Research: UK’s attitude to health and safety among the worst in Europe

The UK’s commitment to ILO health and safety standards exceeds only that of Romania and Estonia among all EU Member States.

5 May 2020| News


The UK has one of the most dismissive attitudes to health and safety protections for workers in Europe, a new report from the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) – an independent think tank – reveals. The impact of its 40-year campaign of resistance, derision and misrepresentation of health and safety law is now leading to tragic outcomes in the fight against Covid-19.

Despite having taken a leading role in the development and support of international labour law in the first half of the 20th Century, the UK’s commitment to ILO health and safety standards exceeds only that of Romania and Estonia among all EU Member States.

In International health and safety standards after Brexit, authors Dr Andrew Moretta and Professor David Whyte – both of the University of Liverpool – find that in terms of support for international health and safety standards, the UK government is on a par with the governments of Saudi Arabia, North Macedonia and Cameroon. Each of these countries has ratified just six of the 36 up-to-date health and safety Conventions put forth by the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO) – fewer than one in five.

This lax attitude to the health of workers has shown through in the course of the Coronavirus crisis to devastating effect.

David Whyte, Professor of Socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool, said:

“The idea that health and safety has ‘gone mad’ has become a modern British myth. All evidence points in the opposite direction. When compared with other EU member states, the UK’s willingness to comply with ILO standards ranks 26th out of 28 nations. In one particularly prescient instance, the UK government refused to sign to a Convention because it objected to being obliged to provide workers with PPE.

“The misrepresentation of health and safety law as ‘red tape’ or a ‘burden’ has proven convenient for free-market policymakers interested in reducing the cost to business of protecting workers. The result has been a green light to corner-cutting, penny pinching employers and the encouragement of employment practices that put profits before workers’ lives.”

Andrew Moretta, Associate Reader at the University of Liverpool, said:

“Not only have our health and safety laws been weakened, but their enforcement has been stymied by crippling funding cuts to the Health and Safety Executive and local councils. Since changes to the regulations in 2011, which saw the the government arbitrarily designating most workplaces ‘low risk’, there have been 31% fewer HSE inspections of workplaces and 35% fewer inspections by Environmental Health Officers.

“The UK has a very poor record of support for the international and regional treaty instruments that we may well find ourselves looking to in the future when our already hopelessly inadequate occupational health and safety regime comes under further attack.”

This situation could worsen in a post-Brexit UK, since, the authors warn, proposals to ensure convergence between UK law and EU Directives relating to employment rights – the majority of which concern health and safety – were dropped from the Withdrawal Agreement earlier this year.

Carolyn Jones, Director of IER, said:

“With the coronavirus pandemic dominating global news, health and safety is paramount and nowhere more so than in our workplaces.

“But with uncertainty surrounding the status of protective regulations in a post-Brexit Britain and the fear that established benchmarks could be negotiated away in future trade deals, the pressing need to abide by collectively recognised international health and safety standards could not be more acute.”


Notes to editors:

For queries and interviews with the authors, please contact Sarah Glenister at

About the Institute of Employment Rights

The IER exists to inform the debate around trade union rights and labour law by providing information, critical analysis, and policy ideas through our network of academics, researchers and lawyers.

We were established in February 1989 as an independent organisation to act as a focal point for the spread of new ideas in the field of labour law. In 1994, the Institute became a registered charity.