branch Health and Safety Reps can take a gender-sensitive approach when negotiating adjustments and health and safety policies and procedures with their employer.
Mapping to Reduce Stress and the Management Standards
Janet Newsham from Greater Manchester Hazards Centre delivered the workshop session. The workshop emphasised the importance of trade union reps tackling workplace stress as a collective issue. Employers have a legal duty to use risk assessment to identify the hazards, evaluate the risks and to do everything ‘reasonably practicable’ to protect people from harm. The HSE has developed a set of management stress standards to support employers conducting risk assessments. The NIPSA ‘Perfect Storm’ has detailed information on using the management standards. The workshop also looked at mapping as a simple tool to identify who is being harmed in the workplace and how. It looked at a range of different mapping techniques including body mapping, hazard/risk mapping, thermal mapping and whole world mapping and how the information could be presented to management and to our members to emphasise the stressful situations being faced by our members.
The attendees discussed how they could use mapping techniques to build up the information and then how they could present this to management.
Additional Information and Links
Workshop Presentation: Dealing with Risks. Mapping to reduce stress and the Management Standards.
Art lecturer awarded £159,000 damages in Bradford College stress case:
BAREFOOT Research: A Worker's Manual for Organising On Work Security
Hazards Magazine: DIY Research
What can we do in practice to stop our protection being torn up after an EU Exit?
This workshop was delivered by Margaret Loughran, Chairperson of NIPSA Health and Safety Committee. The workshop looked at what comes from Europe, including the “six-pack” and what would happen if it were removed. The workshop also considered what unions can do to influence the position in Northern Ireland in relation to ensuring that all protection is maintained and improved, including working with politicians and employers. Click here for a copy of the workshop presentation.
Are safety reps our best protection against an EU Exit. What can we do to ensure strong union organisation and active safety reps?
Barbara Martin, ICTU tutor, delivered this workshop session. Barbara explained how EU directives were transposed into national law by each member state. Each one has a set of guiding principles for the senior civil servants carrying out that role. The UK’s first guiding principle states "only in exceptional circumstances is more than the minimum standard applied".
She said trade unions have been fighting deregulation now for some time. She referred to the success NIPSA had in relation to RIDDOR and the decision to move to develop and consult on a Northern Ireland Approved Code of Practice to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.
She went on to state:
“Trade unions have built health and safety law since early 1800s and fought to bring this to every area of work. An EU Exit will not change this. With more and more safety reps being trained and standing up for their colleagues we will not allow that legacy to be lost”
Click here for a copy of the workshop presentation.
Challenging the Employers Agenda
This workshop, presented by John McShane from MTB Solicitors, addressed the following types of claims:
1. Stress at work; and
It was emphasised that for a stress at work claim to be successful the requirement for foreseeability of psychiatric injury must be satisfied. In terms of harassment serious misconduct most be established. It was explained that both these types of cases are difficult but offered a remedy of financial compensation for personal injury caused. Click here for a copy of the workshop presentation.