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Speech to International Conference, Istanbul, Turkey, 13 September 2011

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

International Conference: World Congress on Safety, "Social dialogue, partnerships and innovation on occupational safety and health"

Thank you to the organisers for inviting me to speak to you today. I am delighted to be here to take the opportunity to share the UK Health and Safety Executive's experiences and the lessons we've learned regulating health and safety in Britain's workplaces for nearly four decades. It also provides an opportunity for me to hear and learn from the perspectives of others.

In my remarks this morning I would like to cover the following four areas:

As many of you might know, Great Britain has a tradition of health and safety regulation going back over 175 years. For much of that period, the legislation that emerged was very specific and inconsistent, being introduced at different times for shops, railways, mines, factories and other sectors as they developed and often after appalling working conditions came to light. Therefore, when we got to the 1960s, the UK had numerous confusing, and sometimes conflicting, workplace regulations.

A major change came in the 1970s with the creation of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the establishment of the Health and Safety Executive an organisation that would regulate - or would be given responsibility to regulate in subsequent years - practically all workplaces throughout Great Britain.

More than 36 years after its introduction into law, the Health and Safety at Work Act has proven itself an outstanding and resilient example of good regulation, which can be applied effectively across all sectors of the economy. Despite the enormous changes that have taken place in Great Britain's workplaces over that time, such as the shift from heavy industrial manufacturing to a much broader range of working activities and work patterns - like office-based working and the growth of the service economy, the legislation covering workplace health and safety is as relevant today as it was when it was first introduced.

The reason for this was because the new act swept away much of the prescriptive – rules-based – industry-specific regulations, replacing them with a new regulatory regime based upon some very sound common sense principles.

The first and most important of those principles is that the person who creates the risk in any workplace, is best placed to manage that risk. In the vast majority of cases what this means in practice is that there is a duty placed on every employer to identify and manage the risks associated with their business or undertaking. So whether you are the owner of a shop, or the head of a major construction company, it is up to you to identify the actual risks involved in carrying out your business and put appropriate measures in place to manage those risks to prevent harm being caused to your employees or to members of the public who may be affected by the work you do. The law requires risks to be managed and reduced to as low as is reasonably practicable, but does not require that all risks or hazards be eliminated.

But the legislation also places a clear duty on employees to act in a manner that does not put themselves or their fellow employees in danger. This is a principle which is entirely consistent with the notion of identifying those who can create risk - safe systems of work are established by the employer and employees, effectively trained in them, must also behave responsibly.

The principles of risk creators being responsible for managing risk and of reasonable practicability remain the cornerstones of our regulatory framework today.

Enforcement and prosecution are a key part of what we do at HSE, and it is an important part of our role to provide an effective deterrent - but our mission is to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. Regulation and indeed the regulator, cannot do this alone. That’s why we also:

As you can see from this slide our approach has positioned us amongst some of the leading countries for health and safety performance in Europe.

However, there remains still a great deal to do and for that reason in 2009, HSE launched a new strategy for the health and safety system of Great Britain that preserved and re-stated the principles of the Health and Safety at Work Act, but also identified and highlighted a number of areas where further improvement was possible.

In particular, the strap-line that accompanied the strategy’s launch reminded all those who are part of the health and safety system of the importance of working together in partnership and by becoming ‘Part of the Solution’.

This was a deliberate move because we identified that to bring about further improvements in health and safety performance there was an even greater need for everyone to work together towards our common set of goals.

This approach is designed to create the opportunity for those companies, organisations or individuals that are committed to doing the right things in driving up health and safety performance to show cross-sector leadership by working together to learn lessons and share good practice. It recognises the important role of trades unions, employers’ organisations and others in creating the right culture and ensuring that health and safety is part of doing business well, not a burden driven by regulation.

This in turn enables us as the regulator to focus more of our time and attention on those areas where more help is needed - whether that is to individual companies or sectors where there is a history of poorer performance.

The strategy stated clearly that leadership in health and safety is fundamental because it governs the kind of health and safety culture an organisation has. We need the leaders of organisations to set the tone from the top. By doing this, health and safety becomes a fundamental part of how a business is operated so that it is ingrained and embedded at every level throughout the organisation. With strong leadership, people feel competent and confident in what they do and everyone becomes a leader in health and safety in some way.

Without leadership and proper ownership of responsibility we know that the other strands that make up the strategy simply won't happen.

The strategy also highlighted the importance of the real involvement of workers in managing health and safety at work.

Worker involvement and engagement has always been an important part of the UK's approach to Health and Safety and in spite of the changing landscape of workforce organisation today that continues to remain the case.

According to research, a higher level of employee consultation is linked to reduced instances of stress and of musculoskeletal complaints. In addition, people who feel valued and involved in decision-making play a big part in a higher performing workplace.

An engaged workforce means:

We believe the reason for all of this is because employees can provide valuable feedback on the effectiveness of the health and safety management systems. And, whilst employers should tackle issues strategically at a corporate level, it is equally important to recognise that individuals provide insightful solutions to problems. The workforce are the 'eyes and ears', they are most familiar with the job and what it involves and they need to be encouraged to speak up if things aren't right.

Experience has also shown that once an organisation has 20 or more workers it becomes more difficult to deliver good consultation and involvement without some form of structured employee representation.

This fact presents a significant challenge to businesses seeking to improve and to adapt their health and safety consultation arrangements and it was primarily for this reason why HSE launched its ‘Safe and Sound at work - do your bit’ initiative.

The initiative was designed to help improve consultation by increasing employee representation and facilitating joint-working between management and workers but at the same time it also took into consideration that workforces today may be fully unionised, non-unionised or a combination of the two. Many workplaces are also likely to include a mix of direct employees and contracted workers, all of whose health and safety is equally important.

We recognised at an early stage that the success of the project was dependent on building effective links with social partners to ensure that we designed, piloted and subsequently delivered the right products to employers.  In doing this, we worked particularly closely with sector training organisations, trade unions, employer bodies and trade organisations.

Most importantly of all, the collaboration with partners ensured that the training courses were designed for, and delivered to, those who would benefit most from the offer of training.

Course content was a blend of technical information and softer aspects relating to ‘people skills’ which trained delegates on communicating more effectively; especially on areas such as negotiating change; participating more in health and safety meetings; and building rapport with colleagues and managers. What our experience tells us most of all is that 'people skills' training is just as important as technical knowledge.

The feedback we’ve received thus far shows that this initiative has had a significant positive impact - especially in the areas that have traditionally proved most difficult to tackle. But, as I've already said; key to our strategy is that others - those with both the responsibility and influence - make a positive difference.

One, very high profile example where this sort of leadership is being demonstrated is at the London 2012 construction project.  

The £5.3 billion Olympic Park development in East London is being built on over 200 hectares of formerly highly contaminated land and employing up to 11,000 workers. A project of this scale could have resulted in a number of deaths and serious injuries. There have been 66 million hours worked with 109 reportable injuries and no fatalities and recently, the workforce completed three million hours without a single reportable injury.

One of the major factors contributing to this success, is that the Olympic Development Authority - which is responsible for overseeing this massive project - has chosen to take a proactive, integrated and inclusive approach to health and safety, especially in regard to the provision of occupational health at the site. By operating strategically, they are involving everybody - designers, project managers, contractors, sub-contractors and individual workers - bringing them together to look at every element of the process with the purpose of designing each stage to minimise exposure to hazards, including occupational health hazards.

It's worth mentioning that the focus of the upcoming European Agency campaign 'Working together for risk prevention' will be a great opportunity for us to share more of what we have been doing on leadership and worker engagement as well as learning about good practice in this area from others.

I now want to go into another area where partnership working is playing a crucial role in tackling a particularly challenging issue - long-latency work related diseases.

Due to their very nature long latency diseases, including lung cancer, can be easily treated as a lower priority than other more ‘obvious’ and immediate hazards, such as moving machinery or working at height. The serious and sometimes fatal consequences may only become apparent many years after exposure to the conditions that caused them. Tying down the cause of an illness later in life to a particular work-related cause can also be very challenging. Employers and workers often do not even recognise the dangers and even where they do, persuading people to take precautions today to protect themselves from a serious problem long into the future is not easy.

HSE’s research allows me to estimate with some confidence that at least 8,000 people a year die prematurely from work-related cancer in Great Britain alone and several thousand more who suffer from other serious respiratory diseases linked to their job.

We can do little to change those alarming statistics in the immediate years to come, given that the exposures are likely to have already happened. But it is only by acting now that we can avoid a similar tragic legacy, decades in the future. To do this HSE has been actively working with stakeholders to identify those groups of workers at highest risk of the most serious long latency diseases and to work with them to increase their understanding of the problem and influence their working practices so as to minimise exposures.

One example of how HSE has been dealing with this problem relates to the threat still posed in the UK by asbestos. Although asbestos ceased to be used in the construction of buildings in 2000, many buildings that predate this still contain large quantities of it due to its historical use.

Today, there are around 4,000 deaths every year in Britain from asbestos-related diseases. The majority relate to work activities that no longer happen but a quarter of these deaths are amongst building maintenance tradesmen, such as plumbers, joiners and electricians - and they, because they are likely to be engaged in the maintenance and refurbishment of existing buildings, continue to be at risk.

But, our research also found that the majority of tradesmen who may still encounter asbestos were ignorant of the serious threat to their health.

In response to this HSE engaged extensively with a range of stakeholders, such as trade associations, trade unions, suppliers and training providers, and, working in partnership, developed the Hidden Killer campaign that targeted specifically these tradesmen.

Working with partners improved the effectiveness of the campaign. It enabled us to deliver these hard-hitting messages directly to the tradesmen, through routes they most trusted, and in an effective way - for instance, in the newspapers they read, on the radio stations they listened to and in the stores where they bought their supplies.

Our partners also helped us to ensure our message could have a long-term impact. Most notably, young tradespeople receive information about asbestos risks and how to handle them as an integral part of their apprenticeships. The goal is to get to the point where taking precautions to prevent asbestos exposure becomes second nature; just like wearing a hard hat on a construction site.

We continue to reap the benefits of working in partnership with stakeholders on asbestos issues. Even after three years since the start of the original Hidden Killer campaign, our partners continue to offer routes to develop this initiative in new ways - for instance, we are currently working with training providers to deliver a new scheme in the autumn, offering free asbestos training to businesses.

I have tried to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. I am conscious that no regulatory regime will ever be perfect, neither will regulation alone deliver an effective health and safety system. But a strong and effective regulatory regime is an essential framework. I do believe that the UK system overall has demonstrated that it works well across a very broad range of organisations and remained effective, as that range of organisations have changed over time.

We have a clear and robust framework for the management of risk. It enables those who are responsible to identify and manage the most significant risks in their business. It places the onus on businesses to demonstrate that it is managing those risks and enables the regulator to focus the majority of its time and attention on those who choose to ignore or flout their responsibilities.

Moreover, most importantly - but perhaps most challenging in terms of actually making it happen - it encourages and empowers all those who can and should make a positive difference to health and safety standards to do so.

(Check against delivery).

Updated 2011-09-16