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Speech for CH2M HILL/Environment Agency/Highways Agency – 18 September 2014

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today, I think this format is a great way to learn from each other. It is an interesting approach which sees organisations from the public sector sharing knowledge and learning with industry on the subject of health and safety. It also feels slightly strange for me to be standing here  talking to one of our co-regulators about  our particular piece of the regulatory landscape when we often find ourselves working together.

I have been asked to speak about what organisations such as yours can do to improve health and safety standards. In some respects the answer is very simple – because it is all about leadership. But I will try to provide some insight as to what leadership looks like when it works well. The principles of leadership are of course well rehearsed and apply more generally. But what we often find is that  leaders who naturally take the lead in many other aspects of running their business, see health and safety as someone else’s responsibility. Health and safety needs to be a core value within the organisation, not a priority. It needs to be part of how you do business all of the time not something to be delegated or assumed to be being handled by someone else.  

A big part of  managing and leading health and safety is deciding what your organisation’s risk profile looks like. Whose health and safety are your responsible for ? Your own employees? Yes of course and your organisations employ several thousands of people in a very wide variety of roles – some office based where risks are low, others who are mobile where perhaps one of the greatest health and safety risks to your own staff is actually associated with driving on our roads.

But your responsibilities extend beyond your own employees and include the many contractors that you will engage – working on major projects in flood defence, road building and maintenance.

Your actions and your activities also have a major impact on the safety of the public and your health and safety responsibilities include that potential public impact. So mapping out the full landscape of the real health and safety risks in your organisation is crucial – because it is only when you have done this that you can make properly informed decisions about the priorities to be tackled. .Are the actions you need to take to address all of the challenges consistent and compatible or do they conflict? The chances are, that at the very least they will compete for limited resources in the organisation – be they people to do the work or capital to invest in projects.

There is always a strong temptation to try to find quick fixes that will make a visible impact. But beware – what are you trying to impact ? The culture or the measures of performance? How confident are you that your measures of performance are right?

The job tomorrow morning is not to hand out a series of tasks to be done based on what you’ve learned but to go back and assess the current culture of your workplace. Ask yourself why the culture is as it is. Before applying some of the human factors insights you may discuss here to your workforce, take some time to reflect on your own human factors – how does your behaviour influence the way your organisation responds on health and safety? I am asking you to think about whether or not your leadership style and your behaviours are creating the right culture in your organisation – or not.

I have no doubt that all of your organisations have safety as a priority. But what expectations are you setting? Is there a sense of “no news is good news”? There were no lost time accidents or incidents yesterday, nobody got hurt – good we can move on. If there was an incident where is the focus of attention – what went wrong? Who made a mistake? What needs fixing to stop it happening again? But will the investigation really get to the root cause of the incident? Are you making it absolutely clear to people that you want to understand the root cause and the broadest possible lessons to be learned? Are you willing and ready to share those lessons with your colleagues and your peers so that they can all learn from your mistakes?

How good is your organisation at learning from others? What mechanisms do you have in place to find out about incidents you can learn from? When an incident happens to someone else, how hard do you seek to learn what went wrong? All too often, the desire to understand what happened in someone else’s facility is driven by wanting to convince yourself that what happened to them can’t happen in your organisation.

The reality is that the nature of what your organisation does creates risks which it is your duty to manage. Manage – not eliminate – this is not about eliminating all risks. Do not be tempted into the “lids on coffee cups” mentality. Decide on what the real risks are and who is exposed – your own staff, contractors, members of the public and take appropriate action to manage those risks.

Do think about the worst that could happen – however unlikely. Far too many large organisations allow themselves to get caught in a mindset of driving down performance measures which all too often are inappropriate for the risks that they need to be managing. No first aid injuries in the office last month does not tell you if the re is a major catastrophic risk out there , in the field or on the road, that is not being properly managed

Most leadership courses teach us about the need to exhibit confidence. If we want people to follow our leadership then we must set clear expectations, we should have a vision for the future and we should inspire others. But you must always be mindful of the hazards and risks and you must never become complacent or assume that “it won’t happen to you” – because it could. That confidence you exhibit as a leader needs to be coupled with an underlying sense of chronic unease about what could go wrong. Your confident leadership style will appear hollow to your employees, if they know that there are many hidden problems out there which are not getting fixed and which management either never ask about or don’t seem to want to hear about. Leadership in health and safety is not about having all of the answers – it is about knowing the right questions to ask and knowing how to respond when concerns are raised.

Your role is to seek assurance that the right safety priorities are being addressed and properly monitored, not to create an expectation that you want to be reassured “all is well” – even when it isn’t.

Performance measures are important – because the organisation will act on what it is asked to report – but they must be the right measures. 

You don’t need to be an expert in health and safety to ask the right questions. You can - and should - ask your staff to tell you what are the most safety critical issues and ask them what systems are or should be in place to ensure the integrity. It is essential that you have and are monitoring leading indicators of performance – not waiting for the lagging indicators that tell you things have already failed. Indicators of process or system safety don’t need to be complicated – simple measures which are easily understood and mean something to everyone will have much greater impact.

Leadership in health and  safety  is not something that you do “in addition” to exercising corporate governance, financial management, market intelligence, sustainablility and workforce leadership – it is absolutely fundamental and integral to leading the business. Frontline leadership in health and safety is about showing that you care and that you are concerned – and showing that to all of your stakeholders – your workforce, your customers and suppliers, local communities and the broader public.

You need to find ways to give your organisation assurances that you understand their concerns and that you are doing all you can to manage the hazards. you need to demonstrate that you are very much aware of – and respect - their concerns by listening to what they say. 

Its also very important to ensure that everyone understands the role they have to play. It is important that everyone understands the difference they can make – and its not always obvious. For the PA based in an office is health and safety about VDU screen assessments and five wheeled chairs – or is it about ensuring that when the boss gets off a 10 hour flight he doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car to drive because he/she is not in a fit state, or not handing out/calling mobile phone numbers when you know someone is driving?

For your staff in the field , have you made it explicit to them that if they are not happy that a job can be done safely they should not do it? How do they raise their concerns? Will their supervisors respond appropriately? How will they explain their action or lack of it to members of the public who may be impacted by the issue?

We sometimes make assumptions about what others want to hear. Confidence is built by sharing what we know and being very clear what we expect from others. Authentic leaderhisp then requires consistency of reposnse when people do as we have asked – not looking to place blame or make exceptions on a “just this once” basis.

Leadership is about being on the frontline, being clear  and being consistent, having the courage to decide what is important and what is not but it most certainly is not about having all of the answers. Leadership takes place at every level in the organisation. Leaders are determined by what they do and say and they ask insightful questions. The answers lie somewhere in the workforce – at every level. Leaders need to ask the right questions and above all – create the right culture.

Updated 2015-02-13