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Health and Safety at work - Acting Now to Keep Employers Safe in the Future

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 18 November 2009


Thank you for inviting me back to speak to you again today. It was a pleasure to speak to the House Magazine's Westminster Briefing in April this year when HSE was in the process of finalising the Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century. As I said to people then, there can be very little doubt that everyone involved in health and safety and indeed everyone in every workplace shares the same mission - to ensure we all play our part to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. I also said that:

"Leadership means accountability and visible ownership. Real health and safety leaders win hearts and minds of all their colleagues - directors, managers, workers and contractors. They shape the organisations' ethos on health and safety - including on what it is and what it isn't."

I want to build on this message because since April, HSE has launched the final version of the new Strategy, in June. So it's my intention to give you an update on this and also highlight how everyone must be involved in delivering the Strategy and improving Great Britain's health and safety performance.

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which remains the basic legislation under which all Health and Safety regulation operates. This Act is just as relevant today as it was 35 years ago - a remarkable feat when we consider the significant changes that have taken place in the workplaces across Great Britain. A key reason for its resilience is down to the goal setting rather than the prescriptive approach - providing clear principles, not least of reasonable practicability.

The legislation is based on the principle that those who create the risk are best placed, and indeed required, to manage that risk. That still applies to all workplaces today. It's legislation that has proved to be effective - measured by a performance in health and safety in Great Britain, which is as good as anywhere in the world and better than most other countries.

In spite of some very encouraging statistics for 2008-09, which were published recently, this is still not good enough - we still see nearly 200 people die in workplace incidents every year, over 100,000 people suffer serious injury and several thousand people suffer premature death as a result of harm done to their health by conditions they've experienced at work.

We must keep on maintaining all that is good - and what works well - about our regulatory system, but we must also reset the direction and adapt, when necessary, to allow us to take account of change and the broader context. This allows everyone to play their part - they gain better understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and start seeing and believing that they are part of the solution.

The role of HSE and our Local Authority partners is to provide strategic direction and lead the health and safety system - as a whole. In addition to inspection, investigation and enforcement, we also conduct research, propose new regulation where and when appropriate, alert dutyholders to new and emerging risks and, of course, provide information and advice.

Turning to the roles and responsibilities of others, I want to focus on the intrinsically linked goals in the Strategy - leadership, competence and worker involvement. Strong leadership is about a common sense, proportionate approach, and one which distinguishes between real health and safety issues and those which are unimportant or trivial.

Effective leadership has to start at the top of organisations and is absolutely fundamental, because without it other things cannot happen. Leadership by Boards and senior managers can only be achieved by walking the talk - both consistently and visibly. When people see that those at the top really mean, and follow, what they say, they are inspired to understand, build on their knowledge, and deliver on their own roles and responsibilities.

The Strategy recognises that building this competence applies to everyone in the system. We need those people who lead the organisation, who are confident and competent to exercise judgement and common sense. This is particularly true of small(er) organisations who need good, reliable and fit for purpose advice and guidance from professionals. And, I want to point out that competence has to be measured in a sensible and proportionate approach to tackling real risks with a minimum of paperwork, not in the level of knowledge and qualifications gained.

Another key goal of the Strategy is something that the Health and Safety at Work Act has always recognised - the fundamental importance of worker involvement.  Workforces need to be properly engaged. This is the case, irrespective of the size of the business, whether unionised or non-unionised, or whether the workforce is directly or indirectly employed by the duty-holder. And it must mean real involvement - asking the workforce their concerns and acting upon them. The workforce are very likely to have practical and common sense solutions to the problems they identify.

In essence then, these key Strategic goals are about leaders winning the hearts and minds of all their colleagues - directors, managers and workers. It's also about shaping organisations' ethos on health and safety - including on what it is and what it isn't. The way to achieve this is involvement and partnerships based on trust, respect and cooperation.


The publication of the new Strategy is an important milestone but it is the start not the end of the process. We all know that there now needs to be action and delivery. The real question and challenge is how we are all - together - going to deliver? It's not just a challenge for HSE - it is one we all have to play a part in - that's why we put so much emphasis upfront reminding people of all of our respective roles and responsibilities.

The Strategy is subtitled "Be part of the solution". As I am sure some of you will be aware, organisations have been invited to make a formal commitment to join us - to become part of the solution by signing the Health and Safety pledge. They can show their commitment to keeping workplaces safe and agreeing to deliver by:

Over 1000 organisations and companies have now signed up which shows there is real of engagement and commitment. And we are now seeing real evidence of some of those organisations producing workplans showing what they are actually plan to do to deliver on their commitment.

HSE's 2009/10 business plan in the regulatory field demonstrates how we will co-ordinate actions with our Local Authority regulatory partners to turn the Strategic goals into reality - but only in areas where it's clear we, as regulators, must take the lead. We are there leading the system as a whole but ensuring that dutyholders do what they must do. They must lead from the front.

It would be reasonable to assume that after 35 years of the Health and Safety at Work Act, that people would have got the message about what an important issue this is. But it is clear from the media that we still have a long way to go. Health and safety is regarded as being about banning conkers, holding virtual bonfires and general aversion to anything which involves taking risk and having fun.

In addition to addressing those issues, which are the real risks in workplaces up and down the country now, the Strategy also recognises the need for the education system to embed a basic understanding of risk as a life skill so that young people joining the workforce are more risk aware. We don't need GCSEs and A-levels in Health and Safety but we do need young people to experience adventure and outdoor activity and practical science so that they learn about risk and how to deal with it - not avoid it. Too much cotton wool now will create risk naïve adults in the next generation who won't be able to lead or be led. Learning about risk and how to manage it, is a life skill we all need - all of the time - not just in work.

Thank you.

Updated 2009-11-23