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Communication Workers Union Fringe Meeting, Bournemouth

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 8 June 2009

Thank you for the invitation to join you and speak at this fringe meeting. I’m very pleased to be here in Bournemouth. Delighted to see such a high turnout which clearly demonstrates that health and safety is high on CWU’s agenda.

When I became Chair of HSC only a year and a half ago I had some ideas about what I wanted to achieve in relation to the Health and Safety System in Great Britain. We have already made progress over that period but we have also encountered some new challenges which we have had to take into account – not least economic recession.

You may be aware of my background which includes more than 20 years working in the chemical industry. I chose to take on this role because I believe that every member of every workforce has a fundamental right to work in an environment where health and safety risks are properly controlled. If that can be done in some workplaces – and it is – then it can be done in all. Every organisation has a different culture, and a different risk profile but the principles of effective health and safety are the same everywhere.

The Health and Safety Executive has a very clear mission – the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. But it is not only our mission – it is one which we all share. It is the mission of our new strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century which we launched in London last week and which I want to talk about today.

HSE’s new strategy makes it very clear that we all have important roles to play in delivering health and safety. It is HSE’s role to set the strategic direction and lead the system as a whole. We inspect, we investigate and enforce; we also conduct research, introduce new or revised regulations when needed, we alert dutyholders to new risks, we provide advice and guidance and we promote training. Investigation and securing justice are integral to preventing death, injury and ill health caused by work because the aims are to learn lessons, change bad practices and replace them with better practices as well as ensuring that dutyholders are held to account for the actions.

But the strategy also makes it clear what we and our co-regulator partners are not responsible for and where those responsibilities do lie. Health and safety leadership must come from the top – in every organisation.  Those who create the risks in whatever type of work are not only “best placed” to manage them but have a moral and legal duty to manage them to protect those they employ. Leadership means not only saying that health and safety is important but demonstrating that commitment by action on a consistent and persistent basis.

It is a good sign that Royal Mail has recruited so many new Health and Safety Managers, but time – and the approach of those at the top - will be the real test of effectiveness. I am on record as saying that I would like the term ‘Health and Safety Manager’ to disappear. H&S Adviser, H&S Facilitator – yes, but every manager must be a health and safety manager. But I have seen too many organisations where appointment of health and safety managers provides an opportunity for Boards to delegate the whole task to someone else rather than fulfilling their obligation to lead by action and by example rather than words.

I am constantly encouraging Board members to demonstrate their commitment to health and safety by getting out of the Boardroom and talking to people – asking their employees what their concerns are and working with employees to find solutions to problems.

But our strategy also makes it clear that every member of every workforce also has responsibilities. They have a duty to care for their own health and safety and for others who may be affected by their actions and the legislation requires that workers cooperate with employers on health and safety matters.

Even though it is much less the case than perhaps it was in the past I am still concerned at the extent to which Health and Safety gets degenerated to an ‘us and them’ confrontational issue in many workplaces rather than a golden opportunity to work together to find joint solutions that will be good for morale, good for productivity and good for the business as well as preventing injury and ill health to employees.

This brings me on to worker involvement because there is clear evidence that organisations which have good worker involvement deliver better performance on health and safety. As with all aspects of leadership, the desire to involve the workforce has to be genuine not token and the way in which workers are involved has to recognise the diverse nature, work patterns, employment patterns and locations of workforces today.

It cannot and should not be the case that contractorised workforces are excluded from involvement in health and safety matters or that non-unionised employees are not involved in health and safety to the same extent as those who have well established unionised safety representatives championing the cause for their members.

Last October HSE published new good practice guidance on workforce involvement which recognises the diversity of structures in place today and offers guidance on workforce involvement in fully unionised, non-unionised and mixed workforces.

The real substance of good worker involvement is made up of trust, respect, cooperation and joint problem solving between employers, and all members of the workforce irrespective of their status.

Our new strategy has already prompted HSE to consider how it will go beyond the new guidance in promoting worker involvement. April’s HSE Board reviewed plans for 4 key interventions aimed at promoting and improving involvement over the next 2 years. Our direct interventions will be primarily aimed at workplaces with less than 200 employees but the principles we will be promoting hold good in all organisations of all sizes:

  1. a campaign linked to the wider leadership theme to emphasise the benefits of a cooperative approach
  2. enhanced training provision for H&S representatives with greater emphasis on the soft skills required rather than on the knowledge and responsibilities which are already well covered by existing TU safety representative training programmes
  3. also part funded or subsidised training for H&S representatives marketed as a positive incentive aimed at getting H&S reps in place in workplaces where none currently exist
  4. plus piloting of a new joint training course for H&S reps and first line managers to help facilitate joint working and cooperation on health and safety matters.

So, given that the new strategy is much clearer about roles and responsibilities, when and where will HSE and LAs act as partners and when will they be enforcers? Well that rather depends upon the response of the dutyholders and their organisations! Organisations who want to do the right thing can count on us for advice and guidance, we want to work with them as partners. Especially now that we have announced that our written guidance publications are to be made freely available on the web.

But partnership with HSE is by no means a cosy relationship. Not only will we encourage the organisations that we partner with to strive for continuous improvement but they will be subject to exactly the same approach to enforcement as any other organisation. Partnership and joint working do not in any way bring exemption from accountability and meeting legal obligations.

We all know from our personal lives that we do not always agree with our partners! Robust debate and disagreement are often a sign of a healthy partnership. The same holds good for partnerships in the workplace. That’s why I believe it’s perfectly possible for HSE to work in partnership with dutyholders and why management and workforces can also work in partnership – solving problems together, sharing knowledge, exchanging views – but not using health and safety as a stick to beat each other with!

Our strategy talks about the need to address the priority risks which will be unique for any given company by establishing a risk profile. The performance of CWU sector industries clearly shows that occupational ill health is a priority with the Telecommunications sector. In the postal sector we have seen considerable improvement in health and safety performance over the last 6 years. If the profiling of this sector shows that the greatest risks are associated with occupational road risk, then this is the area that should be focused on, without in any way becoming complacent about performance in other areas.

Good health and safety performance has never been achieved through quick fixes, it requires sustained effort and commitment from everyone involved.

None of it will happen without strong and consistent leadership from the top of every organisation. Nine out of 10 leaders say they believe health and safety requires strong leadership – now we need 9 out of 10 leaders to stand up and lead! But Trades Unions and workforces also have very important roles to play – and can make a big difference.

These are tough and challenging times for businesses in all sectors – not least for Royal Mail and BT, the 2 largest employers of CWU members. When we launched our strategy last week we made it very clear that the recession cannot be an excuse for cutting back on health and safety in any business. I have very little sympathy with those who label health and safety as a burden on business. It’s not a burden, it’s an enabler, a route to higher commitment and productivity and business success.

Thank you. 

Updated 2009-09-06