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Leadership in Health and Safety - The Essential Role of the Board

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair - Annual Rivers Lecture on 18 March 2009

I am delighted and honoured to have been invited to deliver this annual Rivers lecture to the Worshipful Company of Company Secretaries and Administrators. I have chosen to speak to you this evening about Leadership in Health and Safety - not just to explain the fundamental importance of visible leadership by the Boards of organisations but to explore what real leadership actually looks like in practice when it is done properly and well. And also to make the case for why Boardroom attention to and scrutiny of health and safety is just as important for business success as Financial Reporting, or any other aspect of Corporate Governance.

Before I make the case, however, I want to start by providing some background about the Health and Safety Executive - who we are, what we do and what our purpose is.

We owe our origins to a previous speaker at this auspicious event. The intelligence I have gathered in preparing this lecture tells me that back in May 1973 Lord Robens presented the second Rivers Lecture on the subject of "The Growing Bureaucracy". Whilst I have not been able to find a copy of his speech from 36 years ago, I feel confident that some of the things I will say tonight will find common cause with some of the notes of caution Lord Robens would undoubtedly have sounded back then about the growth of bureaucracy.

It was Lord Robens who produced the Report which in 1974 resulted in the Health and Safety at Work Act and the formation of the Health and Safety Executive and Commission. To this day, the Act and the organisation it established have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient, but we should not overlook the fact that at the time - back in the 1970s the principles and the philosophy expressed in the Robens report were truly visionary - some might even say revolutionary.

At the time, the long term downward trend in accidents at work and particularly in the rate of fatalities appeared to be plateauing. The level of fatalities during the 1960s was around 1000 per year.

Robens cited several things as enemies of progress:

  1. apathy to the scale of the problem and the rate of change in technology and society.
  2. too much reliance on State regulation and too little personal responsibility.

He stated that there was "simply too much law" - and went on to assert that "apathy……will not be cured so long as people are encouraged to think that safety and health at work can be cured by an ever expanding body of legal regulations enforced by an ever expanding body of Inspectors".
It is not too difficult to imagine from these remarks contained in the Robens report on Health and Safety what would have also featured in a lecture with the somewhat cautionary title of "The Growing Bureaucracy".

Lord Robens was very clear that regulatory law needed to be concerned with influencing attitudes and creating a framework for action by industry itself.

The 1974 Act replaced a disjointed, non- comprehensive, multiplicity of regulations and standards with a visionary goal setting approach to regulation which has stood the test of time. The key principles of the Act are as relevant today as they were more than 30 years ago

  1. the need to recognise the pace of change - in technology, in business and in society
  2. to do away with rigid, specific old fashioned prescriptive solutions

and to replace that with a broader more generic goal setting approach based on the overriding principle that "Those who create the risk are best placed to manage it".

That legal and moral duty for those who create the risk to manage it is at the heart of my lecture to you this evening on Leadership. It is for the Board - be they Directors, Governors, trustees or other officers in organisations in the private, public and third sectors to lead the way and to set an exemplar for the whole organisation. This applies to all organisations of all sizes. Shaking Boards out of that 'apathy' which Lord Robens referred to, is still very relevant today.

I will return to this, but I want now to continue with some more important background which sets the scene for what comes later.

I have explained already how the Health and Safety Executive and Commission came into existence. Interestingly the Robens report did not envisage the need for two separate bodies but called for the formation of a single unitary body - we did in fact make that move to become a unitary body with the Commission replaced by a non-Board of the Health and Safety Executive in April 2008.

Today we are an organisation of some 3 500 people. Our overriding purpose - our mission - is the "prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities".

Our role and remit is wide and complex - we cover virtually all workplaces in Great Britain from offshore oil exploration and production, nuclear industry, construction, agriculture, to the public sector - hospitals, schools and colleges and on into an ever growing array of small businesses. Policy and standards across the whole regime are set by the Board of HSE but HSE itself only inspects about half of dutyholders with small businesses, shops and so on being inspected and regulated by local authorities as co-regulators.
We are an organisation which enables business activities, including many highly hazardous ones, to take place with proper, sensible and proportionate risk management measures in place. We do not ban conkers, prohibit the sale of cakes at charity fetes, stop school trips or any one of numerous other myths which abound on "elf n' safety".

The Board of the Health and Safety Executive published a new draft strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in December 2008. The consultation period has just ended and we plan to launch the final version of the strategy in May/June this year.

The strategy resets, and reaffirms, the direction for health and safety - it takes us back to many of the principles of Robens.

We have set out as part of the strategy what we firmly believe our role to be in delivery of health and safety in Great Britain - and also what we believe it is for others to do. We (HSE and Local Authorities) provide strategic direction and lead the system as a whole. We inspect, we investigate, we enforce where necessary, we conduct research, we introduce new and revised regulations, we alert dutyholders to new and emerging risks, we promote training, we provide advice and guidance but we do not manage workplace health and safety - that responsibility clearly lies with the riskmakers - those who create the risk whether that be by dint of the inherent risk in the nature of the business they have set up or by the way in which they operate a particular workplace.

Let me be clear here that in all of these activities which I have described I have been talking about the variety of means that we use - the range of interventions. The primary focus of all of these activities is to prevent people getting killed, injured or made sick by work activities. Where we do take decisions to prosecute these are driven not only by a need to ensure that those who have breached the law or deliberately flouted their responsibilities are held to account but also to act as a deterrent to them and others who may be tempted to similarly shirk their responsibilities.

Having defined HSE's role, we can now turn our attention to the crucial roles that others must play in making all workplaces healthier and safer. The most important by far of all of these is the need for leadership, which must start from the very top. That is not to say that others do not have responsibilities and important roles to play - they do and I will return to this later. But the fact is that unless members of the Board clearly demonstrate leadership and commitment to create the right culture in their organisation it will be impossible to motivate employees to play their part, the necessary support and expertise from third party organisations will not be sought, and health and safety is likely to be seen as a 'burden' and a must-do rather than a real driver for business performance improvement which it can and should be.

I mentioned earlier that prior to the Health and Safety at Work Act, it was not unusual to see ~ 1000 people killed in workplace incidents in any given year. The good news is that we have made a great deal of improvement since then. Last year the number of workers killed in workplace incidents was 229. But this is only one measure of performance. A further 95 members of the public were killed by work related activities. Thousands of people die prematurely every year from work-related diseases - the annual number of work related cancer deaths is estimated to be in excess of 6 000, around 4 000 deaths occur each year due to past exposure to asbestos.

HSE's statistics do not cover deaths which occur whilst driving on work related business but of the 2 500 or more who die on our roads every year it has been estimated by others that as many as ⅓ of these are work related. Last year there were almost 28 000 major injuries reported and close to 110 000 cases where absences of 3 days or more resulted. 563 000 new cases of work related ill health were reported during 2007/8 contributing to the total of more than 2 million people who are suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their current or past work.

Whilst Great Britain can be justifiably proud of the improvements we've made and of our performance compared to other industrialised nations of the world, there is absolutely no cause for celebration or complacency in any company or organisation in the face of this level of suffering, loss and distress being caused by harm directly related to work activities. If the numbers of people suffering are not sufficient to make the point for you then let's look at it in financial terms - the cost to business of this level of loss and suffering is estimated to be in the region of £2 - £3 billion annually and the total cost to society is an order of magnitude greater.

At a time when we are all searching desperately for ways to stem the financial haemorrhages being suffered by most organisations - here lies a golden opportunity to achieve a huge positive double and triple win

  1.  a reduction in numbers of people being harmed by work
  1.  a major reduction in cost to business and society of these losses and incidents; and
  1.  a major potential improvement in motivation and productivity of workplaces because of the clear and inspirational leadership from the top  and possibly even a 4th benefit from improved reputation with important stakeholders.

Is this a pipe dream and fanciful notion? Not at all. I don't just believe this can happen, I know it can based upon my own experience.

I have spent most of my working life involved in industry sectors where health and safety was of paramount importance. My very first employer made it very clear from Day 1 of my employment that health and safety was part of the organisation culture from the top to the bottom and the actions of that company bore out that this was for real. Thirty years ago it was the norm for me that all lost time accidents and potentially serious incidents were a matter for the Board and that as a matter of course every employee in that organisation would be formally appraised on their commitment to health and safety - and I do mean every employee - not just those involved at the sharp end in manufacturing and production. To progress in that organisation it was clear that you had to show leadership in health and safety. These are some of the very basic features of what Board leadership on health and safety has to look like when it is put into practice.

Having experienced first hand what real health and safety culture looks like, I remain confounded by those who either:

  1. see health and safety as a major barrier or obstacle to getting any job done
  2. approach health and safety as a hugely bureaucratic paperwork exercise to provide "assurance" that all is well.
  3. call for clear and specific instruction from others (sometimes HSE but also other so-called experts) on what they need to do so that they can simply tick the boxes.

Let's be clear that real health and safety leadership is none of these things.

In the 20+ years I was involved myself in running chemical manufacturing operations I lost count of the number of people who asked me to make a choice "What do you want - production or safety?" There is no choice to be made, this isn't a trade -off. Good health and safety practice gets the task done more quickly and more efficiently. The chances are that if your experience is of health and safety 'rules' or processes slowing down activities or preventing them then there will be one of two explanations for that - either the proposed activity was not being properly planned and managed in the first place OR someone was taking an over zealous and rigorous approach which was not fit for purpose.

Health and safety management is not about elimination of all risk - it is and has always been about doing what is sensible and proportionate - what is 'reasonably practicable' - to manage foreseeable risk and then getting on with the task.

Standards, frameworks and management systems have become increasingly popular as tools for delivering assurance to boards and organisations' stakeholders. There is no doubt that management systems can and do provide a good framework for structured and comprehensive management of risks. But that said, paperwork does not save lives. Risk assessments are probably the most obvious example of where there is a need to do something which is good enough but which remains relevant and fit for purpose. Risk assessment is not an end in itself - it is the action that is taken to manage the identified risk which counts.

If, before I leave the house I assess the state of the weather and judge there is a strong likelihood of rain, what matters is whether or not I decide to take an umbrella or a coat. I don't usually decide to stay at home rather than go out - but I can reduce the risk of getting wet! I am not trivialising the process of risk assessment at all by saying this - I am attempting to illustrate its practical, pragmatic, everyday application. This is as relevant in the workplace as it is to my example.

Ensuring that a company's approach to health and safety remains grounded in what is practical and useful is fundamental to good leadership. An array of glossy folders which contain procedures and 10 page risk assessments for the most trivial of risks are not helpful. In fact they help to create cynicism amongst employees who see the Board's approach to health and safety as being merely a paperwork exercise  - not real concern for and commitment to their well-being.

I also referred to those who call for ever more prescription and detailed instruction. I can fully appreciate the immediate attraction of this approach - particularly among SMEs who may find the full extent of regulation which they have to deal with quite daunting. Our new strategy clearly recognises the need for HSE to find new ways to help SMEs understand how to comply with Health and Safety requirements. It is essential that we do this by stressing the importance of a common sense, proportionate approach. But it is not appropriate for that 'help' to come in the form of prescriptive detailed requirements. I am firmly of the view that we have reduced far too much of the role of managers and supervisors to "ticking the boxes", and we should certainly not do that in the field of health and safety.

I think it is important to remind ourselves what "self-regulation" really means. It's a much used - or rather ab-used term. In the worst case some people use the term self regulation to mean "no regulation at all". We all accept self-regulation in relation to driving on the roads but driving also provides clear examples of bad practice - or poor leadership.

The rules of the road - speed limits, the highway code - provide the basic framework within which we should all operate. They are minimum standards of compliance - but are clearly not sufficient unless we all behave responsibly.

Drivers who ignore speed limits except when driving past speed cameras are displaying similar behaviour to those who call for ever more inspection and enforcement. The implied motivation for compliance is simply the fear of being caught. There is no understanding of the thinking behind the rules and rules are adhered to only when there is a risk of penalty.

Drivers who drive at or near the speed limit on all roads at all times irrespective of weather or traffic conditions are from the 'tick-box' school of management "I am in compliance": or what they really mean is as long as I am not breaking the rules, I don't have to think about it.

Good drivers by contrast are those who operate within the framework laid down, but who pay attention, use their judgment and adjust their behaviour to suit the prevailing circumstances. These are the principles of real self regulation and also of good leadership.

So, if Board leadership in Health and Safety is not about management systems, compliance assurance and performance measures, what is it about?

Very simply - it's about common sense, personal responsibility and integrity.

I've already said a number of things about common sense - don't over bureaucratise the process, don't try to eliminate all risk - because you can't and because that is not what the law requires. We all need to recognise that this is an area of management which requires the exercising of judgment - not just at Board level but throughout the organisation, and ensure that people at all levels in the organisation are trained and encouraged to exercise their own judgment not just comply with the rules.

This has some important implications for how all staff are trained in health and safety. The subject becomes much less about what the law says and what the law requires and becomes much more about how to apply the legal framework to the risks in your business in a practical and pragmatic way and in building everyone's competence and confidence to exercise judgment and think for themselves.

Your behaviour as Board members, the nature of the debate which takes place at Board meetings is crucial to defining the culture of the whole organisation.

I have been told on numerous occasions by very senior directors "Safety is our No 1 priority and it's first on every board agenda". I have yet to be really convinced by anyone who has told me that. Safety is very unlikely to be your No 1 priority - staying in business and being successful is - and good health and safety management is integral and fundamental to business success but it is not your No 1 priority - and saying it is creates a credibility gap not just with external stakeholders like me but more importantly with your own employees who know your true motivations and priorities. As for being No 1 item on the agenda of Board meetings - I have experienced too many real life examples of where H&S is No 1 on the agenda but is then dealt with in such a perfunctory way so that people can get down to the stuff that really matters to them!

Far better for the Board of an organisation to have a quarterly or six monthly in-depth review of health and safety than a monthly cursory glance at a set of lagging indicators. A review of monthly performance after the fact provides a very limited view of real health and safety performance. The absence of injuries tells you something but it doesn't really tell you whether that was down to luck or good management. It is essential that the Board asks the right questions and of the right people. Asking the right questions means wanting to seek out those areas where the organisation is vulnerable not just being assured that all is well. Is yours an organisation where the greatest risk is of personal injury to employees - and if so which ones, or is the greatest risk the  potential to cause harm to the public or are health risks greater than risk of injury - where health may mean stress and mental health problems rather than exposure to harmful substances and musculo-skeletal disease. As the Board of an organisation you must have a realistic and accurate picture of the risk profile of your organisation.

It is only by understanding the true health and safety risk profile of your own organisation and then addressing the highest risks that you can demonstrate real and credible leadership.

In many of the businesses which surround the location we are in this evening - those things which we often regard as the traditional areas of health and safety management - serious injuries and amputations caused by moving equipment, falls when working from height, exposure to chemicals, seem a very long way away. But that does not mean that these are low risk businesses in health and safety terms - it means that the risks are different and they may or may not be low risks. It is perfectly possible that the greatest risks in some of these businesses may arise from high levels of stress among the workforce and excessive hours of driving on company business where your employees put their own lives and those of others at risk. I don't know if that is the case - but common sense tells me it's plausible.

Leadership requires delving into those murky waters where the real problems lie and being ready to tackle what you find.

Personal responsibility is fundamental to credibility and strong leadership. HSE's own guidance  advocates the identification of a board member with specific 'championing' duties for health and safety. Having such a person on the Board is indeed good practice and a step in the right direction but not if that appointment abrogates all other Board members from any role or interest in health and safety. In the best organisations all board members need to be seen to take a real and active interest in a subject which should matter to all of your employees and stakeholders.

But how should you go about taking personal responsibility and showing a genuine interest? The first requirement is to get outside of the Boardroom - visit workstations and talk to staff. Ask them if they have any health and safety concerns and show genuine interest and concern in their response. If you don't like what you hear, resist the temptation to go on a witch-hunt and find someone to blame - take personal responsibility and show leadership in finding a solution. It's quite possible that you may already have solved the problem simply by listening to what your employee has to say! The people you talk to may well know the solution as well as being able to tell you the problem.

In the unfortunate event that one of your staff is injured in the workplace - show that you care. Speak to the employee and his or her family and colleagues. It is OK for others to conduct a formal investigation but that doesn't stop you as the Board member from taking a personal interest. This is not an easy thing to do. The shock and distress which results from a serious incident is very tough to deal with, but by not engaging on a personal level with those affected, the message sent is one of "we don't care".

In 2007 we worked with the Institute of Directors to produce new guidance on leadership for Directors and Board members. I hope that you will be aware of that guidance and may have taken action already. If not I commend the guidance to you and strongly advise that your Board use it to benchmark their Health and Safety leadership.

Leadership comes from actions not words, and one of the greatest risks to leadership integrity arises from "Do as I say, not as I do". The best management system imaginable will have a hole right through the middle of it if the actions of the Board are inconsistent with the instructions given to everyone else.

Does your organisation have a drugs and alcohol policy? Who does it apply to? Does it apply to the Board? If not, why not? It's relatively easy to come up with a rationale for difference in policy between different groups but the real message, whether you intend it or not, is loud and clear to your workforce.

What does your H&S policy say about driving on company business? Do you allow the use of mobile phones while driving? Do you expect senior managers to get into cars and drive at the end of intercontinental flights? If you do these things but apply rigorous health and safety procedures in other parts of the workplace the message is clear - "this applies to you but not us". This creates a real integrity gap.

Establishing a credible and consistent Board stance in this way is fundamental to engaging your workforce, to winning hearts and minds and ensuring that the expert advice you seek addresses the real issues of your organisation. Anything less sends out a message to your workforce of "going through the motions" but not really caring - or leading.

The final point I want to make on health and safety leadership is about thinking beyond your own organisation. Some of you may be in the very fortunate position where your own organisations are low risk and high performing in all aspects of health and safety. I do hope that is the case. But why should it stop there? If your organisation is already high performing in health and safety, extend your leadership into your supply chains. Those of you in the service sector of the economy have a great opportunity to extend your influence beyond your own organisation - again by asking some simple but insightful questions of your customers and suppliers. I am not advocating calling for reams of bureaucracy to demonstrate their health and safety commitment. A visit to their premises or a call to a previous client to obtain a health and safety reference will tell you a great deal about their real health and safety culture, and will have a powerful impact on the behaviour of organisations in your supply chain because you are making it clear to them that their performance in this area matters to you.

Apathy was identified as the enemy of progress in health and safety 35 years ago, today I would cite lack of real leadership based on common sense, passion and care as the enemy. We have the best Health and Safety regulatory system in the world and we have made enormous progress since the 1970s. But the world has changed - the risks to people at work have changed, and our risk aversion driven by fear of civil litigation has increased. Looking for someone else to blame has become the norm in business and in society more generally. It's time to reverse that trend and now more than ever we need leaders who are not afraid to show they care and to lead the way.

You may wonder why I have chosen this audience to deliver this message.

As company secretaries and administrators in some of the leading companies and organisations in GB you have a unique opportunity to influence and steer the behaviours of your Boards. You can show leadership in influencing your Boards - and those of the businesses you do business with - to do the right thing, for the right reasons and with integrity. The prize for making this happen is almost immeasurable. Prevention of human suffering and distress, elimination of huge cost to business and real engagement and loyalty from staff.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my comments apply to other aspects of business leadership but for now I will limit my message to the world of health and safety.

I hope that some of my passion for this subject will have been passed on to you.

Thank you for listening. Thank you again for the honour of inviting me to speak to you this evening. I hope you have at least been given some cause to think about the behaviour of your own Board. I hope you will do more than think but also take action and encourage them to truly lead the way in Health and Safety.

Leadership in Health and Safety really does generate much greater rewards and business success.

Updated 2009-01-06