Are We Returning to Victorian Times in Health and Safety Law?


Many people will not have been aware of a new law that is being quietly proposed by the Government that will put back the clock on working conditions inEngland andWales to equal that of Victorian times.


The Government introduced a new clause (61) into the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which, if passed, will radically change the way injured workers claim compensation from their employers.


The Government of course say this is in the interests of ‘enterprise’ What it means in reality is that if you are at work and your employer breaches health and safety regulations and you are injured you will not- as now- have an automatic right to compensation. The onus is being shifted onto the injured employee to prove that the employer has been negligent.


You may think this is a minor alteration; in fact it is a radical turning back of the legal clock to 1898 when the principle was first established that if an employer breached their statutory duty they had to pay compensation.


Let us take a simple example; say an employee is provided with special breathing equipment to enable him to work in a fume-filled environment. The equipment is faulty and as a result the employee is fatally poisoned. At the moment, the employee’s family would only have to prove there have been breaches of the statutory regulations in order to claim compensation. If this proposal goes ahead, however, the family would have to go much further and prove that the employer knew the equipment was faulty. Proving what the employer actually knows is incredibly difficult. It is certainly far more difficult than proving the fact that regulations put in place to protect that worker have been breached.


In my view this change in the law is one of the most dangerous and unfair (from a long list) that this Government has put to together with indecent haste. It is quite unacceptable that the onus for proving negligence should fall on an employee who is often reluctant to bring a claim for fear of losing their job in any event. An employer is well resourced and will have access to legal and insurance advice- an employee will often have none. This is hardly a level playing field, and quite simply gives the green light to employers to play fast and loose with the safety of their employees.


Health and Safety Law grew out of the bitter experience of past accidents and unsafe working conditions- it seems incredible to me that we are drifting back to such unsafe and unhealthy times without protest.