This website uses non-intrusive cookies to improve your user experience. You can visit our cookie privacy page for more information.

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair - NW Hazards BRANCH XXI Symposium after dinner speech, Manchester

11 November 2009

Given the amount of time I spend speaking to audiences about health and safety where the main focus is on banning conkers and the like, I can't tell you what a pleasure it is for me to have the opportunity to speak to you this evening.

I speak to you this evening wearing at least 2 hats - as Chair of HSE and also as a member of Council of IChemE. But this is not just about which hat I'm wearing - it is about something much more fundamental than that - this is a subject I really care about and I am impressed by the agenda, by the attendance and by the eminence of your speakers including John Bresland and Trevor Kletz.

What started out some years ago as a North West IChemE branch event has become one of the most influential - and well attended - process safety gatherings held not just in the UK but globally. Like all long-running events, I am sure your attendance numbers have fluctuated over the years. But I am equally sure that the topics you have been covering here over the last 3 days, and tomorrow, have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years. Some of the reasons for that resurgence in interest are well known - Texas City and the Baker Report; Buncefield; the HSE's own high profile activities in Offshore safety and Process Safety leadership. What is perhaps salutary about this renewed level of interest in the subjects of Hazards and Process Safety is that much, but not all of it, is not new.

I belong to the generation whose attitude to Process Safety was shaped by Flixborough. I was a student at the time, sitting my second year Chemical Engineering exams when it happened. I still remember the shock we all felt, as young Chemical Engineers still a year away from having to face the reality of the world of work and job hunting, of learning the very serious - in fact catastrophic - consequence of getting it wrong.

When I joined industry a year later, in 1975, Flixborough still loomed large in people's minds and the Health and Safety at Work Act was also in place - stating very clearly and unequivocally that it was (and still is) for those who create the risk to manage it.

I also remember very clearly and distinctly the rigour of my safety training and indoctrination in those early years in industry: Hazop and HAZAN courses, safety in process design and so on. I'm pretty sure that in those days things were very similar throughout large parts of the process industries whether you worked for Exxon, as I did, or ICI, Shell, DuPont or whoever. The overriding message was the same - "We must never let it happen again". What followed for me was a career in industry where I came to believe that we had all truly taken on board those lessons:

So in some ways I was guilty, along with many others, of allowing complacency to creep in. In my case, I assumed that my own experience with my then employer was typical and was being sustained across the industry. Complacency for others came in the form of assuming that as processes became more and more "in control" that we had somehow tamed the processes - the computer would stop things happening. Or, we assumed that absence of incidents - more of often than not measured in terms of first aid and minor injuries - meant that all was well.

Plants got older, generations of engineers moved on to other things, facilities were bought and sold, processes were developed in ways that were not thought of at the time the plants were designed. In short, over time, we lost our corporate memory. Perhaps we thought we'd fixed the problem and could move on to other things - product safety and product stewardship to name but one. I note that REACH and Classification and labelling featured in your programme for this event.

I need to make clear here that I am not, for one moment, trying to suggest that product safety is not important, any more than I would suggest that managing conventional personnel safety matters is unimportant. But what I am saying is that major hazards never do get fixed - process safety requires constant attention and vigilance. It also requires exceptional communication and documentation to ensure that design assumptions and fundamentals are passed on to successive owners and operators. And process safety can never be taken off the agenda - at any level in the organisation from the top to the bottom.

Because we know what happens when we allow ourselves to forget - Texas City happens, Buncefield happens, Piper Alpha happened, ICL Plastics happened.

So, as this conference draws to a close tonight and over the next day, I would like to ask you to consider this - How do we get every organisation with the potential to have a major incident, possibly with multiple fatalities and offsite consequences, to learn the lessons of the past - but this time to learn them in such a way that the corporate memory doesn't fade with time?

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge as part of my message to you that there are also new and emerging risks out there which provide new challenges. Innovation was and still is the lifeblood of the process industries - but I would suggest to you that ability or permission to innovate comes from public confidence and trust. Our collective task is to manage the risks - old and new - in such a way that rebuilds that public confidence and trust, and ensures that we do not run the risk of losing it again in the future.

HSE has recently published a new Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century. The Strategy is of course very broad because it covers the whole range of industry sectors regulated by HSE and local authorities - from retail to agriculture, hospitals to construction. It covers managing health risks as well as safety risks - and the need to approach long latency issues in a different way to those risks which are visible and immediate. The Strategy describes the health and safety system as a whole and everyone's respective responsibilities within that system. And I am pleased to say that the Strategy specifically addresses the need to avoid catastrophic incidents.

I am delighted that IChemE was among more than 1000 organisations who have signed the pledge and committed to working with HSE to deliver the Strategy. It is clear to me that Process Safety is an area where there is much to be gained from the 2 organisations - and others - working together.

By far the strongest theme nwhich runs throughout the new Strategy is the need for leadership. That's because leadership is absolutely fundamental to everything else happening.

We need leadership to develop a safety culture, to walk the talk and build credibility so that the workplace becomes committed and engaged. We need leaders who focus on the real risks and the right priorities. We need leaders who are not too proud or too blinkered to learn lessons from others and to learn lessons from the past.

We need leadership at all levels in organisations, from technical specialists, from supervisors and operators, from engineers - but it has to start from the top of organisations - because that's how it becomes sustainable by winning hearts and minds, by embedding it into the culture and making it stick - for the long term.

I am impressed by the outstanding quality and depth of content in this symposium. The sharing of lessons learned from the past and new ways of tackling major hazards and risks is exemplar. But I still believe that the greatest challenge we all face is taking it back into your organisations and conveying the message - winning the hearts and minds - of everyone in your organisations that this is important and will remain important for as long as you are in business.

I see encouraging signs of a new level of commitment to process safety management - offshore, in onshore major hazards industries and even spreading into power generation industries - leadership is being demonstrated. The memories of Texas City and Buncefield are close enough to make it a priority for many organisations. So, how do we build on that? How do we ensure that this stays high on the agenda - at Board level and throughout the organisation? How do we build a sustainable corporate memory that doesn't fade away - only to be brought flooding back to us by another catastrophe somewhere in the years to come?

I am delighted to have had the chance to speak to you at this Symposium. I am delighted that the profile of this event continues to grow. How do we - IChemE, Chemical Engineers, HSE, businesses and other organisations continue to build on that momentum and make it stick?

Updated 2009-11-23