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Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair speech to Safety and Health Expo 2009 held at NEC, Birmingham, 12 May 2009

I am very pleased to be here and to have the opportunity to talk to you all today. I am sure that there are some of you in the audience today who have heard me speak before because we are all part of a community of people who passionately believe in our shared mission – preventing death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work.

This is a great event which brings a very large community of committed people together. It is also about the pivotal role you as H&S professionals can have in making real leadership happen.

I have chosen to talk to you about the new strategy and, in particular what we mean by real leadership. I want to focus on these things in the context of your probable roles as health and safety experts, practitioners or suppliers. I want to talk about real competence and confidence in use of judgment, delegation and a measured proportionate approach. Inevitably that means that I will also talk about the roles and responsibilities of others.

I will talk about how your work, your products and the way in which you perform your role can help the effective working of the system as a whole. But I also want to stress from the outset that this is a talk about how we can work together to build on success. The progress we have already made in Great Britain in health and safety terms could not have been achieved without the commitment of the whole community of health and safety professionals. Just as we have made it clear that our new strategy is about evolution not revolution, so my talk to you today is about how we can become even more effective in what we all do.

We have chosen to work in the field of Health and Safety because our personal values tell us that work should not be a place or a process which causes harm to those who work in it or are affected by its activities. Every member of every workforce has a fundamental right to work in an environment where health and safety risks are properly controlled. But that is not the same as working in an environment where all risk is eliminated. Risk is a part of all of our lives all of the time – in and out of work – and learning to manage risk is what we are about, not eliminating it. We get that, but it seems that many others do not. We understand the principles of doing what is sensible and reasonable and then getting on with the job.

So our focus is on identifying practical steps and measures which can be taken to reduce (but not eliminate) the risks of people being killed, injured or made ill by those and other work activities and we know because we are all very familiar with the statistics the size of the challenge we continue to face.

Last year the number of workers killed in workplace incidents was 229. But this is only one measure of performance. A further 95 members of the public were killed by work related activities. Thousands of people die prematurely every year from work-related diseases – the annual number of work related cancer deaths is estimated to be in excess of 6000, around 4000 deaths occur each year due to past exposure to asbestos.

HSE’s statistics do not cover deaths which occur whilst driving on work related business but of the 2500 or more who die on our roads every year it has been estimated by others that as many as ⅓ of these are work related. Last year there were almost 28,000 major injuries reported and close to 110,000 cases where absences of 3 days or more resulted. 563,000 new cases of work related ill health were reported during 2007/8 contributing to the total of more than 2 million people who are suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their current or past work.

Those of you who have a broader role will perhaps have a greater insight into the lack of distinction/clarity in dutyholders and the broader public’s minds about different areas of risk. The fact is that for many of these stakeholders "elf n safety" has become a convenient basket into which they dump all risks. Couple the bunching of a whole range of different type and size of hazards with a much greater tendency for people to look to blame others when problems occur and it is not difficult to see why there is a good deal of confusion.

Employers, for entirely understandable reasons, integrate a whole range of requirements into 1 set of procedures and management systems – all communicated to employees as "Health and Safety".
The problem, as we know, with this approach is that the media in particular pick up on the trivial and often isolated examples – one instance becomes a widespread ban on something and headlines about elf n safety gone mad abound.

Changing the growing blame culture in society, curbing the distorting effect of media stories is well beyond the remit of us as health and safety professionals. But it is well within our remit to do much more to explain and highlight the difference between our very important real health and safety work and much of this other activity – some of which is driven by other real factors and some of which is just plain nonsense.

But I am sure that we can also do more to ensure that the way in which we approach our own agenda is consistent with that common sense proportionate approach to risk management. Drawing a distinction between real health and safety and the other stuff is not enough unless we can also show a consistent and proportionate approach to our work. If we tie up the organisations we work with or are employed by in bureaucratic systems which slow people down unnecessarily and which get in the way or are ignored we are not performing that key role as enablers and ensuring that dutyholders are motivated to do the right thing because it makes sense.

What we actually have today is a much broader range of organisations with a wider variety of risks to be managed.

But this means that you as professionals providing advice and guidance and services to that ever expanding and changing array of organisations have to think hard about how to apply those solutions to new risks, new businesses, new situations. One size does not fit all and the best and most comprehensive solution can very often be the enemy of not only the good but what actually works and is effective.

All of this has been relevant to our mission and to regaining the value of the Health and Safety brand for some time but it becomes even more important as we face what is a difficult economic climate. As businesses fight for survival it is essential that we are able to position our work on the right side of the line. Doing health and safety has to be part of helping a business to reduce cost, increase efficiency, motivating employees. In those businesses and organisations where H&S is perceived as a cost, and as a burden and as calling for ‘unnecessary’ activity, it will not be a priority, performance will suffer, nonsense health and safety stories will proliferate and, worst of all, health and safety performance is likely to worsen not improve.

The economic downturn cannot be an excuse for not doing health and safety but it is a great opportunity to reinvigorate a common sense, proportionate approach which will help business to succeed in a variety of ways and all of you can play an important role in making this a reality.

Just over a year ago, the new Board of HSE embarked upon the development of the new strategy. We decided that the governance change and the merger of the Commission and Executive were not newsworthy in themselves but that the change provided a very timely opportunity to reset the direction not just for HSE but for the H&S system as a whole.

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the content of the strategy but let us just quickly consider one or two key points – the mission and some of the goals.

Our mission statement is important – not only because of what it says we are all here to do but also in drawing some of those important boundaries around areas where we do not see ourselves either taking the lead or, in some cases, having any involvement at all.

Our mission is the prevention of death, injury and ill health. Everything we all do is aimed at avoiding harm while enabling work activity to proceed. It is part of our mission to prevent harm to people at work and to those affected by work activities – members of the public who live around businesses or who receive services from businesses where these have the potential to harm them.

But our focus is on work activity not public safety in the much broader and general context. Neither are we in HSE best placed to manage and monitor sickness absence and return to work programmes. That is not to say that it is not important to manage rehabilitation – indeed it may be a facet of some of your own roles but it is not part of the Health and Safety system which HSE and LA regulators lead.

The role of HSE and our Local Authority partners is to provide strategic direction and lead the health and safety system as a whole. In addition to inspection, investigation and enforcement, we conduct research, propose new regulation where and when needed, alert dutyholders to new and emerging risks and provide information and advice.

One of our goals is about leadership. Leadership means accountability and visible ownership.  Real health and safety leaders win hearts and minds of all their colleagues – directors, managers, workers and contractors.  They shape the organisations’ ethos on health and safety – including on what it is and what it isn’t.

Linked to that, we also want to help managers to distinguish between what are real health and safety issues and what is unimportant or trivial.

Another goal in the strategy is to increase competence in health and safety to enable greater ownership, confidence and promotion of sensible and proportionate risk management.

The response via the consultation process has been positive and very supportive. We now plan the launch of the final strategy on 3 June.

We are also working hard on formulating HSE’s own delivery plans as part of our business planning cycle. This will include the development of softer skills including leadership, exercising judgment and improving teamwork and communication.

The strategy and all of this realignment of roles and responsibilities has important implications for health and safety managers in organisations and for those of you who advise organisation. Let me remind you here of my earlier comment. I am talking about building on success, a process of evolution not revolution, to make what we do even more effective than it is today. Our existing system is far from being ‘broke’.

If we want Boards and line managers to lead on health and safety, your role is to help them to do that – not to do it for them. I can see a strong case for moving away from the title of "Health and Safety Manager", because ultimately we want all managers to manage health and safety as an integral part of their job. If your current title is Health and Safety manager then I would prefer it to become "Health and Safety Advisor", "Health and Safety Champion" or "Health and Safety Facilitator" because all of these titles more accurately describe the role you should be playing within your organisation. All too often Boards appoint a manager and, if they are following HSE guidance, a Board director to "champion" health and safety. But if having done so, the rest of the Board then abrogate their own responsibilities. This is not what we need. Pushing for real, visible leadership and ownership from the Board and senior managers in your organisation is as much a part of your role as carrying out safety audits and providing the Board with assurance that you have it all taken care of.

It is inevitable that people will continue to look to you as experts who know what the law requires, what the guidance says, what a risk assessment needs to cover, what equipment should we use – so they should. You are the experts, you have worked hard to gain that knowledge and expertise and develop your products. But your key role is to advise others on how they should integrate health and safety into their functions and responsibilities in a common sense and proportionate way.

Your competence has to include knowing when your offerings are appropriate and fit for purpose and when they are inapplicable or irrelevant to some of the organisations you work with. Knowing when to say things are not important or low priority is important to help organisations focus on the real priorities and take appropriate action which will have a real and positive effect – on health and safety and for their business.

If you are charged with being the producer or custodian of H&S management systems and procedures it is important that the system you put in place is fit for purpose – that means that it must fit the culture and nature of the work of the organisation. Shelves full of procedures in folders are highly unlikely to make a difference on a farm or in the office of a small factory. The purpose of the procedures is to ensure that the job is done properly but that means that the procedure must reflect reality, it must be practical and it must be written in language that will be meaningful to the person who is intended to use it. Health and Safety systems should be designed with the priority aim of providing the workforce with something useful and practical not as a means to assure or impress the management, the regulator or the insurer that everything has been covered and in compliance.

When we talk in our strategy about the importance of competence this is what we mean. Competence is not simply about knowing your stuff or equipping companies with the latest and most up to date equipment. There is a world of difference between a qualified person and a competent person, and the real difference is about the ability to apply that hard-earned knowledge in a way that is proportionate, meaningful and useful to the intended audience.

I am aware that there may be significant pressures to produce and sell more than just what is ‘good enough’ but now more than ever is the time to take this approach. Because:

  1. it builds credibility in and commitment to Health and Safety
    • in the workforce
    • in the media.
  2. people will do what you propose because it makes sense.
  3. they will be safer and healthier and less likely to have accidents.
  4. companies will be delighted because they have spent less money but made a big difference and had a double positive effect on the bottom line.

You as suppliers of services will also succeed in the longer term because earning a reputation in the market place as a no nonsense, common sense provider will result in repeat business and positive recommendations to other potential clients. In the current economic climate more than for very many years, money is tight and businesses will seek out real value – there is a real market opportunity here.

Knowing the rules and requirements is essential. Knowing how to apply that knowledge in practice in a way which motivates others is what really saves lives – and that’s the difference we’re all trying to make!

I am impressed by the range of people and businesses represented here today at this event. Let’s be very clear that you are an important part of the H&S system. We need you to continue to innovate and offer new solutions and services to business. But I am equally clear that we must also unite in the drive for a common sense and proportionate approach to risk management and health & safety. 

Have a good conference.

Updated 2012-12-28