Compliance: Employers fret as unions hail EC safety rules: Government officials say that the new workplace regulations are novel but not radical

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The Independent Online
THEY MAY not have attracted the same attention as the dropping of customs barriers, but the six regulations for health and safety at work that came into law with the single European market have produced their own excitement.

Thompsons, the trade union solicitors, hailed the introduction on 1 January of the rules implementing European Community directives as 'the most radical piece of employment law since the Factories Acts in the 19th century'. And armies of consultants are rubbing their hands at the prospect of being able to provide advice to companies that fear they are in danger of infringing some new draconian law.

However, the Health & Safety Executive says the new rules amount to little more than a rationalisation, simplification and modernisation of rules already existing under the Health and Safety Act 1984. In an effort to put the changes in perspective, it has issued guidelines for complying with the regulations. They cover general health and safety management, work equipment safety, manual handling of loads, workplace conditions, personal protective equipment and display screen equipment.

The HSE concedes that the regulations on general health and safety management, manual load-handling and display screen equipment break new ground, but a spokesman said the regulations were 'novel rather than radical'. He warned businesses to be wary of scaremongers who 'exaggerate the effect of the changes'.

Colin Ettinger of Thompsons contends, however, that while the regulations offer greater protection to British workers than before, they do not in all cases implement the full force of the EC directives.

The HSE rejects this criticism, saying it has been in close negotiation with Brussels to ensure that the directives are properly implemented. However, there might be differences between an original directive and the British regulation where it was felt that an issue was already covered by domestic law, the spokesman said.

The HSE also disputes a charge that it does not have enough staff to enforce the new regulations. While acknowledging that inspectors will initially have to spend time familiarising themselves with new requirements, it believes that in the long run their job will be made easier and they will be more effective.

The spokesman also pointed out that the executive was not solely responsible for enforcing the regulations. The 700-odd members of its factories inspectorate, in 20 regional centres, would do the bulk of the work, but responsibility for the service sector, including shops, financial services companies and many offices, where most display screens are to be found, lay with local authority health and safety teams.

The early signs are that companies are taking the new rules seriously. At the same time, firms that have previously offered dental and medical insurance to their staff are introducing new forms of cover. The team behind the National Dental Plan has just launched National Optical Plan, which it claims is the first of its type.

It was prompted not only by the arrival of the new regulations but also by the increasing number of claims for such complaints as repetitive strain injury and general concern about health in the workplace. The plan, which is designed to offset the high cost of regular optical care, will obviously appeal to employers who feel that the new regulations place an extra burden on them.