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South East Regional TUC Conference

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 14 November 2008

Thank you for the invitation to address this South East Regional TUC Conference today. There are quite a number of people present here today who I have already met during my first year as Chair of HSE, but there are also many more of you who I am meeting – and addressing - for the first time.

Given your personal interest in and commitment to Health & Safety, I have no doubt that you will already have read some of my speeches and presentations from the last year, but I want to start by saying a little bit about where I stand personally, particularly in relation to workforce involvement in health and safety.

Many of You will be aware that I am a chemical engineer by training and have spent more than 25 years working in industry. Throughout my working life it has always been the case that the workforce has been fully involved in Health and Safety and the importance of safety representatives has never been questioned because it’s never been in any doubt. In some ways, I am surprised that we continue to have to promote the benefits in worker involvement in health and safety given that in my own personal experience I find it hard to imagine how one could ever put in place an effective workplace health and safety system that did not include real participation and engagement of the workforce.

That said, I am equally aware of how much 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, changes in business profile from region to region, 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.

There are many more SMEs, we have nanotechnologies and other new processes and a rapidly expanding waste and recycling industry.

Change is not confined to the private sector. The extent to which our public sector employees - especially in health and education - have experienced changes to their working environment and encountered new health and safety risks must also be recognised. Whether those new pressures come from increased bullying or even violence, or concerns about infection control or the need to carry out risk assessments, we must acknowledge that workplaces today feel very different from twenty or even ten years ago.

It is also a fact that the extent of collective, unionised representation today is much lower than in the past. No matter how much some of you may wish it were otherwise, it is very clear to me that HSE’s role is to encourage worker engagement and  involvement in every organisation and it is important that we work with each organisation as we find it. It is for this very reason that our recently launched new guidance on workforce involvement was specifically designed to provide guidance to all types of organisation - large and small, unionised and non unionised and those that have a mixed unionised/non-unionised workforce.

In connection with the launch of the new guidance, we held a very successful workshop/conference here in London on 14th October. One of the key questions we posed at that conference was “How can the various stakeholders in the GB health and safety system increase the level and quality of worker involvement in a changing environment?” I was delighted to chair the very lively discussion session which generated a number of points and ideas worth highlighting here:

  1. a greater role for HSE and LA inspectors, not only in enforcement action, but also in facilitating H&S representatives and employers to come together to address H&S management
  2. extending influence to SMEs through communication campaigns and supply chains
  3. improved H&S training and understanding of their specific responsibilities for lower grade (first line) supervisors and managers
  4. joint H&S training/workshops for managers and safety reps
  5. raising awareness of the benefits of worker involvement and effective safety representation among insurers and business financiers.

I am keen to see each of these ideas developed further in conferences such as this one and also part of the consultation process which is about to begin on HSE’s new strategy.

Before I say more about the new strategy I would just like to take a little bit longer to set out some more of the background - and in particular other relevant changes which set the context.

Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act back in 1974, we have been very successful in improving Great Britain’s Health and Safety performance. It may feel difficult to acknowledge that, given that we still see >200 people killed in work related accidents each year, around 28,000 people suffer serious injuries and > 2million suffering from illness either caused or made worse by work. We also, of course, live with the legacy of work related cancer - of which asbestos continues to be the biggest single killer, claiming more than 4,000 lives every year. But we should not overlook the fact that our performance here in GB is consistently among the best in the world - and other countries do still look to us to learn from us what they perceive as best practice. 70% performance improvement over 30+ years is a good achievement and does provide us with a solid, proven health and safety system which needs improvement and refinement but which does not need radical revision and overhaul.

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:

  1. recognise the pace of change - in business, in technology, in society
  2. do away with rigid, specific old-fashioned prescriptive solutions

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".

The HSE Board takes the view that we have a legislative framework in place which is fit for purpose in the 21st century but which still needs to take account of and deal with what has changed in the way it is applied today.

Major changes have taken place in public expectations and societal values. 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 proportionate manner.

So 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 the dutyholders – ie the employers are but you as safety reps and employees also have responsibilities.

Seeing H&S management as HSE’s role is not just a case of misplaced responsibility - it is more fundamental question of motivation - no-one ever did or does health and safety (or anything else for that matter) in a proper and sustainable way simply 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 all believe it is the right thing to do. The experts in health and safety then provide the framework for you all to do the right thing in your business or organisation in a way that you know will work because you have thought about it, you’ve agreed it together and are committed to it.

So, at a time when we pull together all of these threads of change and the need to clarify everyone’s role, let’s consider some of the specific challenges:

  1. 4 sectors account for around 50% of all work-related deaths - Construction, Agriculture, Extractive Industries and Utilities.
  2. Causes of ill health are often gradual and chronic, they may be caused initially by something other than work and then exacerbated by work conditions. Not all health impacts can be managed in the same way as traditional safety.
  3. Workforces today are not only more diverse, they are more remote. How can we manage people who we usually only communicate with by e-mail and phone? How do we know if they are stressed if they are working from home? People who move rapidly from job to job (and perhaps country to country) may be less aware of the risks - or less confident asserting their right to protection.

I’ve already mentioned the smaller proportion of workforces which are unionised and how we must adapt to what we find today.

  1. This argument also applies to geography. It is entirely sensible and appropriate that we have established the Partnership for Health and  Safety in Scotland to consider how best to implement the GB wide principles in a way that fits for Scotland - the same principle applies to Wales and to English regions.

So we will launch the new strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st century on 3rd December. It will be launched simultaneously at events in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. That date will mark the start of a 3 month consultation process but one which is different from previous HSE consultations.

Our work to date in developing the strategy has been different too - because what we have produced is a strategy which describes the whole health and safety system as well as the regulator’s role within it. The strategy has been a true partnership process involving Local Authority co-regulators as well as HSE.

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, by region of GB, 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.

It is clear that the risks, and hence the priorities, for duty holders, employees and regulators will differ considerably between for example construction on the one hand and a large NHS Trust on the other. But here in the South East we have these and many other different risk profiles to address and it is essential that our new approach addresses the key priorities sector by sector, business by business and region by region.

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

  1. providing advice and guidance on what the law requires
  2. taking appropriate enforcement action where there have been breaches of the law
  3. alerting dutyholders to new and emerging risks as they are identified.

It is quite clear to me that HSE cannot do all of this alone - we need the commitment and support of all stakeholders - and I mean commitment to join with us in delivery not just endorsement of the principles outlined in the strategy.

In January we will hold a series of workshops - seven in all - as part of the consultation process. The workshops will take place up and down the country and will provide an opportunity to discuss how we can all work together to bring about these all important next steps in further improving our health and safety performance in Great Britain.

Workforce involvement and in particular the engagement of yourselves and your fellow safety representatives in all organisations throughout Great Britain is vital to our success.

Once we have agreed that we all share a common purpose/mission to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities, we can move on to discussing and agreeing who will do what to deliver on that mission.

I’m very clear what the future can look like and I’m very much hoping for your support. I think we can

  1. regain widespread commitment and recognition of what real health and safety is all about
  2. build better and more constructive employer/employee working together to solve shared H&S challenges
  3. motivate everyone involved in the health and safety system to be clear about how and where they will make their contribution
  4. resume the reduction and make a step change improvement in the number of accidents and cases of ill health
  5. ensure that those who choose not to be part of the solution and continue to breach or ignore health and safety duties are appropriately held to account.

I hope I have covered much of the ground that you expected me to cover here today. I look forward to your feedback today and your engagement in both the strategy consultation and subsequent delivery.

Thank you.

Updated 2009-01-06