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Speech to North West Regional Association's Health and Safety Conference - 17 June 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

When I agreed to speak at your 53rd North West Safety Conference I have to confess that I was intrigued by the title you had chosen for this conference: "Why Health and Safety?".

That's a very strange question, I thought. "Why Health and Safety?". Are they really here to search for the answer to this question or was it intended to be merely rhetorical?

Given the wealth of eminent speakers whom you have succeeded in assembling to present on specific topics, I have decided to focus my address on the overall theme of your conference and offer you (To put it crudely) some rhetoric of my own.

I'm sure that for many of you, this is an event that you attend annually. A recurring date in the calendar where you get together with like minded people to share ideas and learning. This might be your second or third conference. Maybe you're even reaching double figures. For me, this is my second. Although I'm not sure whether you can technically count the first because on that occasion I was here virtually using a video link!

I want to ask: why is this conference important to you? What do you want to get out of it? And, most importantly of all, what are you going to take away from this event and implement in your own workplaces in order to make a difference?

In one sense, the "Why are we here question?", is obvious, isn't it? Because we all care, don't we?

One thing you always notice about health and safety professionals, including trade union health and safety representative, is their passion and profound belief in what they do. That's not terribly surprising given that we're all committed to preventing people from suffering death, injury and ill health - which will include debilitating illnesses and in some cases premature death as a result of the harm caused by work. Compared to a career spent counting beans or playing monopoly with other people's money, who wouldn't be passionate about making a real difference by saving people's lives?

But sometimes, the reason we congregate at events like this is because we need to get support and reassurance from like minded individuals. Sometimes it can be tough beating the health and safety drum when others don't share our passion. Or when daft stories appear in the press that trivialise and make a mockery of what we do.

I believe this is the major challenge we all face: getting others to share our passion for real health and safety. The battle is for the hearts and minds of everyone we work with and interact with in our workplaces.

We need to help others to grasp a real understanding of what health and safety is truly about. We need to convince them to disregard the old stereotypes with its box-ticking, paperwork and petty bureaucracy. And, instead, embrace the reality which demands leadership. Leadership that means:

There is no doubt at all that organisations, of all shapes and sizes, need to have access to competent, knowledgeable people who can help them to find their way through the full suite of regulations which apply to them. Notwithstanding the substantial amount of work which has been done in recent years to simplify and reduce the administrative burden of regulation; the wherewithal to negotiate the system and to put it into practice can be daunting for many senior managers - especially those in small to medium sized enterprises where directors often wear several 'hats'. It is not uncommon in these circumstances for 'health and safety' to mean a veritable mix of everything from employment law to insurance and fire safety regulations.

In large organisations, the challenge can be quite different. Various and divergent strands of health and safety management may rest in different functions or departments - making clarity and consistency of approach more of a challenge in these organisations than people feeling overwhelmed by what they are required to do.

The role of the health and safety professional in any of these scenarios is absolutely crucial. The knowledge and expertise you bring to the organisation you work with brings that clarity and consistency. And vibrant regional networks, like this one, enable health and safety professionals to support and mentor one another.

It is also worth saying, not least because we often forget to remind ourselves of this, that our collective efforts have continued to be successful. Our performance in health and safety in Great Britain is world leading. Needless to say however, that whilst this should be cause for satisfaction, there remains no room for complacency. Let's not be under any illusions, the challenges we continue to face are still sizeable.

You may already see the relevance of some of what I've said to HSE's strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century.

I have spoken about leadership in the broadest terms. The sort of health and safety leadership which we need to see from everyone in organisations but especially from senior managers and directors at the very top. I now want to talk about competence.

Competence has many dimensions. 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 as well as being clear on their responsibilities to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their work.

But competence in health and safety - especially among those who have this as a primary part of their role - requires the building of confidence in how to apply the legal requirements in a sensible and proportionate way. This means focusing on those risks which occur most often and those which have the most serious potential consequences.

Competence is about the ability of every director, manager and worker to recognise the true risks in operational activities and then apply the right measures to control and manage those risks as far as they reasonably can be. It is not about constantly searching for ever smaller risks to tackle - or adding layers of bureaucracy.

As you will have heard from Clive Fleming if you were here yesterday, we in HSE have commissioned a project from IOSH and CIEH to see how we might develop a voluntary accreditation scheme for the "upper end" of the safety consultancy market.

The principles of such a scheme, as we see them, are that those who belong should:

We want the scheme to be open to all who meet these requirements. And the scheme should not therefore be burdensome but rather to the commercial advantage of those who meet best practice standards. Certainly industry has expressed enthusiasm for such a scheme and HSE's own findings suggest the need to continue to drive up standards by this kind of action.

It is also clear that our new Minister in DWP - Chris Grayling - as well as Lord Young, who as you will now no doubt be aware is embarking on a review of the whole health and safety system, very much support the need for accreditation of competent health and safety professionals.

I've already said that ability to focus on the real priorities is an important skill for any health and safety professional. This too, applies to all businesses and organisations irrespective of size. The risk profile of every organisation will be unique - and will be determined by a variety of factors.

These include:

In some organisations, it will be clear that physical hazards present the greatest risks - for example, falls from height, hazards created by moving vehicles such as forklift trucks and so on.

In other organisations, particularly some service-based, non-manufacturing sectors, the risk profile is more likely to feature occupational health risks with these being of higher priority than physical safety hazards. Herein lies a particular challenge for health and safety professionals in helping the organisation to recognise that health and safety is just that - preventing harm to health caused by work as well as addressing physical safety hazards.

Whether that be short-term and obvious - like dust inhalation. Or obvious, but much longer term - such as noise and exposure to harmful substances - which may cause serious damage to health and safety but with a very long latency period.

Alternatively, perhaps the most difficult of all to manage are those illnesses which may have their origins in work or may be potentially or wholly attributable to lifestyle issues. Stress and other mental health issues clearly fall into this category but so do many musculoskeletal diseases. But where there are clear workplace contributors they must be tackled.

Whilst it may be very important for some purposes to identify the root cause or point of origin of some ill health cases, the key issues for health and safety professionals are to ensure that organisations:

Over 1.2 million people report every year that they suffer from ill health which is work-related. More than 24 million of the close to 30 million working days lost every year are due to work-related ill health compared to less that five million days due to workplace injury.

In spite of these numbers, I remain firmly on the side of those who maintain that work is good for us all. Those who work, live a longer and healthier life overall. But that's only the case if work itself doesn't cause harm - and that therefore becomes central to your - and our - mission: to ensure that workplaces provide good work which generates all of the benefits and which reduces the risks of harm to health as well as safety risks.

There is a strong business case to be made to address this challenge and making this case to your colleagues may well be a significant part of the professional challenge you face in your organisation.

Our Strategy states very clearly that leadership in health and safety is fundamental. But leadership does not just come from the top of the organisation. It happens and needs to happen at all levels, through people feeling competent and confident in what they do. But for you as health and safety professionals a very special kind of leadership is required. I don't know what the safety culture is like in the organisations you work in or with. But I'm sure that the full spectrum is represented here. From those where the most senior managers and directors are committed to health and safety and visibly demonstrate that commitment and leadership to the whole organisation.

But there will be others here today where that "commitment" from the top does not have the same level of credibility and where pretty much everything is delegated to you to look after as health and safety manager. You are the poor old drum beater!

Some of you will be dedicated health and safety managers - by which I mean dealing with health and safety all of the time. But others here I am sure will have other responsibilities, especially in smaller organisations. These might include other regulatory compliance issues for your organisation. You may also be directly involved in dealing with broader risk management issues beyond health and safety - environment, property damage, security, for instance. The potential for a civil claim can arise out of a member of the public tripping over in the street. With a much greater tendency for people in general to look to blame others when problems occur, it is not hard to see why there is a good deal of confusion. Employers' Liability Insurers underwrite risks of harm to employees. It is often the risk of civil litigation that drives their requirements for documentation, mitigation measures and so on, beyond what is required for compliance with health and safety law.

Employers, for entirely understandable reasons, integrate a whole range of requirements into one set of procedures and management systems - all communicated to employees as "Health and Safety".

It is an essential part of your remit as health and safety professionals to highlight and draw the distinction between real health and safety work and some of the other broader risk management drivers - including insurance and civil liability which may lie behind some of the measures. The motivation of anyone to take action depends on them understanding why it is important if they are to do it and do it properly. Conveniently lumping everything into the health and safety basket isn't very helpful when it comes to "explaining". And, in many cases some of the actions your organisation may need to take which seems "unreasonable" on health and safety grounds, may well be deemed to be reasonable and prudent when the real reason is explained.

So I return to my take on your rhetorical question which is the title of the conference. Not so much "Why Health and Safety?". But what are you going to do differently as a result of being at this conference to make a difference in your workplace tomorrow, and the day after and the day after that?

If we want Boards and line managers to lead on health and safety, your role is to help and support them in enabling them to do that. We want all managers and members of the workforce to understand their role in relation to health and safety and to be willing and able to play that role as an integral part of their job and in concert with everyone else.

Your role requires a huge amount of management skill and understanding of human behaviours. You have to be able to influence, to coach, to support and to direct people at all levels in the organisation - those who are much more senior to you as well as peers.

It will most often be the case that you do not have direct line management responsibility - even for those at a less senior level in the organisation. So your ability to influence and motivate people will depend on your powers of persuasion, your ability to make the case in language that resonates with the recipient - you have to be able to empathise and put yourself in the position of everyone else in the organisation to understand how to motivate them to play their part.

If the finance director is your point of focus, you have to be able to articulate the business case for health and safety. The financial, bottom line numbers, case will carry more weight than the emotional argument. For the production manager your arguments need to focus on how health and safety measures will improve productivity and reliability as well as safety.

For the guy who works at a repetitive task which puts him at serious risk of some form of MSD, it may (well) be the inability to play football with his mates or his kids which grabs his attention.

Being expert, being knowledgeable, being competent in your chosen profession of health and safety is vital. 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.

Knowledge and expertise are important. But the application of that knowledge is a sensible and proportionate way is absolutely vital if we're to get others on our side. If we can do that. If we can show them that health and safety is about common sense, proportion and tackling real risks not trivia we won't have to keep asking ourselves: "Why health and safety?".

Go back to your workplaces tomorrow and make a difference. Make a personal commitment to implement something from what you've learned here at this conference. Because you are an intrinsic part of the solution. So instead of asking Why? Let's begin to say: what.

Thank you.

Updated 2010-06-23