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Safety Reps’ Conference, Birmingham – 17th November 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Chair’s Speech to Magnox North

Good afternoon everyone. It is a great pleasure to be invited to contribute to your conference today. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak to a similar audience to you at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. The work that they do there is unique to this country and the challenges they face in securely and safely providing and maintaining the country’s nuclear deterrent are significant and require ever watchful vigilance. But, while delivering this is their chief aim, they are also steadfastly committed to implementing an integrated approach to managing their conventional health and safety risks.

Of course the nuclear industry is broad and the specific challenges you face are different to AWE, but there are many challenges that you do have in common. So as with them, I’m encouraged to see how you are balancing the major hazard potential associated with your activities – which is paramount – with the other aspects that contribute to an all-round strong and effective health and safety culture. The awards you have recently received from the British Safety Council and RoSPA, especially the President’s Award, are clear proof of that.

I’m acutely aware of the context in which you are doing this. Your industry is on the verge of, or in some areas already undergoing, substantial changes. Ensuring the continued safe operation of existing power stations, managing the defueling and decommissioning of former facilities and preparing the ground for the next generation of nuclear power stations are all inextricably linked activities.

They are linked through their potential to shift resources and attention from one area to another if one is perceived as higher priority. But equally any failure in the health and safety system in any of these areas will impact upon every part of the industry. So what is especially pleasing about today’s event is that it clearly demonstrates your organisation’s continued committed to maintaining an approach that seeks to ensure that health and safety is an inherent element in every aspect of your operations.

You’ve asked me to focus this afternoon on the role the workforce can play in contributing to creating and sustaining this health and safety culture for the long term. But before I do that I want to put it into a wider context and in particular I want to explain how a number of elements are all interdependent – especially leadership.

I believe that excellence in health and safety is achieved through culture and passion, not rules and procedures. It comes from demonstrable action not words. And that’s why leadership is critical. Because without it, the other things won’t happen. Individuals or groups who take a clear lead can stimulate others and have a positive impact on them.
So that is why I am a very strong advocate in the power of the collective approach where everyone in an organisation looks out for each other as well as for themselves. It is absolutely the case that accidents can happen to anyone – no-one should believe themselves to be indestructible or “fireproof” and the health and safety of every individual at your sites is important regardless of their position or status in the organisation, whether they are direct employees or contractors, unionised or non-unionised.

If you can create an environment where everyone on the site is empowered to intervene wherever and whenever they see the potential for harm, you will have a strong sense of team working and caring for one another which will drive you towards your goal in eliminating accidents and incidents.

Just over three weeks ago HSE confirmed the health and safety statistics for Great Britain for the year ending in April 2010. It was really encouraging to see the number of workplace fatalities at their lowest ever level and also the number of serious injuries decreasing. But let us not forget what these statistics actually represent and the story they tell of hundreds of men and women up and down the country who, during that 12 month period left home as usual for a “normal” day’s work and failed to come home that night – some never to come home at all. While others face weeks and months of painful recovery and rehabilitation processes before they can contemplate returning to work. Every one of these statistics is a story of a family, and a community of friends and colleagues who have been impacted by an accident in the workplace.

Those statistics also show us that the level of harm in the form of occupational illness as opposed to accidents is increasing. On average 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 five million days due to workplace injury. In spite of these numbers, I remain firmly on the side of those that maintain that the right type of work is good for us all. The evidence suggests that those who work are increasing the likelihood of them enjoying a healthier life overall. But that’s only the case if the work itself doesn’t cause harm.

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

We have to ensure that the issues are considered fully and that appropriate measures are taken to manage them. I know that I don’t need to remind you of this – your work to remove asbestos from the heat exchangers at Chapelcross has made you knowledgeable enough – but asbestos continues to be the single biggest killer in the UK and its legacy remains a significant threat.

I am sure that you will be aware that HSE developed and launched a new strategy for health and safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century just over a year ago and very recently we have produced an online report on progress in the first year. This progress report highlights a whole range of examples of good practices and initiatives which have been undertaken as part of the programme of delivery which is now underway. One of the examples of good practice which is cited in that progress report is the Olympic 2012 site in London. The report highlights their Occupational Health activity in particular but I would urge you to look more closely at what is happening on the 2012 site because much of what they are doing is relevant to you.

In particular, they have chosen to operate strategically, they are involving everyone – designers, project managers, contractors, sub-contractors and individual workers – bringing them together to look at every element of the process with the purpose of designing each stage so that it is inherently safe and that exposure to health risks are minimalised.

As a consequence workers on site feel empowered to challenge behaviour and intervene where they see risk of harm. And, as a result, the benefits they have seen from their comprehensive Park Health Programme are truly impressive.

As I have briefly mentioned already, there is very little doubt that good health and safety requires strong leadership. From the time that we launched the new strategy we made it absolutely clear that leadership was fundamental to success, because without it, all of the other important elements simply will not happen. Leaders set the tone for whether health and safety is properly managed and whether others are properly and appropriately engaged in the process. Leaders make decisions on the extent to which there needs to be formal management systems in place to underpin workplace practices and activities, but they also decide whether their organisation is doing health and safety because it is good for the business’ reputation, for morale, productivity, and because they care about their people the systems or simply because they have to do it to comply with regulatory requirements.

And there is no doubting the perceptiveness of a workforce, they are quick to sense when lip-service is being paid to health and safety and management commitment is either not there at all or doesn’t quite ring true. From what I’ve seen and heard, Magnox North is well beyond this point. Not only do you have to be because of the very nature of the work you do and the hazards you deal with but the very fact that you are all here today is important. Proper workforce involvement and engagement is such an important part of bringing about the sort of culture you are endeavouring to create.

I’ve already stressed the importance of leadership from the management side of the organisation, but it’s also very important to acknowledge that safety representatives and safety champions are leaders themselves. It is part of your role to speak on behalf of your colleagues but the spirit in which you carry out that role is also important.

You have a clear choice to make whether you present your health and safety concerns to management as problems for them to sort out and fix, or whether you offer up possible ways of solving the problems you identify and make yourselves part of the solution not part of the problem.

Just as with the managers in your organisation you have to decide where the real priorities lie – what are the biggest risks that need to be addressed. Sometimes your colleagues will raise personal health and safety gripes/concerns with you and it has to be part of your role to help them see their concerns in the broader perspective of the whole risks profile and decide on the real priority.

Some will undoubtedly be important but I would dare to suggest that some, if raised as needing fixing, would detract resources that would be better spent on solving other problems.

If you are seeking examples of good practice which could offer you some food for thought in this area I can commend to you the programme which is taking place at Devonport Dockyard entitled “Time out for safety”. This initiative forms an integral part of Devonport’s health and safety culture programme. This is because it establishes a short time in the working week where workers and their managers can have an open and honest dialogue about any health and safety concerns they have. By adopting this approach Devonport have enhanced the chances that the real risks will be identified, they have given everyone an equal chance to contribute to the formulation of the resulting solutions and as a consequence of this positive engagement, they are stimulating a greater degree of ownership so making the eventual solution more likely to work in practice.

What’s also supporting this way of working is the active role that the safety reps are playing. This is important because a crucial aspect in improving performance comes through learning lessons and sharing best practice. The extensive network that safety reps have – whether they are unionised or non-unionised – means that knowledge and expertise can be spread far and wide so that innovative ideas developed in one department or site can be picked up and applied in another with good effect.
So far I have spoken about your work and given you my full support and encouragement to keep going and to look at other industry sectors for inspiration and ideas about good practice. It is also important that before I close I say something about the role of the regulator in all of this.

We have said in our strategy that it is our role to lead the system as a whole but that others must recognise the key roles and responsibilities which they have. We do not manage the risks in any workplace but it is certainly the case that we devote more time and attention to ensuring that the risks are properly and well managed in major hazard sites such as yours.

No matter how good the safety culture is at preventing the accidents and smaller incidents which can cause injuries to staff we must also remember that it is absolutely fundamental that we prevent catastrophic events from taking place.
Many of you will be familiar with a number of very serious incidents that have happened around the world in recent years – Texas City, Buncefield, the Nimrod crash, the Macondo oil platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of these major incidents have already been fully investigated, others are still the subject of ongoing inquiry and investigation. What is imperative in all cases is that we learn the lessons from these incidents and apply them as widely as we possibly can – first of all by not allowing ourselves to think “that’s a different industry from mine”.
By drawing together the lessons from events such as the Columbia space shuttle disaster, Texas City and the Nimrod inquiry, HSE’s Nuclear Directorate has started to develop a regulatory strategy for Leadership and Management for safety.

This is still work in progress but some of its key elements are worth mentioning here:

Throughout HSE we need to develop and refine our approach to ensure that we continue to be an effective regulator in the 21st Century. We have to build on our good practices but also adapt our approaches as dutyholders develop and evolve their own practices.

We, like you, will see change but it is clear that major hazard industries like yours will remain high on our priority list. I am confident that through this period of uncertainty and change for us all we can continue to develop ever improving safety cultures in all industry sectors in Great Britain if we all play our respective roles, work together in real partnership and collaboration and focus on those things that are really important.

Thank you very much for the invitation to join you here today. I wish you the very best with your programme to build and sustain your particular safety culture.

Updated 2010-11-22