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Faculty of Occupational Medicine Annual Dinner - Wednesday 15 May 2013

Judith Hackitt, HSE Chair

First of all may I say thank you for the invitation to attend this dinner. I am delighted to be here. The problem about being the Chair of HSE, an organisation which has a very serious remit of preventing death, injury and ill heath and those a work and others affected by work activities – is that after dinner speaking presents a difficult dilemma. People are often expecting to be entertained – or told jokes. I have never been a very good teller of jokes even before I became HSE Chair but I will do my very best to cover what is at its heart a very serious subject with a fairly light touch this evening.

Let me assure you first of all that my attendance here tonight does not attract a fee – this is not the sort of intervention to which FFI applies!

As we’ve now finished eating I can also share this with you - I’ve already conducted a detailed survey of the toilets – the ladies at least! Why? Because two weeks ago I was given a very strange case to consider as part of our Myth Buster programme. It concerned a health club’s “health and safety” sign (pause)… it asked people to use hair dryers… “for hair on the head only”! I assure you that I couldn’t find any HSE legislation relating to this and our Mythbusters Challenge Panel is duly responding.

The ‘hand dryers’ here at the Royal College of Physicians must mostly be used for their intended purpose as I haven’t come across any suspect signage tonight!

The work of the Faculty of Occupational medicine is very important. Two months ago, I spoke at the ‘Tackling Occupational Disease - Developing New Approaches Occupational Health’ conference. Your president, Olivia Carlton was part of the steering group that helped HSE design and direct the event - on behalf of HSE I’d like to thank Olivia and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine for that, “very positive contribution”. We hope that event will prove to be a catalyst to changing the way in which we all work together to improve occupational health in Great Britain. It brought together trade unions, academia, occupational health and hygiene professionals and professional bodies, regulators and the third sector.

The discussion and debate was lively but there was also a general recognition that occupational disease is a difficult topic to address and, that occupational cancers are particularly difficult requiring a long term sustained effort by a mix of different people and in some cases greater understanding of the nature of the links with work activity.

While the number of workplace fatalities continues to drop - the number of people dying prematurely each year because of occupational disease is still a significant problem – as all of you know only too well. Past exposures to harmful substances at work cause over an estimated 12, 000 deaths per year.

The largest cause of death from occupational disease relates to asbestos and is accountable for 4,000 of these deaths. A further 8,000 or more deaths are due to cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other serious lung diseases.

Although new applications of asbestos have been banned for more than a decade, exposure to asbestos in buildings remains an issue for trades-people and some users of buildings such as schools and even shops – as evidenced by particular high profile prosecutions.

Occupational disease is high on HSE’s agenda - but one of the reasons for our recent conference is because, just as with every other aspect of delivering health and safety performance, we cannot tackle things alone.  

We need the mix of public, private and indeed third sector employers to work together. We need to ensure that we have a range of activities in place to meet if we are to make progress – with all of us doing what we are best placed to do.

We in HSE will continue to provide expert advice and guidance, inspect, investigate and of course prosecute those who flout the law and put people at risk. However, if we can develop a common understanding of the challenges that we face we can better understand what we all might realistically achieve. We must identify issues and focus on solutions, share good practice, develop ideas and build networks that together will tackle the root causes of occupational disease.

HSE and The Faculty of Occupational Medicine (FOM) already have a good working relationship and I know that you are keen to maintain and strengthen the important links and interests shared by our two organisations.  There are two things in particular I would like to encourage the FOM to consider:

I hope these two points are something that you can give some thought to and which we can discuss further so that we can have a positive impact on the current pattern and toll of disease and early death.

Let me briefly cover some examples of occupational disease initiatives which we believe have made a big impact and which demonstrate leveraging of effort from partner organisations.

HSE’s “Hidden Killer” campaign launched in 2008 - designed to raise awareness of exposure to asbestos amongst today’s maintenance and construction trades people - making them aware of asbestos health risks. HSE led to begin with, the campaign has since inspired:

Like asbestos, exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) has been a problem for many years. Unlike asbestos materials containing silica are still in widespread use and exposure can result in Silicosis and COPD. Prolonged exposure to RCS under conditions that cause silicosis may also cause Lung Cancer.

A 'supply chain initiative' to reduce exposures to RCS in kerb, paving and block cutting brought together representatives from the construction industry, manufacturers, hire companies and associations, local authorities, the Highways Agency, subject experts and training bodies. They have all worked together to develop practical interventions and activities that resulted in:

Bakers are about 80 times more likely to develop occupational asthma than the average British worker. Again, by working together to raise awareness of the problem, promoting and changing working practices and behaviours, significant contributions have already been made to tackling this issue.

I would just like to add a few words on some of the broader perspective for HSE at the present time.

And, although I think we’re making real ground and are seeing a shift in public understanding of what real health and safety is – when required to we will keep busting the myths.

So, thank you again for the invitation to join you this evening. Let’s maintain the good working relationship we have and let’s build on it.  I understand you are planning to mark the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act with a conference and we would be delighted to take part – assuming you invited us of course.

Finally, please join me in raising a glass, with or without handles, no risk assessment required, to the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. [Toast requested by the Faculty - the President will already have toasted the guests]

Updated 2013-05-29