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Speech for 51st North West safety conference and exhibition in Preston

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

This speech was delivered by DVD on 1 October 2008

I am very pleased to have been asked to give the keynote address today. This Association is one of the most active Groups in the country and I know that last year you celebrated your 50th Annual Conference. It is interesting to note that at one of your earliest events, you were emphasising the need to reach small firms, to focus on the training of young people and to recognise that employers and employees need to rise to the challenge of reducing injuries and ill health. I will return to some of these later in my speech.

I am sure that we all recognise that the world of work has changed (e.g. new processes and technologies, greater automation and more diverse workforces). Public expectation and societal values have also changed. There is a much stronger tendency for people to look to others to blame and to call for “something to be done” whenever there is an accident or an incident.

I do not want to get into a debate about whether or not we have a Compensation Culture in GB, but I do know that there is a greater level of concern about the possibility of litigation and claims for damages. “Where there’s blame, there’s a claim” is a reality of the 21st Century and increased bureaucracy is often the response to ‘something must be done’.

One of the saddest things is that much of that bureaucracy has proliferated in the name of health and safety or rather “Elf ’n’ Safety”. We do need to draw a clear distinction between that which is real Health and Safety - stopping people being killed, injured or made ill by work - and much of the nonsense and jobs worth’s which can shamelessly use health and safety as an excuse.

You all know that the subject we all care about is not about banning conkers, pancake races and the like. You already appreciate that Health and Safety does not stop anyone from doing their job – it actually enables them to do it more safely and efficiently. We need to work together to tackle this, and promote a sensible approach.

There are three main types of stories: myths and blatant untruths; risk-averse behaviour; and using health and safety as a convenient excuse.

These stories often arise from isolated instances where an individual somewhere goes beyond what the law and common sense dictate.  They are rare and do enormous disservice to the great majority of health and safety professionals whose decisions are sensible.

Remember that in this context, regulators like HSE have a dilemma.  Society objects to any impediments on their lives, but when something goes wrong there is an outcry – activities should be ‘absolutely safe’ – ‘at any cost’.  Myths make the situation even more complex.  The regulator has to work with others to square the circle.  Our approach is always to seek the sensible management of risks, not elimination.

HSE promotes a sensible approach to managing risk - focusing on practical action to tackle risks that cause real harm and suffering, not bureaucratic back covering. The principles of sensible risk provide a philosophy for us all to follow.

Sensible risk management is about:

So, given that this is what sensible risk management is about, let’s now look at some of the things it is not about:



HSE is committed to tackling health and safety myths, and believes that health and safety should be about practical steps to manage real risks, not bureaucracy. 

HSE rarely issues bans, warnings and threats, nor do we seek to abolish all risk and so encourage a culture of compensation seeking.

Our role is far more important. The HSE is dedicated to addressing the real risks that people face in the workplace and we are committed to regaining this common sense middle ground position and re-establishing true health and safety as a positive force for good.

I have already mentioned our work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, where our Aim is to embed the principles of sensible risk management within the schools education sector, thus reducing bureaucracy in schools and refocusing attention towards significant staff risks.

HSE has also :

A lot of this work is about effecting a major change in attitudes, which takes time. I want to reassure you that HSE is committed to maintaining their approach of applying health and safety requirements in a sensible and proportionate manner. However, we need your help to adopt, or promote, this approach.

Continue promoting strong leadership and involvement with health and safety, this will help to ensure that the real risks are managed responsibly.  However, it is also important to ensure that a sensible approach is taken and that resource is not expended unnecessarily on trivial risks or unnecessary bureaucracy.

This leadership is vital to set direction and to act as a constructive challenge function to managers and health and safety professionals. 

For example:

That kind of leadership is important for all areas of health and safety, but particularly where the protection of the public is concerned.  If you fail to manage a real risk to the public you stand to be castigated if things go wrong, equally if you impose restrictions on the public’s freedom of choice and expression, you stand to be lambasted for nannying.  I recognise that dilemma all too well!

Where risks to the public arise from your work activity, you have a duty to manage them so far as is reasonably practicable.  You are not expected to eliminate all risk completely any more than you are for your own workplace.  Neither are you expected to manage risks that arise naturally and which are not caused or exacerbated by your undertaking.
Whether the public or workers are at risk, the focus needs to be on finding ways for things to happen safely enough and involving those at risk in the process.

In summary, we all have a role in dispelling health and safety myths. The principles behind sensible risk management can help us all achieve our goals in this area. However, in organisations, active leadership is vital, both to ensure that real risks are properly managed in practice, but also to ensure that an organisation is not hampered by the all too prevalent myths or excessive bureaucracy.

Before the end of the year HSE will launch its new strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century. The new strategy will be all about common sense and proportionality.

We will emphasise the importance of leadership – from the top of every organisation starting with the Boards and individual directors. We will place leadership at the heart of what we see as the overriding strategic aim – the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activity.

There will be a strong focus on a proportionate approach – by dutyholders in being pragmatic and sensible in their approach to risk management, by health and safety professionals in giving competent advice which takes account of the need to encourage a common sense approach.

We will make it clear that worker involvement and consultation is important in every organisation – where trades unions are present and where they are not and in all organisations irrespective of their size or dispersal of work locations.

Every organisation is different and the risk profile will vary from one organisation to another. To reduce the toll of work-related injury and ill health we need to improve our ability to focus on priorities – whether by industry, by sector or by individual issue. We need every organisation to take ownership of the process to identify its own risk profile. That prioritising process must also recognise and distinguish health and safety and the different approaches which will be required to address the precursors of both.

One obvious example of risk profiling is in the case of industries which have the potential to cause significant harm including to the public via low frequency but high impact incidents. These industry sectors make a major contribution to GB plc and we will work with them on how to put programmes in place that manage their particular risks effectively and also the business activities to continue to succeed.

We will also continue to put effort into those sectors which continue to carry a high risk and higher actual occurrence of serious injuries and fatalities. Because they carry well known risks cannot be an excuse for continued performance which is out of line with what other sectors manage to achieve. We may well need to pilot new ways of addressing these persistent areas of concern.

Small businesses will continue to be a major component of the British economy. We will work with the SME community to help them understand how to comply with health and safety law in a way which is proportionate to the risks of their business and which gives those businesses greater confidence to take common sense decisions for themselves within a goal setting framework.

HSE and its partners in Local Authorities will focus on key activities to ensure that dutyholders manage their workplaces to assure health and safety of the workforce and the public where they are affected by work.

Those activities will include:

My vision of what I hope we can achieve is:

Ladies and Gentlemen – Thank you for listening. I hope you regard what I’ve said as common sense. But let me also remind you that this is the easy bit – the challenge lies in making this common sense a reality through delivery.

Enjoy your conference.

Updated 2010-07-28