Health and safety protections for workers reduced following House of Lords debate
Under current workplace health and safety regulations where an employee is injured in an accident at work and he or she can prove that their employer has breached a statutory duty they can claim compensation. In cases of strict liability, employers cannot avoid responsibility and employees are able to obtain compensation without the need provide all of the evidence to prove that employers are at fault. Under current law employees, who by nature do not have the knowledge nor resources to obtain this information, can obtain compensation on the basis that employers are liable regardless of whether or not they have been negligent.
An example of this can be found in the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 2004 where employers are responsible for faulty equipment which they provide even if they have no prior knowledge of the fault. They are obliged to ensure that all workplace equipment works correctly at all times and does not cause injury. In the event that it does, compensation can be claimed without the need to prove that the employer knew that the equipment was faulty prior to the accident.
Unfortunately the UK Government introduced a new clause (61) to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which amends the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which removes the ability to bring a civil action under strict liability regulations. This means that employees injured in an accident at work will now be required to prove that negligence occurred even in cases where criminal liability may still be founded. Proving negligence on the basis of an employers knowledge is very difficult to do, and will only be established through protracted investigations which will come at a great financial cost to the employee.
These regulations are derived from European directives ensuring health and safety in the workplace. To allow these to be amended in such a way that removes the protections which were enshrined within the directives goes against their meaning and intention. This change allows employers to avoid responsibility. The changes will not mean that the number of accidents is reduced and therefore someone else will have to pick up the tab for medical care and other costs associated with a person being injured within the workplace. This will fall to the state and ultimately the tax payer.
The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) President Karl Tonks has stated that there were more than 111,000 workplace injuries in Britain between 2011 and 2012 and that up to 70,000 of these cases could be affected by the change in the law. It appears that in attempting to address the issue of the number of claims for workplace injury the Coalition Government has once again missed the point. Rather than reducing the number of cases brought by ensuring workers safety they have instead meant that the whole process will become more lengthy and costly to individuals making a genuine claim. This cost will now potentially fall upon the shoulders of the innocent victim rather than employers who have no regard for health and safety. Once again the Government must ask why so many workplace accident claims are being made and allow bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive the power to investigate workplaces and make effective change.
An amendment to the Enterprise Bill was debated in the House of Lords in January and whilst there was no voting on the Bill at this stage there was strong opposition from the Peers. Baroness Turner of Camden tabled her own amendment that the amendment ought to be deleted from the Bill. Commenting on this Thompsons Partner Patrick McGuire said: “Opposition and challenges from the House of Lords is encouraging but should the amendment be passed the law surrounding workplace claims could be thrown back to Victorian times which should be a cause of grave concern for everyone”.