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SSE Contractor Safety Conference, Manchester

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 1 October 2009

First of all, I would like to thank SSE for inviting me to speak today, but I also want to commend SSE for taking the initiative in setting up this conference for its contractors. Just over a year ago in July 2008, I was invited to visit SSE's Ferrybridge Power Station. At that time I know that many of you were heavily engaged in work there on the site building the new Flue Gas desulphurisation plant. A project of this magnitude is always an important opportunity to focus on health and safety - it represents an opportunity to innovate with new approaches, to engage with diverse skills and workforces and to share good practice.

What I think are particularly valuable aspects of today's conference are first, that it is taking place after completion of the project and secondly, that it involves you as leaders and senior managers of your respective organisations to reflect on your role in leading improvement in safety performance. It would be all to easy at the end of a project to move on to the next big thing without making the most of the opportunity to reflect on what went well and what can be learned for the future. So congratulations to SSE for setting up this event and well done to all of you for showing the interest and commitment to be here. I am delighted to be here on behalf of HSE to give you the strongest  encouragement I possibly can to take forward this work in partnership and show leadership in health and safety .

It is particularly pertinent that you have chosen today for this conference - because it is exactly 35 years ago today since the Health and Safety at Work Act first came into existence. In 1974 there were 651 people killed in workplace accidents, last year there were 180. That's a measure of the progress we have made over the last 35 years in improving health and safety but I realise that's no consolation at all for the families of those 180 people. It's also only one measure of the challenge which we continue to face which includes more than 130,000 people seriously injured every year and several thousand people who suffer premature death because of harm they have suffered through exposure at work.

I am intrigued to learn that during the course of this major project there have been some real success stories - exemplary performances delivered by some contractors - but equally there have been others for whom this has not yet happened. Now is the time to delve into why that is the case - what works  well and what are the barriers to improvement. To get the most out of a day like today there needs to be a lot of honesty - not only sharing of good practice but admitting to what's difficult in your organisation.

Since becoming Chair of HSE one of the major things I have noticed has been the extent to which leaders in all industry sectors are blinkered into thinking that their problems are unique and, worse still, that they have to work out a solution for themselves which will also need to be customised. The reality is that many of the challenges you face are common and there is almost certainly a solution out there already, perhaps here in this room, which will work for you. Being a leader doesn't mean having to come up with all of the answers - learning from others and being prepared to try out other people's ideas is a sign of good leadership.

In the last 2 years I have seen many examples of good and even exemplary practice in all sectors - I am convinced that there is a major improvement to be made in health and safety performance if we can share that good practice.  Every sector has good and less good performers. Every sector also has  businesses who really want to do the right thing on health and safety  but also those who are going through the motions and those who do the minimum they can and hope they don't get caught out.

Good practice often appears in some of the most unexpected places - for example, last year I visited a major demolition site where the client had set standards of performance for all of its contractors which ensured a real  integrated approach to health, safety and, in this particular case, environmental issues which also had to be dealt with. Contractors who admitted to being sceptical at the beginning to what they  regarded as "over the top" requirements from the client had been completely won over to the benefits of the approach, which included greater efficiency and productivity not just improved health and safety. The contractors involved were determined to take the new approach they had learned with them into other future work. I hope that is something you can all do as a result of today's event.

That's why when HSE produced its new strategy for health and safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century - in June this year - we placed leadership at the heart of the strategy. I'm hoping that many of you in the room will be familiar with the new strategy, I certainly don't intend to take you through it in detail today. More than 1000 companies have signed up to the pledge to work with us to be part of the solution to delivering improved performance in preventing death injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. I'm surprised that SSE is not yet one of them, so can I invite them and others to join them to sign up to the commitment.

The strategy makes it clear that we all have important roles to play. HSE's role is to lead the system as a whole by setting the direction, providing advice and guidance; taking enforcement action when and where necessary and alerting people to new and emerging risks as and when we become aware of them. But it is not HSE's role to manage workplace health and safety - that responsibility rests firmly with you, the creators of the risk, the employers.

Leadership has to come from the top of the organisation and it has to be born out in actions not just words. When I visited Ferrybridge over a year ago, I remarked at the time that I was pleasantly surprised by the absence of weighty tomes of procedures and bureaucracy. What I saw instead was a practical and proportionate approach, which was fit for purpose and was therefore being used not simply gathering dust on a shelf. Paperwork can only ever support a sound system of work. Paperwork itself - be it checklists, risk assessments or lengthy procedures is only worthwhile if it reflects what happens in practice, if it takes account of the realities of the task to be done - in short - if it makes common sense to those doing the work.

The key to success here is credibility. If what  is required makes sense, if it's proportionate, if the approach is seen as being consistent, backed up by mechanisms which recognise and reward good behaviour and tackle wrong behaviours quickly and effectively, my experience tells me that compliance and good performance will inevitably follow. I've said that action is more important than words - that action has to be consistent throughout the organisation - "one rule for them and another for me", or "Do as I say not as I do" is a killer - sadly that can be literally in this case.

Ownership is also an important element of leadership at all levels in the organisation. I don't mean ownership in the sense of who owns the assets or who the people work for but ownership in the sense of taking responsibility for setting health and safety standards and maintaining requirements - all of the time. It may seem like a small thing to walk past someone who is taking a risk, especially if they don't actually work for you or if you rationalise it as " just this once". If you're challenged as to why something has to be done in a particular way that throwaway line of  "Don't ask me, mate, its "them" who say we have to do it this way" may get you out of a difficult question but it does enormous damage. In both cases what you've just done is to condone the wrong behaviour and damaged the integrity of the whole system.

The role and commitment of supervisors is particularly crucial in this respect. They are your front line - they are your eyes and ears and your voice with the workforce - their message must be consistent with yours and it must have conviction. I'm not expecting first line supervisors to preach company policy, but I think its perfectly reasonable to expect them to respond to the "Why do we have to do this?" question by saying "Because I'm not going to be the one to phone your wife and tell her you've lost an eye, or a leg or you're dead".

The message has to fit the audience and the circumstances - motivating people to do the right thing means making it real for them. You may be motivated by fear of prosecution, even jail in the worst case but your workforce is motivated by being reminded that it could be them who get injured, and that it is their families who will suffer as well as them. And that means you have to show that you care about them and their welfare as well as the profitability of the business - and staying out of jail yourself.

What is also particularly pleasing about this event here today is that it involves SSE and its contractors. A real demonstration of partnership in action. In today's workplaces the deployment of contractors is widespread in just about every sector. What is not yet widespread is proper treatment and involvement of contractors. I am often told by senior managers that they engage their workforce in health and safety decisions but "engagement" can mean a variety of things. Genuine and proper engagement ensures that all of the workforce is involved - employees and contractors, unionised and non-unionised. It means that concerns are listened to and acted upon and that members of the workforce are involved in finding solutions, not just in doing as directed by others.

SSE clearly recognise their primary leading role as overall risk owners and it is good that they have taken the initiative to bring you all together here today.  I am confident that you can all make a very significant contribution and learn from each other to improve even further in the future.

In the spirit of learning from others, I want to close my formal speaking session here today by sharing with you another real life example of what can be achieved by this  type of genuine partnership working among all parties involved.

My example relates to the site of the Olympics.

Under the London Olympics and Paralympics Games Act 2006, the Olympic Delivery Authority has been charged with delivering the entire infrastructure of the site. HSE asked the ODA to devise a clear statement of the overall procurement strategy. Their published strategy is a model of its kind with clear health and safety goals and targets and a very clear public commitment to exemplary standards in the way they work. I have paid two separate visits to the Olympic park this year and so I am able to tell you from first hand experience that the approach is working very effectively and fits well with the approach we describe in our strategy.

In a nutshell that is what I believe you are seeking to achieve here today - equality of health and safety outcomes for all workers through partnership and on a sustainable ongoing basis. It would be easy to say that of course projects like the Olympics and Terminal 5 have to set new standards for health and safety because they are so high profile. But I'm very clear that I don't want any structure built in this country to be a memorial to those who built it - and I'm sure you don't either. That's just as important whether you're building the new Velodrome in the East End of London or a substation on an SSE powerstation in Ferrybridge!

I am sorry that I am unable to stay for the whole of your conference but I do wish you well in your endeavours today. I hope that at least I have given you something to think about and to challenge you. I look forward to your questions and I shall be looking for your signatures on the pledge to work with us to be part of the solution in preventing death injury and ill health in Great Britain in the 21st century.

Thank you

Updated 2009-12-10