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Speech to South East Region Stakeholder Forum -
Leading the way – locally and nationally

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 12 February 2010

Thanks Robin – and thanks to all those involved for the great work you have done with this forum.

Good morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I’m delighted that this forum exists. And I’m particularly pleased by the way that the South East has become a leader in implementing the health and safety strategy that we set out last year. 

Things are happening all round the country to implement the strategy, but the South East is moving rapidly. 

Our strategy needs to be a driver for real change in real workplaces.

I’d like to take a few minutes to look at how some of the things you are doing fit with the strategy.

Commonsense says we should focus on what’s important and not what isn’t. That’s why our strategy says that setting priorities is central to creating healthier, safer workplaces.

The Estates Excellence project is a superb example of that principle.

The programme is targeting SMEs, who have become increasingly important throughout the economy. More people are working in SMEs and the sector accounts for a considerable number of health and safety incidents. 

The programme is focused  on business estates where we can reach a lot of organisations in a short time. It is about prioritising risk and helping businesses to identify their major risk areas. The red-amber-green system provides a clear scorecard.  The follow up is then directed to priority areas with interventions such as collective workshops and advice to individual firms. 

The feedback I am hearing suggests that companies have responded very well. One company was issued with an enforcement notice. But the reaction was very constructive. The MD came along to a workshop. Employees visited the occupational health facility on site and the team is now helping that company to develop new and better ways of working. 

And the pace of implementation is impressive too. The programme was created a year ago. It was piloted in Gillingham in November and the next phase will take place in April with five more estates across the region. The plan is to reach around 1000 companies in a year or so.  

The commonsense approach has also meant you have got on with it without bureaucracy, focusing on goals and not on process. And that chimes entirely with the commonsense and proportionate approach which is fundamental to exposing the myths that surround health and safety.

For example, last month I found myself in the unusual position of having to write the words “there are no rules, nor is there any reason, to ban the use or distribution of toothpicks on health and safety grounds.” This was in a reply to the latest ridiculous story I have come across, concerning a gentleman who had been refused a toothpick in a restaurant for “elf’ n’ safety” reasons.

What we do is a matter of life and death, not toothpicks and conkers. So we have to make it very clear we are focusing on the real risks.   

We are working very hard on this with the media and seeing results.  I really liked the quote which appeared in a recent Times article on risk – “The health and safety monster does exist,” it said, “but only in the minds of jobs-worths, lazybones and buck-passers.”  

But returning to the subject of priorities in this region, you are showing what prioritization means by focusing on the most challenging sectors and topics for health and safety, including agriculture and asbestos, on which I know you have a series of interventions planned.

More widely across the country we are aiming to get priorities right. So for example one other initiative in support of the strategy is our pilot programme on involving workers, aimed at SMEs in the construction and manufacturing sectors. 

The second theme of the strategy I want to highlight is common purpose but with clear roles and responsibilities. We have a common purpose - to reduce accidents, improve health and ensure people are safe at work.

There has already been a huge improvement and Great Britain has one of the best records in the world. But we’ve now reached a difficult part of the journey in which we are trying to improve our performance even further and move to a new place where no-one has been before. We are truly leading the way.

We will get there by ensuring that everyone is playing their rightful role – including local authorities (in all their capacities), fire and rescue services and HSE. And organisations such as ACAS and the Institute of Directors providing their specialist input as and when required. Just as you are doing here in the South East.

We all have roles, from the HSE Board’s responsibility for setting strategy to the individual worker’s responsibility for their own actions. The HSE and local authority regulators have a role in inspection and enforcement. 

But we are not responsible for managing safety and health in workplaces. That lies with those who create the risks – owners, directors, managers – the people we call ‘dutyholders’.

The estates programme stimulates dutyholders to act in various ways, including peer pressure and consensus-building in the estate community. People naturally want to keep up with neighbours and it’s hard to peddle myths about health and safety when people are doing it properly all around you.  

It’s also important that competition should not act as a barrier to co-operation. I spent close to 30 years in a chemical industry that can be fiercely competitive but on health and safety companies worked together. That was a better use of resources and a recognition that the sector’s reputation is determined by the worst performer. 

It’s also very pleasing that this initiative came from all of you at the regional level and not from HSE. A strategy by its nature will set out general principles but relies on local implementation.


That brings me to the third and last aspect of the strategy that I want to flag up.

To promote commonsense and build common purpose, we need uncommon leaders.

We need leaders who don’t only lead in the sense of being in charge or at the top of the tree, but in the sense of going first. Having the confidence and the courage to take safety and health to a new stage.  Uncommon leaders set the pace and then others catch up with the benchmarks they set. 

That kind of leadership requires visible support and commitment from people at the top. It means having acknowledged health and safety leaders who are respected. It means having people in those roles who can win hearts and minds. 

A company in Gillingham that had been on a safety journey in improving manual handling and other areas scored a full set of greens on their visit; and one might have expected them to just say ‘thanks very much’ and leave it at that. But they were so pleased that their efforts had paid off that they offered to become champions and share their experiences with other companies.

That to me is the kind of thing that will take us to a new level – a leadership initiative generating leadership behaviour where it matters – among peers and fellow dutyholders.     

And when I look at this group as well I see another important lesson about leadership, which is that leadership is about bringing a team together and learning from each other. Leadership means knowing that you don’t have all the answers, but  having the confidence and the capacity to bring on board and learn from those that do. 

When we have an example of health and safety done well, such as this, it’s important we point to it and say ‘this is what real health and safety is about’. So as part of the leadership theme, I do encourage people to communicate through the media and networks. Shine a spotlight on this project.

One way in which we are asking people to demonstrate leadership and build a national sense of teamwork is by signing our pledge. Which means you commit to play your part in reducing work-related deaths, injuries and ill health. By signing, people also commit to debunk myths and to remember the importance of health and safety in difficult economic times.    

Over 1000 companies and individuals have signed the pledge so far,  and we have created a pledge forum as an online space for discussion and debate  We’ve asked participants to provide case studies.

E.ON have a project in progress to raise the effectiveness and the status of their safety reps. It includes training initiatives and knowledge-sharing website. That is also encouraging in that it shows an interest in competence in health and safety skills.  

E.ON held a conference for its safety reps - funded, designed and delivered in partnership with UNISON and Prospect. I attended and it was great event with interactive sessions as well as speakers. The chief executive and most of the Board also took part.

E.ON have posted a case study on our pledge forum about the programme and the event, and within one hour of them doing so, someone from Panasonic had got in touch to find out more.

I’ve talked about common sense, common purpose and uncommon leadership.

This region is  already leading on many elements of the strategy. That’s a cause for celebration today as well as thinking about next steps.

But I’d also like to hear from you. What do you think will help the UK make a further step change in our record? What really changes things among businesses and organisations in your experience? What do we need to do – HSE or others – to provide even more powerful leadership?

We have made a good start in implementing our strategy but these questions are important for the next chapter and I’d be interested in your views.

So thanks for listening and over to you. 

Updated 2010-02-16