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Staff protection & wellbeing 09, public service leadership conference

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

19 October 2009

How can the public sector lead the way in Health and Safety?


Let me say how pleased I am to be speaking to you this morning at this event, which is being held in association with HSE. Partnerships and leadership within the public sector are vital for achieving improvements in health and safety and this is especially so in today’s changing world of work. The public sector should be leading the way in demonstrating an ability to share knowledge, best practice and co-operation. I was pleased to see that your subtitle for this event is the ‘common sense approach to health and safety in the public sector’. This chimes very closely with the messages I have been putting out since I became Chair of HSE 2 years ago and with the new Strategy for health and safety for Great Britain which highlights the need for leadership, involvement, common sense and proportionality. As you all know, this is the start of the European Health and Safety Week, so this is a very timely event.

Topics to Cover

I know your other speakers later today will be discussing the specifics of a multitude of health and safety issues that we all face. So, I want to give you a broad overview and an update on where we are with the new Health and Safety Strategy for Great Britain and talk about the role the public sector has to play in leading the way forward, particularly by setting examples. This is especially so in the field of what I see as the fundamental need for leadership and worker involvement, and how we all have a role to play. Progress and delivery will only be achieved if organisations within the public sector involve the workforce in decision-making and show leadership in helping ensure a balance of approach to risk-management. This will not only help prevent death and injury within the workplace but will also help increase the wellbeing, the commitment, and productivity of staff – and find joint solutions to some of the outward facing protection issues.

Our Mission

The real health and safety agenda is embedded in the collective mission statement in the Strategy:

the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities".

During the Strategy consultation, it was confirmed that there was strong support for this being a mission that everyone across the health and safety field shares. Delivery of health and safety is not something that belongs solely with HSE. There must be roles here for everyone. It’s been the partnerships and public bodies’ leadership and shared efforts in the past that helped us deliver the current safety performance. So, it has to be our collective performance in the future that will help deliver the new strategy.


In recent years, we have seen many changes in the world of work – not just within and to our actual workplaces but also in public expectation and societal values surrounding the world of work and health and safety – this is true of the public sector as well as the private. This situation is unlikely to change in the short term. And the current economic climate only adds to the challenges of uncertainty and a changing environment. This also adds to the conundrum we face of people under pressure being on the one hand, risk averse, but on the other less tolerant and sometimes more threatening of others.

Final Strategy – be part of the solution

HSE launched the final version of the Strategy in June this year after extensive consultation. I know many of you here and your representatives were involved in those consultation sessions.

Working in the public sector, we have a special responsibility to lead, and set examples, especially in this current economic climate. We need to lead on embedding a culture where there’s no excuse for neglecting any aspect of health and safety – in fact this is a very good time for us all to reinforce the message that organisations succeed by taking common sense and proportionate approaches to all risks – all key elements in the new Health and Safety Strategy. But we must not only say that, we must demonstrate our commitment to that approach by our own actions.

The Strategy describes the whole health and safety system, making clear that HSE itself has important responsibilities including:

This is not a major change of direction, it is about evolution not revolution but it is also about reminding everyone else of the important roles they must play.  We should be very pleased in the UK that since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, we have achieved a world leading performance in health and safety. The goal setting nature of our regulatory framework has enabled us to adapt to the changes and challenges on health and safety.

But being good is not good enough. 200 people a year being killed at work, 100,000 major injuries and several thousand people dying prematurely because of harm done by work, makes it clear why we must continue to strive for improvement.

The Strategy consists of 10 goals, which include:

HSE cannot do this alone. HSE's role is clear, but it is not for us to manage health and safety in workplaces. This responsibility clearly lies with those who create, and thus own, the risks – for example the owners, directors, senior managers or "dutyholders" in organisations. This applied in the public sector just as much as in private enterprise. HSE are here to guide and advise of course, but we need to work in partnership with you.

Given the need for collaboration, HSE consciously invited people to let us know how they could contribute – this is why the Strategy is subtitled - “Be part of the solution”.  We wanted people to recognise that they need to be part of this. At the formal launch, organisations were invited to make a formal commitment to join us – to become part of the solution by signing the health and safety pledge. More than 1000 organisations have now signed up to the pledge to work with us to be part of the solution.

So, I believe that the new Strategy is a clear and concise statement of our core principles and a sensible approach to health and safety in Great Britain.

In the public sector, sometimes it can often be that we 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, of course, at the heart of public service but the integrity and credibility of what we say and do has to be built upon doing it right in our own organisations first. The very recent launch of the statement on Striking the Balance in relation to police work is an excellent example of getting that balance right, and also of partnership.


Strong leadership, workforce involvement and a common sense approach to health and safety in the workplace are key to an effective health and safety system, in any organisation. The public sector has an opportunity to lead the way on these issues. Leadership helps promote worker involvement and encourage consultation in health and safety matters in workplaces. The public sector needs to be an exemplar of this, stressing that the focus should be on real health and safety concerns, not trivial or unimportant issues. Ensuring worker involvement in finding solutions and taking decisions on health and safety will allow more ownership of risk and lead to sensible and proportionate risk management

The arguments for showing leadership in health and safety are overwhelming. Not only does it lead to a reduction in numbers of people harmed by work – whether that be injuries or work-related illness – but it also leads to a major reduction in cost to the organisation and ultimately to society. There is major potential for an improvement in motivation and productivity of workplaces – because of clear and inspirational leadership from the top in health and safety – showing your workforce that you care.

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

Worker involvement

Everyone wants a competent workforce, trained to exercise their judgment, not just people complying with rules and procedures. HSE are here to help and guide but our guidance is not definitive, and shouldn’t be – this was never the intention. So, this obviously has some important implications for how the workforce are trained and the levels of competence and confidence required to take decisions and exercise judgement. Health and safety is working in a practical and pragmatic way. Good leadership should lead to cultures where everyone is encouraged to exercise judgement and make decisions. And I don’t just mean the Board members or senior management, it means the whole workforce, thinking and deciding for themselves – having the confidence to focus on what is really important and ignoring what is trivial.

So, delivery and improved health and safety results comes from actions, not words. One of the greatest risks to worker involvement is when top management ask their staff to "Do as I say, not as I do". The best health and safety management systems are those where the top management’s actions are consistent with the direction given to everyone else.

HSE is working to establish a means of ensuring that competence within the health and safety profession is measured in terms of proportionality and ethical behaviour. We need you to encourage this same approach throughout your workforce.

I really can’t overstate the importance I attach to leadership, worker involvement and ensuring competence across all sectors, in delivering the goals of the new Strategy.

Summary i

Everyone here knows that management systems exist in abundance already. If these are all about paperwork and box-ticking, this is certainly not what leadership is about. In a similar vein, it shouldn’t be about the elimination of all risk – what it should be about, as it always been – is doing what’s sensible and proportionate – what is ‘reasonably practicable'. In short, it’s managing the risk and then getting on with the task. There are many aspects of public sector work where risk assessment will be a dynamic process where people have to exercise judgement and make decisions in relation to their own and other people’s safety in a changing environment.

Clear, positive leadership (and worker involvement) is at the core of managing health and safety. Good management doesn’t happen by chance and requires constant active engagement with all your workforce and your supply chains. It is also about doing things because you believe you should do it, not because you have to. Board-level visibility and the engagement of the workforce and the promotion of process safety leadership helps to set a positive safety culture throughout the organisation. Real health and safety is about a culture – not about compliance with rules and regulations.

Summary ii

Everyone, including the regulators, employers, trade unions and representative bodies, have responsibility to ensure adequate processes are in place. The management of risk needs to be real as well as proportionate. In short, it’s about common sense. If there are real problems and clear solutions, deal with them. And of course, share the information. Leading and lagging process safety indicators should be set for the organisation and regularly reviewed to help them remain appropriate for the needs of the business. HSE are hereto support you, of course, but it’s up to you to take the lead – learn from one another, demonstrate real leadership, and tell us how we can best provide help and support.

I want to finish on this thought. In the world of public service, we focus a great deal on how our particular work helps and affects others, for example through the services we provide such as education, health care, fire and rescue services. As public servants, you are the ones who can lead by example, and this must start with your own workforces.

The values that you adopt and support externally have to be clearly demonstrated within the organisation first and to the external stakeholders afterwards. There is no better place to help deliver the Strategy than by you and other leading the way.

Thank you

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for listening. I look forward to your questions later and I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

Updated 2010-07-28