Neil Waterman: Law change could put workers at risk

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Most of us don’t give much thought as to how safe we might be in the workplace. It’s taken for granted that employers have a duty of care to make sure a place of work is made and kept safe.

However, new rules that came into effect this month mean that from now on it will be up to an employee to prove that an employer is in breach of duty or negligent, rather than having an automatic right to compensation.

The new Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 not only makes employees potentially less safe in the workplace, but also reduces their chances of obtaining proper compensation should things go wrong.

Despite the UK’s decline as an industrial nation, HSE figures from 2011-12 show there are still just under 600,000 accidents in the workplace each year and 173 fatalities. The Government’s aim is to reduce “red tape”, however the worry is that the removal of civil liability may be seen by some employers as a green light to cut corners and reduce safety standards.

As a result there is likely to be an increase in the cost of litigation due to the necessity of employing, and paying for, expert witnesses to testify to any breach of duty/negligence on the part of employers. And if safety standards fall employers may also lose out through an increase in the number of working days lost through work-related accidents and ill health.

The new legislation has also created an uneven playing field between the private and public sector. Public sector bodies are still considered to be “agents of the state” and therefore EU directives still offer full protection, while private sector contractors – even if working in a public sector building – may be treated very differently in court.

The Act could still be challenged in the European Court of Justice as a breach of EU law, but until then it is important that anyone involved in an accident seeks specialist advice or they may find their chances of obtaining compensation following a work accident drastically reduced.

• Neil Waterman is a senior partner at personal injury specialists Waterman Solicitors