Northern Ireland extends health and safety worker protections

Out-Law News | 10 May 2021 | 10:59 am | 1 min. read

Workers in Northern Ireland are to be given the same protections from employer repercussions for actions they take in respect of workplace health and safety as employees, economy minister Diane Dodds has announced.

Currently, employees in Northern Ireland are protected against employer detriment if they take any action to protect themselves or others where they reasonably believe there is a serious and imminent danger in their place of work. However, the same protections are not extended to those without full employee status. Examples of detriment include being passed over for promotion or being treated differently by management.

The change in the law follows successful court action by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents those working in ‘gig economy’ roles. In November, the High Court in London found in favour of the IWGB, which had argued that the UK was in breach of its legal obligations by not giving workers the same protections as employees under two EU directives: the Health and Safety Framework Directive and the Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) Directive.

The Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 (Protection from Detriment in Health and Safety Cases) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2021 comes into force on 31 May 2021. The order must be approved by a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly on or before 31 November 2021, six months after coming into force.

The UK government has introduced a similar order, which is also due to come into force on 31 May subject to parliamentary approval.

“As businesses move towards a return to the workplace, they must ensure that they continue to be mindful of the restrictions and guidance which continue to change to protect the health and safety of all employees and workers alike,” said Jennifer Lee, a Belfast-based expert in health and safety law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

Diane Dodds said that the order would “give clarity to businesses and individuals”, while protecting vulnerable workers who choose to do the right thing.

“This order is about more than responding appropriately to the decision of a High Court ruling,” she said.

“As businesses emerge from lockdown, everyone will need to be protected during the transition back to the workplace. This order will allow some of our most vulnerable workers the legal protection they need to act to ensure their own safety and the safety of others without fear of suffering detriment for doing the right thing. This includes protecting them against being denied promotion or training opportunities,” she said.