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"Health and safety in the 21st century - A balancing act"

A speech by Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, National Safety Symposium at Warrington on 8 September 2008

Slide 1

First of all, let me say that I am very pleased to have been invited to Warrington to speak to you today. I have chosen to give my address on the subject of Health and Safety in the 21st Century. I was appointed Chair of the Health and Safety Commission almost a year ago - on 1st October 2007. Since then the Health and Safety Executive and the Commission have merged to become the new Health and Safety Executive with a unitary Board of non-Executives which I chair.

This important and modernising change to the Governance structure of HSE typifies the challenge and the balancing act we must undertake in Health and Safety in the 21st Century - we must hold on to those things which are good, effective and still relevant whilst, at the same time, adapting and changing as the world in which we operate changes and calls upon us to address new risks.

I'm conscious that there may be some of you in the audience today who cannot remember life before the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. In fact some of you may not even have been around in 1974!

Slide 2

So I thought I would start by quickly reflecting back on what the world of work was like back then in health and safety terms.

  1. the system of regulation was outdated and disjointed with multiple sets of regulations calling for different practices and setting different standards in different industry sectors.
  2. numerous sectors and work activities were not covered by regulation.
  3. there was no requirement for employee involvement in health and safety and given the state of industrial relations back then, let us be clear that the lack of a statutory duty to involve was not because it was already happening!

And so it was the case that with remarkable year on year consistency Great Britain's Health and Safety Performance had plateaued at a point where ˜1000 people were being killed at work every year.

Slide 3

So at the point where we reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our health and safety system and its suitability for the 21st Century it's important to recognise the huge turning point which occurred in 1974 with the Robens Report which resulted in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act and the establishment of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive.

Slide 4

Compared to many other pieces of legislation which have been enacted before and since HSWA, the Act is quite remarkable in its resilience.

The key principles of the Act required that we all:

and replace that with a broader and more generic goal setting approach based on the overriding principle that "Those who create the risk are best placed to manage it".

If I have any quibble at all with the Robens approach it is that not only are those who create the risk "best placed" to manage it, they also have a moral as well as a legal duty to manage the risks that they create. That embellishment aside, the approach that was taken in 1974, the Act which enshrined those principles in law and first brought us a proportionate, targeted, risk-based approach built on consultation and engagement is as relevant today as it was more than 30 years ago.

Slide 5

And the evidence is there for us all to see that this approach has worked. Since the introduction of the Act, safety performance has improved by more than 70%. It is hardly a cause for celebration that > 200 people continue to die at work every year but we should also remember

The fact that our performance has plateaued again, albeit at a much lower level than before tells us something - but it certainly doesn't tell us that we have to change fine piece of legislation which has served us well and delivered such a huge benefit, measured in lives saved and injuries and illnesses avoided, for more than 30 years.

What we in the HSE Board believe it tells us is that we need to look at what has changed and then make necessary adjustments to our strategy to deal with those changes.

The world of work has changed - in many cases almost beyond recognition. But this is not simply a case of everyone moving from 'work type A' then to 'work type B' now. Many of the business and work activities which existed in the 1970s continue to operate and, indeed, thrive today. We still have Agriculture, Construction, Extractive Industries and my own personal background industry - chemicals. Many of the risks in these industries remain the same as they were back then but equally many things have changed - greater automation, new processes and technologies, more diverse workforces and working practices, changes of ownership, changed governance and operating structures.

And then we move on to the emerging and growing sectors which bring with them new risks to be managed and new challenges. The strength of the 1974 Act is that by setting down non specific, generic but time honoured principles, we can apply those principles today to many more SMEs, to nanotechnology, to a rapidly expanding waste and recycling industry and so on.

We must also recognise that public expectation and societal values have 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 don't 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 civil 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 about where we find ourselves in the 21st Century is that much of that bureaucracy has proliferated in the name of Health and Safety or rather "Elf 'n' Safety" because we do need to draw a clear distinction between that which is real Health and Safety - stopping people getting killed, injured or made ill by work - and much of the nonsense and jobs worths which shamelessly use health and safety as an excuse.

You know that the subject we all care about is not about banning conkers, pancake races and the like. I hope you also know that Health and Safety does not stop anyone from doing their job - it actually enables them to do it more safely and efficiently. This ranges from finding better ways to help emergency services to perform risk assessments and anticipate problems before they find themselves in life/death situations so that they can quickly adopt the right measures, to enabling small firms to comply with legislative requirements in a simple and proportionate manner.

And we also have to regain the real Health and Safety brand - and that will not happen if we wait for the media to correct this ridiculous barrage of myths which proliferate - we have to replace the nonsense with the real story.

It seems that with the passage of time we've also become a bit confused about who is responsible for what in relation to health and safety. There's a significant body of opinion which continues to advocate the need for many, many more HSE inspectors as the 'only way' to improve health and safety. I bow to no-one in my admiration of HSE inspectors and the key role they play and we are indeed in the process of recruiting to ensure we re-establish the number of front-line inspectors at the planned levels for April 2008. But it is incorrect to see ever increasing numbers of inspectors as the solution. Should we have one in every workplace?? The logic is flawed because it is based on the incorrect notion that we in HSE are responsible for managing health and safety in your workplace. We are not - you are.

This is not just a case of misplaced responsibility - it is a more fundamental question of motivation - no-one ever did or does health and safety (or anything else for that matter) because you're told to or because you fear being caught out if you don't. To do anything properly and well and embed it into the culture requires that you believe it is the right thing to do. The experts in health and safety then provide the framework for you to do the right thing in your business or organisation in a way that you know will work because you have thought about it and are committed to it.

I am constantly amazed by the number of organisations who still seem to see some trade off/deal to be done on health and safety. It usually takes the form of "If we in Organisation X make a voluntary commitment to Y Health and Safety initiative what will you in HSE give us in return?". The rewards for doing health and safety properly will come from your own organisation - less accidents, greater staff motivation and better business performance - not from the regulator. That's what I mean about clarity of roles and responsibilities.

Slide 6

So, as we embark upon our new strategy for the 21st Century let's just remind ourselves of the challenges we face.

Our current performance is on a plateau:

There is a great deal still to do. Much more than can be achieved by HSE alone - that is why our strategy is for GB as a whole as well as describing our role within that.

Slide 7

But before we get into the strategy lets look beyond the headlines and drill down into some of the patterns behind them:

Slide 8

So we began the process of modernisation for the 21st Century with new governance arrangements and, as you have heard already today in my presentation, we have been taking stock and revisiting the principles of the Robens report and have found them fit for purpose and still relevant.

Slide 9

Our next step is to launch the new strategy - for workplace health and safety in Great Britain and HSE's role within it.

The timing of this activity works well for several reasons. It has provided an excellent focus for the new Board to adapt and consider its new role and where it wants to lead HSE over the next five years or so.

We have the benefit of considerable debate about Health and Safety which resulted from the Work and Pensions Select Committee enquiry. We have been able to review all of the evidence from a variety of stakeholders along with other pertinent work which has been done by the Better Regulation Executive, Dame Carol Black and others.

This has given us the unique opportunity for the Board to take the lead in setting out its thoughts on the strategy. Our strong relationship with Local Authority co-regulators has enabled us to involve LAs as true partners as part of the Project team. The first draft of our strategy has very recently been reviewed and endorsed by the HSE Board.

Slide 10

Our plan is to launch the strategy formally in early December and at that time we will initiate a consultation process which will enable stakeholders to comment. But we want stakeholders to do more than comment - we are particularly keen to engage in dialogue not only on what HSE can or should be doing but also to identify the key active roles which we need others to take to deliver the strategy.

Between now and December we still have a lot of work to do to refine the strategy and more importantly to start to define the delivery process and HSE's key roles in delivery.

At this stage in the strategy development process I can tell you that many of the topics I have talked about today will be addressed. The strategy will not be revolutionary but it will set out to optimise the performance of the overall health and safety system. It will clarify the roles of the regulated, the regulator, the workforce and the many others who are part of the system.

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 - competent professionals do not call for risk elimination.

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 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

We will also clarify the role of Health and Safety in delivering the broader Government agenda with particular reference to other regulation, Health Work and Wellbeing, Better Regulation and education of future generations in understanding risk.

The challenge of course will be to maintain focus on improving health and safety performance but balance that with taking into account wider issues which impact on health and safety where it is sensible to do so.

As I have said, setting the strategic aims is a vital part of putting a strategy together but it is only part. Those aims will only become real when we have completed the next part of the process - defining how we deliver.  That's what we will be working on between now and when we launch the strategy in December.

But in the meantime let me leave you with a vision of what I hope we can achieve:

Ladies and Gentlemen - Thank you for listening. I hope I have given you some food for thought.


Updated 2009-01-06