The European Commission argued that a phrase in the United Kingdom's Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – that employers are responsible for the safety, health and welfare of their workers on the job “so far as is reasonably practicable” – falls short of a 1989 European Union directive mandating that employers are required to ensure the safety and health of their workers. The commission contended that the phrase allows U.K. employers to wiggle out of their responsibilities if they can prove that ensuring the safety and health of their workers would be too expensive and time-consuming when weighed against the risks of not doing anything.
The commission held that “the United Kingdom has failed to fulfill its obligations under Articles 5(1) and 5(4) of Council Directive 89/391/EEC.” The European Court of Justice, however, disagreed.
“[T]he court holds that the commission has not established to the requisite legal standard that, in qualifying the duty on employers to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to work by limiting that duty to what is reasonably practicable, the United Kingdom has failed to fulfill its obligations under the directive,” the court said in a news release.
According to a Financial Times article, lawyers had predicted that if the European Commission challenge was successful, the United Kingdom might have needed to overhaul its workplace safety and health laws.
Phrase Is “One of the Key Elements” of U.K. Safety Law
In response to the court's decision, the U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) called the phrase “so far as is reasonably practicable” – found in Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – “one of the key elements of British health and safety law.”
“I am pleased by this outcome,” U.K. Health and Safety Commission Chairman Bill Callaghan said. “The court has rejected the European Commission’s claim that the use of 'so far as is reasonably practicable' does not implement the Framework Directive. Quite clearly we have been effective in protecting people, as currently we have the best occupational safety record in Europe.
“We continue to believe that the right way forward is a proportionate and risk-based approach protecting employees and others effectively, whilst allowing common sense to be applied when deciding on what protective measures to adopt.”