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Speech/discussion at IOSH Edinburgh branch

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSC Chair, 10 January 2008

"Health and safety in the 21st Century – a question of balance"

First of all, let me thank you for your kind invitation to speak to the Edinburgh Branch of IOSH. Your original request for a ‘provocative and informative’ talk was made to my predecessor Sir Bill Callaghan. Having taken up the appointment as Chair of HSC in October 2007 I hope that my contribution will meet your expectations and demonstrate both continuity and evolution from the HSC/E agenda under Bill’s direction.

We are now more than 30 years on from the Robens report which culminated in the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc Act and the establishment of the Commission and Executive.

The ideas behind the Robens proposals were:

based upon the principle that ‘those who create the risk are best placed to manage it’.

The idea of a proportionate, targeted, risk-based approach built on consultation and engagement is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

The world of work has changed almost beyond recognition over that time and the risks to be managed have changed accordingly but the principles themselves and the structure have proven to be adaptable and resilient. It’s important that we remind ourselves of this and that we remind others too. There is a great deal of so-called evidence out there that sometimes even gives us cause to question ourselves as to whether we’ve got it right. And it certainly provides ammunition for others to make the case that health and safety is out of control.

We’ve been accused of banning Christmas decorations and conkers, small businesses claim their businesses are bogged down by red tape - much of which is health and safety - even our emergency services are making claims that health and safety is getting in the way of them doing their jobs.

Health and safety practitioners tend to be passionate about what they do. We believe that people have a right to be safe and healthy in their workplace – no matter what size the company, whether they are employees or contractors, what sector they work in or any other factor. We also believe that most, if not all, accidents are preventable.

When we look at the safety statistics we know that our task is far from complete - in fact it never will be. The constant pace of change - of people, of workplace risks and societal expectations - means that there will always be a need to manage health and safety and, whilst we continue to live in a world where too many people believe it is our job to manage health and safety for them, we will never have enough resources to meet the challenge.

In 2006/07 241 workers were killed; more than 140,000 people suffered serious injury at work and 2.2 million people were suffering from an illness they believe was caused by work. These are the facts we need to get our critics and the agnostics to focus on. Other statistics tell us that our efforts save more than 200 lives every year and stop around 15,000 serious injuries.  But whilst I continue to go home every night after work, knowing that there are 400 people who will not go home because they are in hospital as a result of serious injuries caused at work that day, I know we still have a real purpose and a huge challenge in achieving it.

My belief is that it is only by regaining the middle - commonsense - ground and putting some balance back that we will succeed.

First, we have to remind people that HSWA and indeed the H&S professional’s role today is not to eliminate all risk. The truth is that we continue to enable a lot of high risk activities to take place by making people aware, helping them to manage the risk where that can be done and then getting on with the job.

We also need to examine how we do that and whether our methods really help - or hinder - the process. HSE’s own recent work on better regulation and simplification in particular has been hugely important. Risk assessment has become a bureaucratic nightmare for many - dozens of pages of box ticking even for simple, repetitive tasks. We have now published more than 20 examples of sample risk assessments showing what is actually required and what is fit for purpose. We shouldn’t be too surprised when our passion for health and safety is not shared by others if we burden them with bureaucracy. It’s our job to help them see that health and safety not only go hand in hand with getting the job done but truly make all workplaces more productive and effective not less - a very important balance!

This brings me to the balance of power, ownership and leadership for health and safety. As far as I am aware, no organisation ever achieved total quality management simply by appointing a quality manager. Yet people do still believe that you can ‘do’ health and safety by appointing someone and making them responsible. Just as with quality, the health and safety manager or even board director has an important role to play but that role is about facilitation, winning hearts and minds, making people aware of their own responsibilities, providing tools to help them. It is not and never should be about taking responsibility or accountability away from others. The HSWA is as relevant on this topic as anywhere - duties clearly placed on employers and on every employee to meet the requirements of the legislation. We need to remind ourselves, and others, of this important point.

It is a common and dangerous misconception that HSE control safety in all workplaces – we could never do that even if we had 10 times the resources we have today and what’s more we shouldn’t. Equally it is wrong for the company H&S manager to shoulder all of the responsibility for H&S in his/her organisation.

I say this again in the context of ‘balance’ - and in no way to devalue the importance of organisations having competent health and safety professionals. But the competences required of health and safety professionals go way beyond knowledge of the law and ability to conduct risk assessments. Health and safety professionals must be competent in motivating and inspiring others, they must be extremely good communicators, they must be able to put their concerns and priorities in the broader business context and promote a proportionate approach. They must be champions of health and safety but their ultimate measure of success should be that everyone else in their organisation takes leadership and responsibility for health and safety.

Organisations can only really deliver health and safety if there is clear and exemplary leadership from the top and buy-in from the whole workforce.

Achieving all this would be challenge enough even if the world of work remained unchanged but clearly that is not the case. The balance of employment has shifted from large employers to small, from manufacturing and heavy industry to services. The workforce is becoming increasingly diverse - increasing number of migrant workers, flexible working patterns, huge cultural diversity and more. All of the factors increase the complexity of our challenge. Managing work-related health issues requires very different skills from traditional safety.

It is clear to me that there is ever more to do and that we can only hope to achieve it if we think laterally and collaboratively about how we share the tasks and in particular how we work in partnership with other organisations. As the world of work becomes ever more diverse, HSE cannot hope to be expert at everything and at the same time it seems obvious that smaller businesses will need more help and guidance and for that guidance to be more specific, relevant to them and user friendly.

I am sure that this is an area we need to work harder in developing through partnership with Trade Associations and Professional bodies.

In 2007 HSE worked closely with the IoD in producing new guidance on Directors’ Duties. IoD led in the production of the guidance which has been highly praised since its launch in October. One of its merits is that the guidance has been written by Directors, for Directors and therefore speaks to them in their language.

The decision to produce the guidance and not go down the regulatory route at this stage was yet another question of balance, and one where there are diverse and strong opinions as well as misperceptions. HSWA 1974 already places clear legal duties on Directors and prosecution under Section 37 of the Act is possible even though there have been relatively few cases in practice.

Some of our stakeholders remain convinced that further regulation on Directors’ Duties is needed. The Commission took the decision that with the changes imminent in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide  Act, there was a real need to produce new more specific guidance for directors and to make it clear that the responsibility for delivery rests now with Directors. The decision on whether or not further regulation is required has not gone away - the Commission or rather, the new Board of HSE will revisit this when we have had time to measure the combined effect of the new guidance and wider legislative changes, notably the entry into force of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act.

Which brings me to my final question of balance - the decision to update the organisation and merge HSC and HSE into one body in 2008. The Health and Safety Commission will disappear as an entity and the merged body will be known as the Health and Safety Executive. The Commission will become the new non-Board of the HSE.

The next step will be the laying of an Order under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 to effect the necessary amendments to the HSW Act. Subject to the Parliamentary scrutiny process we expect to implement the new governance arrangements during the Spring of 2008.

Let me stress that this important and modernising change to the governance structure will not cause any major differences in your day to day interaction with the organisation. We will continue to work in much the same way with all our key stakeholders and on the same operational and policy priorities.

For me this process exemplifies where we now find ourselves with Health and Safety in the 21st century. We have a world class regulatory framework which others seek to emulate, we have a performance in health and safety which we can be proud of but not complacent about. We must continue to adapt and change as the world we operate in changes but we must also hold on to what is good and sing its praises.

I hope that you share my commitment to keep health and safety at the heart of every agenda, which is where it belongs. I look forward to your questions and your suggestions on how we can work together in the 21st century.

Updated 2012-01-13