The UK referendum on its membership of the European Union is a hot topic at the moment. Every industry in Europe, in some way, is under EU regulation – and this includes occupational health and safety standards. A salient argument for leaving the EU is that there is too much red tape impeding businesses in the UK. Is this true though? Let’s compare EU health and safety regulations to that of the United States.

According to David Vogel, professor of business and political science at the University of California, the US and Europe have swapped regulatory philosophies in the past ten years, with rules and regulations now being far more stringent in Europe than in the US.

Why this shift? And how do the different legislative bodies – the United States Department of Labor and the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work – differ?

How Legislative Strictness Migrated from United States To Europe

Up until the 1990s, the United States had regulated workplace safety concerns relatively aggressively compared to Europe. But in the last decade, there was been a switch: now the US hesitates more before taking regulatory action, while the EU has begun to react quickly to potential health and safety risks.

Professor Vogel ascribes this philosophical shift from the west to the east of the Atlantic to three main reasons:

  1. Changes in public opinion,
  2. Changes in political ideology,
  3. Changes in the legal criteria for assessing risk.

Public opinion: Since 1990, Europeans have become much more risk averse. Vogel noted that this spiked in particular around the outbreak of mad cow disease, which convinced citizens that their government was not adequately assessing risks and issuing proper regulations.

Preferences of policy elites: In the 1990s it was the Republican Party who, holding political sway, led the charge against government regulation. By contrast, as the European Union grew in size, it felt increasing pressure from its individual member states not to undermine the protections of their individual regulatory schemes. As a consequence, European policy elites have grown increasingly supportive of regulation.

Risk assessment criteria: In the United States, the public is protected from burdensome regulations by the checks and balances placed on administrative agencies. But in Europe, regulators do not need to assess risk as vigorously as their American counterparts, thus health and safety laws are ushered in with much more ease.

Occupational Safety and Health in the United States

Deregulation appears to be working quite well for the US. Pre 1970, there were approximately 14,000 worker fatalities a year, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). By 2010, the workforce had doubled, but fatalities were down to just 4,500 – a workplace fatality rate reduction of 66 percent. Worker injuries and illnesses were also down from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.2 per 100 in 2014.

The OSH Act of 1970, to which all employers are subject to, recognizes the general duty employers have to provide work and a workplace free from recognized, serious hazards. Any employer found wilfully violating the requirements of this Act is liable to pay up to $70,000 for each violation – a very real deterrent. Approximately 100,000 OSHA inspections are conducted annually, of which around 50-60% are found in violation. This seems to be having the desired effect.

Occupational Safety and Health in Europe

In Europe, it’s a much more complex situation. All member countries of the European Union have a common regulatory framework covering health and safety regulations at work. But actual legislation and how it is enforced varies significantly between each country, as this health and safety infographic shows.

Comparing EU Health & Safety Laws Across The Pond

In 2009, there were approximately 2.8 million non-fatal accidents and 3,825 fatal accidents. By 2012, non-fatal accidents had dropped by 313,000, while the rate of fatal accidents had dropped by 310. Could this be due to the introduction of numerous more regulatory measures? It’s very difficult to tell due to the national differences in implementation.

The French government, for example, has one of the restrictive regulatory frameworks, hence why their organizations appear to have one of the toughest times keeping up with health and safety standards. The Labor Inspectorate sends 6,000-8,000 cases to the prosecutor each year. In contrast, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) counted just over 1,000 offences in 2014/15.

Conclusion

Although the EU may appear much more restrictive in its health and safety rules and regulations than the US, this may be due to the fact that EU member countries vary significantly more in their regulatory philosophies than US federal states.

Hence, although at the top-level regulation of workplace safety may appear to be stricter in Europe than in the United States, member countries of the EU are actually granted a fair bit of room to manoeuvre on these rules.