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Brexit knocks health and safety standards

The UK exit from the EU, or Brexit, will impact on health and safety standards on both sides of the channel, writes Mabila Mathebula.

The ‘divorce’ follows a ‘marriage’ of 43 years. It said that divorce is like an amputation; you survive it, but there is less of you.

Analysts have only zeroed in on economic and social consequences, but the structural change will affect health and safety law, best practice, governance, standards, equipment, testing, and a range of other aspects.

Steven Covey, in The seven habits of highly effective people, drew a line of separation between a mistake and a consequence.

A mistake, in his view, is something one could correct, but a consequence is something that is beyond management.

EU Directives may or may not apply

For example, in the early nineties the EU issued Directive 91/440/EEU to member states, to separate their rail network management from infrastructure. The argument for vertical separation was to allow the regulator to promote safety.

In addition, Directive 2001/16/EEU on interoperability, removed technical and operational obstacles to commercialising operations of trains throughout the trans-European rail network.

All these directives were paved with good intentions, but the gradual British exit form the EU will make some of the directives increasingly difficult to implement in the United Kingdom, and even on both sides of the channel, and the chunnel.

Safety priority challenge

The exodus of one of the major members, challenges a long held notion in safety management; that safety should always be a priority.

This sounds perfectly well to an uncritical mind, but priorities are not cast in stone, they are not static, but dynamic.

Some health and safety priorities in the United Kingdom are different from what they were, and different from priorities in Brussels.

Priorities have large implications for health safety legislation, standards, codes, governance, reporting, and day to day management

All the EU directives that were safety related, such as the training of personnel in safety-critical and safety-related grades, will now be reluctantly implemented in the United Kingdom as a result of Brexit.

The United Kingdom has thrown down the gauntlet of independence, and the EU may well pick up the gauntlet by imposing punitive sanctions.

Health and safety is likely to suffer, as social, economic, and political issues dictate the game.

Exodus or Hebrexit, and colonial exits had consequences

History had shown that there had always been negative consequences for the ‘leavers’; for example when the Hebrews (Hebrexit) left Egypt. Egyptians pursued them.

There was leadership conflict between Moses and Aaron, and hardship for the people. It was an unhealthy and unsafe era as they adjusted to new conditions in Canaan.

When colonies left the British empire, there were health and safety consequences. When Ghana became independent (Ghanexit), the price of cocoa fell lamentably.

There were critical skills shortages to run the new government and state. President Kwame Nkrumah was eventually deposed in a coup during his state visit to China where he sought new allies, and was forced to go into exile.

Health and safety implications are in the background, as usual. Reforms have unintended consequences for health, safety, environment and quality management.

For example, after EU Directive 91/440 was issued in the early nineties, there was the Ladbroke or Paddington rail accident in Britain, on 5 October 1999.

The Ladbroke accident could have been prevented by an Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which the operator was reluctant to install because the cost seemed to outweigh the risk, or at least the available statistics.

The United Kingdom may be reluctant to implement some of the EU directives because the costs outweigh the risks.

Standards mean what they say they mean.
Standards mean what they say they mean.

The UK is one of the great industrial nations, economic blocks, and rail operators in the world. They may well thrive and prosper a little better outside the EU, but the dream of European standardisation may fade.

Standardisation was, and remains, one of the links in the industrial backbone of the Western block, including the Americas. Global standards underpin the entire philosophy of BS and ISO.

Health and safety is only as strong as the implementation of standards allow. In Africa, where some of our equipment, systems, expertise, and research of necessity is imported, to stay abreast with the demands of our markets, we may have to spend more time on managing compatibility and integration.

  • Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the SA Railway Safety Regulator (RSR). He writes on general Sheq issues on in his personal capacity.
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Mabila Mathebula

Mabila Mathebula (BA North West University, BA Hon UNISA, MBA Milpark Business School, Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management at Cranefield College), is currently engaged in a PhD study in construction health and safety management.
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