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'A View from the Top', Royal Academy of Engineering – 15 March 2016

Dame Judith Hackitt DBE, HSE Chair

The journey back to common sense and personal responsibility

Good evening everyone. It is an honour to be invited to speak in this "View from the Top" series for the Royal Academy of Engineering.

My background

Many of you in the audience will know that I am about to step down as Chair of HSE after eight and a half years and will be taking up the role of Chair of EEF immediately thereafter. Tonight I want to share with you some of what I have learned and some of the things I think I have helped to change during my time at HSE. I’m going to be talking about putting health and safety back where it belongs in every workplace, which I’ve called ‘the journey back to common sense and personal responsibility’.

I want to start the journey by reflecting back on my first job after I graduated from Imperial College in Chemical Engineering. I entered the petrochemical industry and I went to work for Exxon Chemicals at Fawley where it was my job to come up with good ideas to improve the process – to use less energy, to improve yields, to make new products. But it was very clear that good engineering solutions had to have safety as an integral part. Good ideas and solutions were thoroughly reviewed by a senior team called the Safe Operations Committee. As I progressed in the organisation and became an Operations manager I found myself on that Safe Operations Committee reviewing and challenging the good ideas of others. We all knew our roles and our responsibilities and safety was integral to that at every level.

But the world has moved on and so have I. I don’t intend to take you through every stage of my career. Being Chair of HSE has certainly brought challenges. But everything which is worth doing always does. I have been proud to lead the organisation for the last 8 and a half years. It is an organisation that has helped the UK achieve one of the best health and safety record in the world, on a consistent basis. Our work is firmly based in sound science and engineering.

This stood me in good stead for subsequent roles later in my career that included being Director General of the Chemical Industries Association and President of the Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Risk management as an enabler

We are extremely fortunate here in the UK to have a hugely effective health and safety system. Many countries around the world have copied it because the principles are compelling. In fact they mirror the approach that was engendered into me at the start of my career:

Do these principles apply in all cases – I would say “Yes” they do. I would go so far as to say that they apply beyond health and safety to other types of risk. It is in fact what we all do all of the time in living our lives, but it seems we need to make matters significantly more complex when we get to work.

Assessing and managing risk is something that every one of us does all of the time – that’s how we survive in this hazardous world and we use the same principles as I have described in our regulation – so it is a natural subconscious process.

Consider though how many have turned this into something considerably more complex and bureaucratic in the workplace. Ridiculous and trivial risks are considered alongside the more serious ones , all are written down and tomes of paperwork generated which no one reads – it is often not at all clear who the risks assessment were actually produced for.


When I took on the role of Chair of HSE, I did so because I had the highest regard for the organisation and the role that it had played in delivering a world class performance across workplaces in all sectors of the economy. Even in those sectors where the numbers are still much higher than we would like them to be, we are considerably better than comparable sectors elsewhere in the world. But I was also concerned – that this system which others elsewhere in the world sought to copy – had somehow earned itself a very poor reputation here at home. Open any paper on any day and it was easy to find a ridiculous story about someone’s life being restricted by silly health and safety rules.

I was determined to get to the root of the problem and change perception. There is more to do as I will come onto later, but we have made a lot of progress. Our highly successful myth busting activity has not only made a difference – it has also identified some of the root causes of the problem.


From hair dryers in changing rooms to a refusal to provide plastic knives for takeout’s, our mythbusters team has now dealt with over 400 cases where health and safety was used as an excuse not to do things.

Much of it has little or nothing to do with health and safety and serves only to promote cynicism as cases are hyped up in the press; leading to a number of consequences:

Risk averse childhoods

So given that we had – and still have - a world class health and safety system where and how did we get ourselves into this rather strange place? The answer is that it starts very early I’m afraid. One of my greatest concerns is the impact on children of all of this risk averse, bureaucratic and nonsensical behaviour. I started off by telling you that my training in risk management began when I started work as a graduate. That isn’t true of course. One of my earliest lessons in risk management occurred at the tender age of 3 when I fell over and knocked my two front teeth out. It happened at home, I tripped over a mat. I didn’t sue my parents or the supplier of the mat, but I did learn to look where I was going!

...Means less risk awareness...

Overprotective parents and risk averse teachers who do not enable children to learn about how to handle risk will lead to young adults who are poorly equipped to deal with the realities of the world around them, unable to discern real risk from trivia, not knowing who they can trust or believe. They will be a liability in any workplace if they do not have those basic skills to exercise judgment and take responsibility for themselves.

Communicating risk management and education to schools

We need to expose children to hazards and equip them with the skills they need for life so that these can be built upon later. I have spent today at such a school in Eastbourne and it is truly inspiring to see. But not only do we need more schools to have the courage to create learning experiences we need workplaces to stop perpetuating the problem by continuing to create an overly protective environment with yet more rules, "advice" and restrictions. That was never the intention of our system – it is based on achieving the right outcomes, not on ticking boxes and being in compliance with rules.

It would be nice if I could tell you that all of the myths I have encountered have been unrelated to health and safety regulations in the workplace, but that is sadly not true and it appears to be driven by an inability to discern or to instil in others what is reasonable, sensible and proportionate:

Rules exist in workplaces which ban people from doing what they do every day elsewhere in their lives

What is in the minds of the people who create these rules?

Some have told me that it is about creating the right culture. Is it not just possible that the people who read these prescriptive rules in the workplace think to themselves "what do they take me for? I’m not stupid." The potential to create further cynicism towards health and safety by making these nannyish rules is very significant. I understand the need to create a culture where safety is important, but the management of risk must be proportionate otherwise those on the receiving end get further confused about what matters, or even whether the people in charge know what the real risks are.

HSE's regulatory approach

Simplicity is key. Keep the rules to a minimum and establish principles. That is the basis of our world class system and it works when it is allowed to. Over complicating the rules and requirements leads to a lack of focus, or in some cases to the belief that doing what is required is all too difficult.

Simplicity is about stripping out what is not required, making it easy for people to understand what they need to do, focusing on what is important, keeping bureaucracy and paperwork to a minimum and enabling people and activities to go ahead, it is not about lowering standards or putting people at more risk. It is also about giving people clear responsibilities. Simplicity, common sense and personal responsibility lead to greater commitment and buy-in which delivers better safety for everyone.

Straightforward guidance

I must pause at this point to say that there is much to be cheerful about. Although I have encountered many things that concern me, I have also come across many examples of people doing exactly what is needed. There are many companies out there who do understand and are doing health and safety as an integral part of running their business. It is seamless – and when it works like this the results are clear to see.

London 2012

We saw it on the Olympics project where safety, productivity and focus on success and legacy went hand in hand. More recently I have seen it at CrossRail and at Babcock in Rosyth where they are building the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. Teams are motivated to be successful and success is understood by everyone to include getting safety right. No-one talks about safety in terms of bad things happening if you get it wrong nor do they talk about the need for compliance with rules and regulations. It is all about getting the culture right and creating a world class operation. Ask people who work there what they think, as I did, and they will tell you it’s the best place they’ve ever worked- because people care about one another, not because they’re smothered by paperwork.

Our safety record here in the UK bears witness to the fact that many of the 1 million plus businesses out there are getting it right.

And there are a growing number of examples of sensible risk management being used to help the younger generation gain opportunities to understand the concept of risk, and have a full education, as I have found through attending events by Education Visit Coordinators, Play Wales and earlier today when I visited West Rise School.

A world class system

We know there is a great deal of effort going into health and safety in many places. But given that our performance is the best in the world, why do so many people still see health and safety as a drag and a burden rather than a success story?

I’ve spoken of H&S myths, but another reason is probably that it’s difficult to celebrate success when there are still tragic stories of unnecessary deaths and serious injuries every year – not from new causes but from the same things continuing to happen – falls from height, trapped by or under vehicles, people caught in machinery or equipment that wasn’t properly locked out. For us as engineers it is easy to see that many of these things are easily designed out if there is the will and the commitment to do so.

But no room for complacency

And then there is the toll of ill health which we estimate causes in excess of 12000 people to die prematurely each year because of harm done to them by work. There is no doubt that we need to focus our attention on causes of work related ill health just as much as safety, but in both cases it needs to be the right attention applied in the right way to achieve results.

Health issues

I have been impressed to see some industry sectors getting to grips with their most pressing work related health issues recently. Both the Construction industry and the ceramics industry know that their priority is to address exposure to respirable crystalline silica which causes chronic lung disease in later life. In other sectors like healthcare and education the priority is more likely to be mental ill health related issues such as stress or perhaps muscular skeletal problems. Here again the key to motivation and being effective is to focus on the real risks not on those that are easiest to promote simply to demonstrate that you are doing something. Handing out suntan lotion to construction workers but not suppressing silica dust is a real life example of not focussing on the right priorities in the right order.

So, I understand and share the view that there is scope to improve our performance still further.

But how do we do that?

This must be the key question.

For some the answer is "we must do more, we must find all of the risks and manage them", generating yet more paperwork and procedures. But the research is clear – doing things because we are told to doesn’t work for many of us at all and even for those who it does, they only do it while they’re being watched. In a recent discussion in Australia I encountered the phenomenon of "wilful compliance" – where people obey the rules even if they know it doesn’t make sense or isn’t right – because if it goes wrong it will be the rulemaker’s fault not theirs.

If we want to make behaviour change stick we need to take time to explain why and make it easy for people to do. We must also create responsible behaviour rather than indulging in what one of my old bosses used to call "Nose blowing and bottom wiping"! Only last week while out on a visit with an inspector I came across an example where the site manager stays behind to clean the toilets and the welfare facilities at the end of the week because his team just let it get more and more dirty throughout the week – I asked him why he lets them get away with that rather than just cleaning up after them.

How can improvements be made?

This is key. I do not believe that endless checklists of trivia and reminders to do the most basic things create a strong safety culture. Evidence suggests that such a bureaucratic and prescriptive approach creates a culture of disempowerment, scepticism and inability or unwillingness to think for oneself.

I have been shocked by the amount of paperwork that continues to be generated in the name of health and safety which serves no useful purpose. Even after we have stripped out more than 60% of regulations that were on the statute books, dutyholders still complain about the paperwork and bureaucracy. But what is it for? Who is it for?

I talked about the very natural process of risk assessment earlier and I want to return to it now. I want to explore how we have lost sight of the purpose and turned risk assessment into a paperwork exercise which often duplicates other perfectly good and sufficient processes which already take place and are integral to the management of the business.

In the process industries where I have spent most of my working life, it is firmly established practice to generate permits to work on equipment which has been taken out of live service for maintenance work to be carried out. No-one would argue that this is a time of high risk because processes which are normally contained are about to be broken into. The permit system requires a clear statement of what is to be done and by whom. It asks what steps have been taken to isolate the equipment. It asks what precautions the maintenance team will need to take and any special conditions they need to be made aware of. At the end of the job there is an equally thorough series of questions which need to be answered before the equipment can be handed over to be put back into service again. What is this if not a thorough and integral process of risk assessment and management as the job proceeds?

It systematises all of those steps I described earlier:

We have in the last 2 years issued guidance on work experience placements to the education sector making it clear that they do not need to do risk assessments for every single work placement. They DO need to assure themselves that the employer has assessed the particular risks of employing young inexperienced people, but that is sufficient.

Why then do we encounter in these and other sectors, the existence of stand-alone risk assessments which duplicate without adding value? Who are they for? Not the regulator – we require risk to be assessed and managed and communicated effectively to those for whom it is relevant and we ask for a record to be kept that risk assessments have been done – and that action has been taken to manage the risks.

Helping demystify risk assessments

I am clear that businesses create monstrous amounts of paperwork because they think they have to, not because they are addicted to bureaucracy – but we need to understand where this perceived requirement comes from.

Much of the paperwork in our systems today is driven by fear of civil litigation. Local authorities place requirements on schools, insurers place requirements on employers in order to manage potential claims. Extensive lists of documents required in order to defend possible claims are often quoted to us as a reason for so much paperwork. We have to get to grips with this monster because it is getting in the way of good health and safety – because it demotivates those who need to be leading, inspiring and creating the right sort of culture. I am confident that there are some of you in the audience here today who can help us with this.

Specialists are there to provide advice and support to employees and line management at every level, but responsibility for managing safety must stay integral across the business and cannot be delegated or transferred to the health and safety manager or to a consultant. Leadership must start from the top with responsibilities cascading down the line, and with everybody understanding their role.

So, my case is this, when managers learn to lead and own health and safety, when they recognise that to do so is integral to good business management and have the confidence they need to do it simply and well they will also know when and where to call upon the valuable advice of health and safety professionals – preferably specialists rather than generalists. When this happens, health and safety professionals become a valuable resource. They become facilitators and enablers. But let’s be clear that they do not – should not – manage health and safety because it takes responsibility away from where it belongs.

All of the ideas I have shared with you this evening are now part of the future agenda for HSE and the rest of GB’s health and safety system. It continues to build on that sound science base and I have brought copies of our latest science report for you to take and peruse this evening. We have recently launched our new strategy “Help GB work well” The new strategy has been developed through working with key stakeholders, representing all sectors and organisations with an interest in health and safety. The main themes of the strategy are:

Six themes

The strategy was developed during a nationwide engagement programme in January and February this year. The input and feedback overwhelmingly supported the overarching objective to help Great Britain work well.

I may be about to step down from this magnificent role that I have had for the last eight and a half years, but I will never cease to care and to feel passionately that no business can claim to be good unless it cares about the health and safety of its workforce and the impact of its operations/business on others. Doing it well is not difficult if the culture is right and the commitment is there, but it is easy to lose sight of what good really looks like. The right culture is built on valuing and motivating people and engaging them not on systems and bureaucracy. If you have not yet read Steve Hilton’s book "Being More Human" than I would strongly recommend it.

Thank you

I have stuck to what I know here today – management of health and safety - but I have no doubt at all that the thoughts I have outlined here are much more widely applicable to our world today. When we create so much complexity that no one understands the system, we cannot manage the system or the risks and no one knows who is responsible for what. It is a familiar cry that goes beyond the world of health and safety. But I hope I have shown how it is possible to make the journey back to common sense and personal responsibility – it is a journey we must all take.

Thank you for listening

Updated 2016-03-29