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Westminster Briefing – Health and Safety under the new Government

15 September 2015

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

This event will focus on the latest developments in health and safety regulation and the new Government’s priorities for reform – we are looking for Judith to give an overview of HSE’s recent work and its priorities for the months ahead.

Good morning and thank you for inviting me back to speak again. Some of you may have been present when I spoke to a Westminster Briefing audience in December, but a lot has happened in that time, both inside and outside HSE.

So now is a good time to update you on big picture thinking as we plan for the future, as well as some of the more immediate updates to the health and safety system as we continually modernise and improve to ensure Great Britain maintains world class standards.  

A world class system

When things do go wrong they are not just a bump in the statistics – they are real tragedies for victims and bereaved relatives. There have been a number of high profile cases this year that HSE staff continue to be involved in investigating.

The incident on ‘The Smiler’ rollercoaster at Alton Towers on the second of June left a number of people with life changing injuries. HSE has been heavily involved in the investigation and the rollercoaster carriages are undergoing analysis at the Health and Safety Laboratory.

On the 13th of July an explosion and fire in a spray-painting booth at an industrial equipment manufacturer in Norwich led to the deaths of two men. HSE is supporting an ongoing investigation by Norfolk Constabulary, involving a wide range of HSE resources including inspectors, specialists in electrical and process safety, HSL Scientists and others.

We are also continuing to work with Cheshire Police on the investigation into the explosion on the 17th of July at Wood Treatment Ltd in Bosley, in which four people lost their lives. The on-site investigation may take several months, often in very difficult and challenging circumstances. Incidents like these bring into sharp relief what the consequences can be and what our real work is all about.

I mentioned when I spoke last December that we were devising a new strategy for how HSE operates. That work is being taken forward and implemented, led by our new - ish Chief Executive Richard Judge. It includes making greater use of HSE’s expertise and knowhow through commercial activities that both complement and help safeguard our existing functions, whilst also helping to raise health and safety standards around the world. We continue to see opportunities for some charged for services on home turf but we are pursuing these on a somewhat different time frame.

New strategy

But today I want to say something about a broader new strategy for the health and safety system as a whole – ‘health and safety system’ meaning everyone with a stake in reducing health and safety incidents, which we have been working on since we last  came together at this briefing. Much of the current ‘Be part of the solution’ strategy launched in 2009 is still relevant but, over six years later, it is time to consider what has been achieved  and where we need to step up the pace. There are a number of topics where HSE needs to find new ways to work with others in the system to get them to up their game. We hope to have something to share on the new strategy towards the end of this year or early next. As with the previous system strategy we will be making clear what we believe our role is as the regulator and be looking to engage with others on their roles.

More straightforward, more compliance

HSE is delivering on the challenge of making health and safety as straightforward as possible. And that isn’t a euphemism for lowering of standards, because businesses, workers, the economy and the state all benefit from fewer health and safety incidents occurring – no one wants to see standards decline. I am a great believer that if you make something easy to do, people are more likely to do it. That principle lies behind HSE’s drive over recent years to simplify regulations and guidance – especially with small and medium sized enterprises in mind. We know we have reached over 1million SMEs with our "Easy as ABC" guidance.

We are looking at what more can be done to address unnecessary burdens brought about in the name of health and safety. This sits equally well with helping achieve government aims and improving health and safety – because as a regulator we are concerned that over interpretation gets in the way of people managing real risks, particularly small and medium sized businesses when they look into what they need to do to comply with health and safety law. Third party advisors will understandably look to give comprehensive advice that goes beyond regulatory compliance and includes measures to satisfy people like insurers by reducing risk of insurance claims – but it’s a bit lazy to call this "health and safety compliance" – in part this is about choosing whether to transfer or retain financial risk – not about legal compliance at all. But it is important to understand the difference and to ensure that businesses understand the choices they are making.

Larger businesses with specialist regulatory resource may understand different drivers for compliance work they do. The vast majority of SMEs will not have time or the expertise to do so. They will assume that what is asked of them, or they are advised to do, flows from regulation including things required by other businesses or organisations e.g. standards and accreditation or other bespoke requirements in procurement processes / contracts, supply chain inspections etc. These may differ from job to job, adding to a sense of “regulatory” overload.

And then there’s the focus on paperwork which is completely out of line with our emphasis on managing the risks... it’s the paperwork that makes risk assessment a bugbear, not thinking about the risks and doing something about the really serious ones which is  actually what we require people to do.

So this is an area we see value in pursuing, looking for ways in which we can make health and safety easy for small businesses because we want to see them making an ever increasing contribution to the economy of this country which includes keeping their employees safe and well at work.

I will now turn to a particular topic area where HSE is looking to stimulate further improvements within the health and safety system, that of work related ill-health.

There are a variety of ill-health issues including stress, musculo-skeletal disorders, occupational cancers and respiratory diseases. Some develop quickly, others over a longer timescale.

But they all have the potential to have far reaching consequences to the individual and family, employer, insurers, health service and government support systems. And when I say illness we are talking about mentally and / or physically debilitating issues – in the case of work related cancer and respiratory disease  estimates indicate that there are around 13,000 deaths each year!

Workplace ill-health

The statistics are sobering; today there are two million people suffering from workplace illnesses, with over 23 million working days lost each year. The costs to Britain are estimated at over £8bn per year.

HSE is finding new ways to drive vital improvement to bring these stark numbers down.

It is a big task with no single solution, but we are determined to tackle it further and I will tell you about two examples of work already underway.


The first example is work to reduce incidences of exposure to respirable crystalline silica. Don’t let a complex name make a condition sound remote. Silica is a natural substance found in rocks, sand and clay and in products such as bricks and concrete. When these materials are cut, sanded or grinded, the dust created can be so fine it can’t be seen with normal lighting. It gets deep into the lungs, with the potential to lead to issues such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lung cancer and silicosis. Tackling it should be straightforward for businesses… water suppression and on tool extraction devices are widely available and they are effective – but only if they are used. We need to ensure industry is aware of the risks and solutions, starting from the basis that the health of its workforce is as important as its safety.

So HSE has implemented an integrated intervention approach, working on many fronts. These include research, providing a new ‘dust hub’ on our web site designed to simplify and improve access to guidance on how to reduce and control exposure to occupational dusts, including silica, and  supporting others such as the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) “Breathe Freely” campaign aimed at controlling dust exposures in construction.

HSE’s work in bringing together trade associations, key industry players and professional organisations is resulting in novel approaches such as an award winning online animated film developed by the Quarries Partnership Team to show the dangers of exposure to dust.

Real savings can be made through taking a proactive approach to tackling ill-health. At the Olympic construction site for London 2012, the Olympic Delivery Authority reported that for every £1 invested proactively in Occupational Health, there was a return of £7.27 in reduced production costs.

There are many areas of ill-health where working with others is essential to have a chance of making a sustained impact. For example HSE is working with NHS England and Public Health England on development of the next cancer strategy, to include a focus on prevention of occupationally-related exposures.

HSE inspectors are also focusing on controls for silica in the current preventative inspection programme in the Construction sector.

Research conducted by the Health and Safety Laboratory is also showing promising results – creating a ‘breath test’ that can detect silica from a worker’s lungs, which would be useful both to highlight the dangers, and lead to behaviour change, but also for employers to check the efficacy of measures they have put in place such as respiratory protective equipment. This has been ground breaking research because Crystalline silica is inert and very hard, making suitable analysis difficult.

So you can see we are leveraging expertise across HSE and other organisations to deliver this integrated approach.

MSD case study

I will briefly mention one other quite different ill-health tackling project, to illustrate the broad spectrum of ill-health issues. It involved HSL working with a supermarket that was looking to reduce manual handling risks for staff handling items in distribution centres. The outcome has been that productivity has risen by 15% and risks have been reduced. This has been tested for over 2 years and has resulted in improved health, productivity and worker engagement.

What do these examples point to for future ill-health interventions by HSE?

By drawing on coordinated expertise from across HSE and working with others it is possible to tackle key occupational health issues and make a real positive impact in the workplace. But getting sustained results requires commitment and buy-in from everyone in the health and safety system.

Fee for intervention

 There are other examples of work we are doing on health but now I want to move on to talk about some of the other recent issues which I suspect you will have an interest in. First, Fee for Intervention. As many of you will be aware, the Triennial Review of HSE recommended that we look carefully at FFI and monitor it. We are continuing to do that and check how it is working in the field. So far I am confident it is working consistently in line with our targeted intervention approach. We continue to review various aspects of it including the appeals process.

In 2011, the Löfstedt Review recommended that those self-employed whose work activities pose no potential risk of harm to others should be exempt from health and safety law. This recommendation was accepted by Government.

Self-employed change

So, from 1 October 2015, health and safety law will not apply to self-employed people whose work activity poses no potential risk to the health and safety of other workers or members of the public.

HSE estimates that health and safety law will no longer apply to up to 1.7 million self-employed people like novelists, journalists, graphic designers, accountants, confectioners, financial advisors and online traders. Information on the HSE website helps people understand whether they will be affected by the changes. It makes clear that those who do pose risk to others in the course of their work still have responsibilities

CDM 2015

The final topic to briefly mention is the updated Construction (Design and Maintenance) Regulations which came into effect in April 2015.

In a nutshell CDM has been simplified. The new regulations provide a much more logical approach, representing the process of delivering a construction project from concept, through design and build to handover and future use. The revised approach provides greater clarity on the importance and influence that each dutyholder has on the way that construction hazards and risks are identified, reduced, controlled and managed, at each phase throughout the project. These changes should bring improvement to health and safety standards at the same time as reducing costs associated with the co-ordination in all phases of a project.

Thank you very much for listening and I look forward to questions and hearing from the other speakers.

Updated 2018-03-06