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Leadership in Health and Safety – A template for leadership in general

Speech by Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair at Public Service Leadership Conference at the Qeii Conference Centre, London

18 May 2009

Slide 1

Today I want to focus on the fundamental need for and key elements of leadership in health and safety – but what I will say also provides the template for a more general approach to leadership which can be applied much more broadly.

The things I will talk about are not specific to leadership in public service because the key principles of leadership are universal – whether in public service, the private sector or any walk of life.

Slide 2

HSE published the draft of its new strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in December 2008. The strategy describes the whole H&S system and makes it clear that HSE itself has important responsibilities – to lead the system as a whole, to inspect workplaces, to enforce where appropriate, to offer guidance and advice, to run major campaigns on key safety issues. But the strategy also makes it clear that it is not HSE’s role to manage H&S in workplaces – that responsibility lies clearly with those who create the risk – the owners, directors, senior managers or “dutyholders” in organisations which constitute workplaces.

The real health and safety agenda – is “the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities”. Our recent consultation has confirmed strong support for this being a mission which we all share – not something which belongs solely with the regulator.

Because real health and safety is such a unifying cause it is part of every organisation’s activities where real leadership will bring profound and much further reaching benefits.

A fully integrated effective health and safety system in any organisation requires strong leadership, workforce involvement and engagement and competent, relevant expert advice and guidance. But of all of these things leadership is by far the most important because without leadership and commitment to create the right culture in the 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 performance improvement which it can and should be.

Slide 3

The arguments for showing leadership in H&S are overwhelming. Not only will it lead to a reduction in numbers of people being harmed by work. But also to a major reduction in cost to the business or organisation and society of these losses and incidents, and a major potential improvement in motivation and productivity of workplaces because of the clear and inspirational leadership from the top. There is possibly even a 4th benefit from improved reputation with important stakeholders.

Slide 4

I am not talking here about putting in place hugely bureaucratic and paper based systems – procedures, checklists and the like. I have no doubt they already exist in abundance in your organisation – but they are not what leadership is about, neither are they what health and safety is about.

Health and safety management is not about paperwork or 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.

Ensuring that an organisation’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.

So if leadership in health and safety in more general terms is not about management systems, compliance assurance, performance measures and signs, what is it about??

Slide 5

Very simply – it’s about common sense, personal responsibility and integrity.

By Common Sense – I really do mean doing what makes sense to you and which can be explained, with credibility, to others. It also means not over bureaucratising or trying to eliminate all risk. It means exercising judgment – as individual leaders – and creating a culture in your organisation where others are also encouraged to exercise judgment within their area of responsibility and competence. This means ensuring that your workforce are trained to exercise judgment, not just comply with rules and procedures.

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 organisation in a practical and pragmatic way and in building everyone’s competence and confidence to exercise judgment and think for themselves.

The nature of the debate which takes place at Board meetings is crucial to defining the culture of the whole organisation.

Slide 6

I have been told on numerous occasions by very senior directors in the private sector that “Safety is their 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. Good health and safety management should be a core value but it is not the No 1 priority. Saying it is creates a credibility gap not just with external stakeholders like me but more importantly with employees who know the true motivations and priorities.

In the public sector, sometimes it is the focus on the services we provide to others that overrides the focus on taking care of the people in our own organisations. Caring for and serving others is at the heart of public service but the integrity and credibility of what we say we do has to be built upon doing it right in our own organisations first.

Slide 7

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. But in the best organisations all board members and senior managers 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 office – visit workstations and talk to staff – take personal responsibility and show leadership in finding solutions. The people you talk to may well know the solution as well as being able to tell you the problem.

Unless you engage on a personal level with people in the organisation, the message sent is one of “we don’t care”.

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.

Establishing a credible and consistent stance is fundamental to engaging your workforce, to winning hearts and minds. Anything less sends out a message to your workforce of “going through the motions” but not really caring – or leading.

Although my comments to you today are very much focussed on leading health and safety in your respective organisations, I have no doubt at all that the principles have much broader application to all aspects of leadership.

Slide 8

I am firmly of the view that we have reduced far too much of the roles of managers and supervisors in all organisations to “ticking boxes”. It is time to throw away the clipboards, put the rule books in the drawer where they belong – for reference occasionally – and rely much more on human processes. No matter where any of us work, we lead people, not organisations or “systems”.
That’s why it is human skills that lie at the heart of leadership –

If the leader shows those skills, it will become the culture and the behaviour of the whole organisation because the people you lead will be inspired to follow your example – and there is no better way to start than by showing everyone in your organisation that you care about them and their health, safety and well being.

Slide 9

In the world of public service, we focus a great deal on what our work does for others through the services we provide – education, health care, fire and rescue services and so on. But leadership integrity has to start with your own workforce. The values you espouse externally have to be visibly demonstrated within the organisation first. There is no better place to start this leadership process than by leading health and safety.

Updated 2009-01-06