I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today at the start of your conference. Since becoming Chair of the Health and Safety Commission (now the unified Health and Safety Executive) in October 2007 I have spoken to many different audiences – from business, education, service industries, health and safety professionals and so on, but this is my first time of speaking at a conference for emergency services and police officers in particular.
Before I deliver my key messages in relation to your sector I want to say something about my own background. I want to do that because I think some of it is very relevant to what I will then go on to say about Health and Safety in the Police Service.
I am a chemical engineer by training and have spent more than 20 years actually working in industry running chemical plants. It was only 10 years ago that I moved away from the “front line” and became the Director General of the trade association for the UK chemical industry and then moved on into my current role in HSE after a spell in Brussels. Having spent all of my career to this point being closely associated with the chemical industry and actually several years with direct responsibility for running high hazard chemical plants, I think I have a pretty good grasp of the concept and the practicalities of risk management. I know from personal experience that health and safety does not have to get in the way of doing any job and that when work in any sector is done safely it is done efficiently and effectively. If I had £10 for every time someone has asked me “ What do you want - production or safety?” I probably would not be standing here today – I could have retired a long time ago. But I have always given the same answer to the question – there is no compromise or trade off, the two go hand in hand and can be delivered in parallel.
I recognise that the hazards and risks associated with police work are very different from those of the chemical industry but the principles I have just described are just as relevant and applicable. The world of work which we in HSE regulate is very wide and varied. The risks associated with construction work and agriculture are very different from those associated with office work, but health and safety law and the sensible interpretation of how to make it work in practice applies in all workplaces. Just as it is sensible for working at height controls to feature heavily in some sectors and not others, where working at height is clearly not a risk, so we recognise that the approach to risk assessment and risk management in the police service needs to be different and more dynamic from the approach which works in other sectors dealing with different and less dynamic types of risk. The Health and Safety Executive fully recognises that, as part of normal work, police officers are faced with significant and serious dangers. The nature of police work is such that it is not always possible to control these dangers to the same extent as is expected in other sectors. That is precisely why it is important for the legal framework of the Health and Safety at Work Act to continue to apply to all police work to provide a sound, sensible and practical standard of health and safety for police officers.
All police forces can develop the capability and should manage health and safety in order to minimise risks to their own officers and employees and to others whilst also ensuring an effective and efficient delivery of service in protecting us all as members of the public. This is absolutely no different from the “production or safety?” debate I mentioned earlier – it simply isn’t a question of either/or but delivering both together.
In any sector, and the police force is no exception to this, there is a need for a sensible and proportionate approach to risk management, in short a balanced approach – this means ensuring that paperwork is proportionate, does not get in the way of doing the job and it certainly does not mean risk elimination at all costs. We are talking here about doing what is sensible, practicable and in this particular sector, what can be done in fast moving and changing situations, not about holding up the essential work that you do because of “elf n safety”.
The fact that police officers are expected to face significant dangers as part of their job (and are often rightly commended for their bravery in very difficult and dangerous situations) is something that we all fully recognise and need to take proper account of when applying the Health and Safety Act. Equally, precisely because of these added risks the police service needs to be exemplary and certainly to be much more about consideration of what might happen well in advance so that sensible, speedy and well rehearsed actions can be initiated wherever this is possible.
In spite of numerous suggestions that there is a need to change Health and Safety law as it is applied to the Police and other emergency services, let me make it clear to you that the Health and Safety Executive does not consider that any such legislative changes are necessary. We do, however, see the need for the principles which should underpin this all important balancing of health and safety and operational duties to be clearly set out. We believe that this will help both the Police Service at all levels to understand what is required and will also help our HSE inspectors to apply appropriate standards.
A further key issue which we are very much aware of is the need to ensure that in all emergency services, on occasions where injuries have been incurred, the incident is considered in a proper and appropriate manner and in particular that the principle of foreseeability is considered properly. We cannot expect every incident to be foreseeable – even though many are. That said, in a dynamic operational situation we must accept that people have to make the best judgements they can on the information available to them at that time and not judge performance on the basis of unreasonable hindsight.
Many of you will be aware, I am sure, that earlier this year HSE initiated high level discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers and HMIC to begin to develop some key principles to apply to operational situations of this kind. They need to reflect the value of police officers lives, the very different circumstances in which they have to operate and reasonable expectations of society. A second meeting has recently taken place, and went well but these discussions are still in their early stages.
I want you to be assured of two things. First, that we strongly support the need for health and safety law to continue to apply in all circumstances for people in the Police Service and secondly, that once a first draft of the strategic statement of principles has been produced, HSE will be engaging with a wide range of police stakeholders to discuss those principles. The Police Federation are key to that engagement and will be fully involved in the process.
During your conference I know that you will be covering numerous topics including Stress and Post traumatic Stress disorder, management of sickness absence, infection control and other health related issues. Let me just make clear that all of the remarks I have made apply just as much to dealing with the more difficult work related health issues as to the injuries and high profile accidents which can occur in such an action oriented and public facing sector as the police service.
Earlier this week, we announced the official statistical data for fatalities in the year which ended on 31 March 2008. More than 220 people lost their lives in work related incidents. This is a stark reminder to us all of what real health and safety is about. In spite of a small reduction in numbers from the previous year, the statistics tell us very clearly that we are on a plateau of performance and it is tragic that more than 200 people continue to lose their lives at work every year and that many more are seriously injured and made ill by work. There is absolutely no room for complacency, or exemption from the law – it is essential that employers, employees and we as the regulators work together in every sector to address the causes of fatalities, injuries and ill health and strive to make every workplace as safe as possible whilst still being effective at doing its job – whatever that is.
I wish you a very successful conference. I look forward to our continuing dialogue on the sensible application of health and safety to the police service and I thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.