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Universities Safety and Health Association, 14 April 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Training, Learning, Competency and the HSE Strategy Plan

Good morning everybody and thank you for inviting me to join you here today. I find events like this inspiring because you can see the passion and commitment that health and safety professionals have about their work. And I very much applaud the work that USHA is doing.

You've asked me to focus today on the strategy for health and safety in Great Britain and to highlight how your themes of training, learning and competence relate to it.

The HSE Strategy

Let me start with the strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain and how it was developed. Essentially it sprang from a decision by the new Board of HSE, formed two years ago, that we needed to reset the direction for the system.

Why was that? There were several factors. Workplaces were and are changing fast. The number of small and medium sized companies was expanding. And we had seen an increasing culture of risk aversion in society as a whole. For too many organisations, health and safety had become synonymous with petty regulations instead of what it should be - a professional assessment of risks and a focus on the most important ones. Britain has a good record. We're a leader in health and safety. In fact last year workplace fatalities fell to a record low of 180. But one fatality is one too many. And we still have over 100,000 employees suffering serious injuries every year as well as several thousands of people dying prematurely from work-related diseases.

(So,) a renewed drive was needed to get health and safety repositioned and back on the agenda. This is why the HSE Board drew up a draft strategy and consulted on it very extensively last year before publishing the final version.

(So) what are the key elements?

The overriding mission in the new Strategy is to: "prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities".

Relating that to this sector, it reminds us that universities' responsibilities extend to all staff, students and others who may be affected by your work.


To turn the mission into reality, requires everyone to play their part in delivery and that requires leadership. Our strategy states clearly that leadership in health and safety is fundamental because it governs the kind of health and safety culture an organisation has - indeed whether it has one at all. Leadership in health and safety has different dimensions. First of all, we need the leaders of organisations - whether they are vice-chancellors, chief executives or directors - to set the tone from the top. And of course health and safety specialists such as yourselves have a particular kind of leadership role because you need to be a champion yourself but also win management's attention and make sure they take ownership of the issue. That can be tough, especially today.

But to your credit in USHA and the HE sector, you have been leaders in leadership. While we were drawing up our strategy two years ago you were publishing your own guidance on Leading Health and Safety with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.

And that publication emphasises a critical point in winning top management's support - which is that health and safety makes good business sense. If leaders see health and safety as being about bureaucracy and paperwork it will be seen as a burden. But if they see it as being about improvements in costs, productivity and reputation, then it becomes an asset.

In financial terms reducing risk leads to reduced costs and reduced premiums. In terms of employees, good health and safety leads to fewer absences, reduced staff turnover, better morale and increased productivity. In reputational terms, it means improved standing among suppliers and partners, and a better name among your peers. These are all points to remember and deploy, especially when economies need to be made.

But leadership does not just come from the top of the organisation and a few key people like yourselves. It needs to happen at all levels, through people feeling competent and confident in what they do. Everyone should be/has to be a leader in health and safety in some way.

Among health and safety professionals a very special kind of leadership is required in order to win support from the top down and ensure everyone understands their own responsibilities. And that can be challenging. Some people are fortunate to work in environments where health and safety has a high profile. Others don't have that kind of support.

(And) in challenging situations, the H&S specialists can feel like they are beating a drum - forcing everyone to march in time - when they should be conducting the orchestra - and enabling everyone to play their own part.


How can we all make that shift from beating the drum to conducting the orchestra? Competence has a lot to do with it. Your organisation will look to you as the expert who will know what the law requires, what guidance says, what risk assessment needs to cover and so on. And so they should.

You are all experts in health and safety, you have worked hard to gain that respect and you make a valuable contribution to your organisations.

But health and safety leaders need competences which go beyond technical knowledge and expertise. Your knowledge needs to be combined with passion and exceptional people skills, the ability to influence, engage and motivate, the ability to communicate to everyone in language that is meaningful to them.

(So) if you've reached a very high level in terms of technical skills, it may be that these capabilities are the ones to concentrate on - because there is always something more to learn about influencing and communication.

(And) if you are able to win support from across your organisation, then your job is to build competence where it is needed across the university. Truly effective health and safety management requires competence across every facet of an organisation and through everyone who works for or represents it. At its most rudimentary level, it is essential that every employee receives training and is deemed competent in the skills required to carry out the job for which they are employed.

However, in the best of all worlds, the necessary health and safety knowledge will have been fully integrated within that training - with the result that it's relevant to the tasks each person is performing and they are clear on their responsibilities to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their work.

And where there is training in health and safety specifically, let's make sure it is fit for purpose, tailored to the trainee and focused on the relevant risks.


This takes us to another element of the strategy - accountability. Everyone has a role. Everyone is responsible and therefore accountable for their own health and safety.

We have stressed this strongly at the national level. Just as an individual HSE officer is not solely answerable for health and safety in an organisation, neither is the HSE solely responsible overall. The responsibility to manage any risk always lies with those who create it.

So this is why the strategy is not for HSE alone. It's a strategy for health and safety in Great Britain which everyone should own, and feel part of.

And that sense of accountability among stakeholders needs to be replicated within organisations so that everyone takes responsibility for managing the risks they create.


There is another element to the strategy which is absolutely vital in winning hearts and minds. And that is proportionality - focusing on the risks that matter - the real risks not the trivia.

It's not about paperwork. It's about proper work.

As you probably know, one of my personal missions is to debunk the many myths that surround health and safety.

For example, it is ok to have experiments in the classroom - including real flames - provided they are properly managed. (In fact on You Tube you can see me demonstrating this!)

We're not trying to stop Morris dancing - or plastic duck races. And you don't have to wear earplugs at rock concerts (good news for music-mad places like Manchester) - and it's perfectly OK to throw mortarboards at graduation ceremonies as well.

However, where real risks exist risks which may cause injury and serious harm, they need to be identified and mitigated through rigorous processes.

If you take a commonsense, proportionate, approach then you will get a warmer welcome. People will see you not only as a source of knowledge, but a source of wisdom and common sense.

So what does a proportionate approach mean in the university sector?

Let me first give you an example of what it doesn't mean. I have 2 daughters in their 20s - both of whom are still students. One is a graduate marine biologist. When she did her dissertation she chose a project which involved entirely literature based research, but nonetheless she was handed a 20-page risk assessment to complete. That's my case study contribution on what constitutes non-sensible, non-proportionate behaviour which sends out the wrong message.

But clearly your sector does have some real and serious risks to manage. In addition to the potential occupational health risks attached to some research streams, the two major causes of ill health and injury to employees in the education sector are the somewhat disparate ones of work-related stress and slips and trips.

Stress is an issue that affects all regions and sectors. We estimate that work-related stress costs society around £4 billion and over 13 million working days each year. And we're now looking at what has been achieved through the Management Standards that were introduced in 2004. Those standards provide a framework for managing stress that is based on the understanding that there are six key areas that can lead to poor health and well-being if they are not properly managed. These areas are change; relationships; support; roles - whether people understand their roles for example; control - how much say we have in our work; and demands - such as workload and the work environment.

If you have not used it already, there is a survey tool available on our website which tests employees' experiences in these areas. This produces scores using a green-amber-red system and flags issues which need attention. I'm pleased to see that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is now building on this work with its initiative on 'Improving performance through wellbeing and engagement'. This has gained support from leading vice-chancellors and is helping to make the business case for keeping employees motivated, healthy and engaged.

The difficult economic climate which affects everyone including the higher education sector is not an excuse for neglecting health and safety - and stress is clearly an increasing risk. So this is one area which does need to be a continuing priority.

In a less complex but equally challenging area, slips and trips account for around 60% of serious injuries in the education sector - many of these resulting in broken bones - and they cost an estimated £49 million a year.

Our Shattered Lives campaign demonstrates that people need to understand the hazards. And although it's a very different issue from stress, it's also the subject of an online e-learning tool - called STEP - the Slips and Trips e-Learning Package - which provides a specific course for those working in the education sector.

Finally I want to say something about students, not least because for many academic staff health and safety is seen in the curriculum context. They want their students to aspire to excellence in all aspects of their intended careers, including managing risk.

Just as employees need to have health and safety knowledge integrated in their training, so the education system needs to embed a basic understanding of risk as a core life skill in the curriculum so that young people joining the workforce are more risk aware. That doesn't mean avoiding risks - on the contrary it means experiencing risk and learning to manage risk.

This applies in all departments not just physical sciences: geographers; linguists and many other subjects will be involved in field trips to remote and often risky locations throughout the world. Exposed to risks which can be managed but never eliminated.

You may be among the first to experience the consequences of a generation of young people who have been brought up effectively wrapped in cotton wool. So in the worst case, you face the dilemma of dealing with young people who are neither risk averse, nor rise aware, but risk-naïve - and having to educate them on what risk is all about.

We are in new territory here because although there are specialist courses on health and safety and risk management in higher education, relatively little is known about the extent of risk as a component of the curriculum. However a lot of work is now underway on ways to bring health and safety into the mainstream education curriculum - including university.

For example, Nicola Stacey from the Health and Safety Laboratory will be speaking this afternoon about the increasing role of risk management in engineering degrees. This has been prompted among other things by the Cullen report on the Hatfield rail accident with its call for risk management to be embedded in the education of engineers. And Nicola will cover the important work that has been done at Liverpool University to develop relevant materials for undergraduate courses.

In another subject area, the HSE is partnering with the Royal Institution of British Architects to fund studies at Sheffield University to develop a better understanding of the quality of undergraduate training on the role of designers in eliminating health and safety risks1.


I have covered the relevant pillars of our strategy - leadership, accountability, proportionality - and in doing so I've also looked at your themes of:

Let me conclude with a couple of action points. I spoke earlier about the critical importance of the strategy being owned by everyone involved. Well, we have provided a way for stakeholders to signal their support for the strategy by signing up to a pledge. And over 1,500 organisations have now done so. On our website you'll see many of their logos - large global companies, SMEs, public sector bodies, charities, government departments and others. Some universities are there - but only a minority of them. So please take a look - show your vice-chancellor and your executive team that there is a real national movement underway - and demonstrate your support for the strategy by signing your universities up.

By signing the pledge you'll also have access to our forum where organisations can share their experiences of implementing the strategy. I would also very much like to see your university's experiences there. What's more, I am delighted to hear that there is now some work in the pipeline, co-ordinated by USHA, UCEA and Universities UK, to gather information on this from all the UK's universities so that experience and good practice can be shared. So I urge you to work with them and tell them what good work you're doing.

Strategies only work if they make sense and result in real action on the ground and that's why we made our strategy simple, sensible, practical and inclusive.

(So) thank you for your support in implementing the strategy and I wish you all the best for the rest of the conference and for the year ahead in focusing on the real issues and making a real difference in our universities.


  1. RIBA HSE Research Fund (
Updated 2010-04-21