This website uses non-intrusive cookies to improve your user experience. You can visit our cookie privacy page for more information.

Speech for IOSH Bristol and West Branch – Health and Safety Alive and Well in the South West - 22 October 2014

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Leadership in Health and Safety

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event at this unique venue. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet IOSH members and I look forward to hearing your questions and meeting some of you throughout the day.

I have been asked to talk to you about leadership in health and safety. I thought I would also up date you on what is happening at the Health and Safety Executive, how we are adapting to a new and exciting agenda and moving forward.

We are all operating in a changing world and HSE, like every organisation, must position itself for the present and the future, no matter how successful it has been in the past.  However, I want to say up front that our dedication to promoting effective and proportionate risk management and enforcing the law will not be changing.  In addition, there are promising signs the tide is turning on the way health and safety is perceived with the Mythbusters Challenge panel continuing to expose the real reasons behind the myths.

The Triennial Review has re-affirmed much of what we do but also identified new opportunities for the future as well as some fine-tuning that we need to do. We have appointed a new Chief Executive and two new Board members with skills sets that match the recommendations in the triennial review.   

HSE has set a new strategic direction,that will see us retain our strength and our reputation as a modern and effective independent regulator. We will also be looking to develop the commercial potential of HSE’s ’know how’ - but contrary to what you may hear from others that does not mean privatisation. I believe it is right and proper that we should share our knowledge with others, so that more lives can be saved in workplaces all over the world. Our knowledge and experience built up over the last 40 years has a value and others are already asking us to share that knowledge with them. We have already established the principle of recovering more of the costs of regulation from those who create the risks. In major hazard industries we have been recovering our costs in full for well over an decade . More recently, you will have seen that the review of our Fee For Intervention scheme, introduced in October 2013, has now been published and the overall conclusion is that the scheme is effective and should remain in place. The ability to bring in more income to HSE, will reduce our dependence on taxpayer funding and enable us to strengthen our regulatory capability, so this programme of work, including commercialisation, is good for everyone..

There is a need for us all too continually adapt – to look at our environment, our performance, our technologies and so on and make sure that we are reflecting this is in our policies and practices as regulators, businesses and professional associations. Only by doing this will we both learn from the past and ensure continued improvement and prosperity for the future.

I mentioned earlier that we are making progress in changing public perception of health and safety through mythbusters and I promise you that our efforts in HSE to get people to focus on the real risks and to act proportionately will continue unrelenting. But I also want to ask you here in the South West and in IOSH more broadly to reflect on your role in bringing that same focus to real risks, prioritising and proportionality.

This leads me to today’s topic of leadership in Health and Safety and the vitally important role that you play in creating the right culture within your workplaces to manage risk. We are all in the business of managing risks – not eliminating them but identifying new and emerging risks within your industries and ensuring that appropriate measures are put in place where they are needed.

I will try to provide some insight as to what, I believe, leadership in Health and Safety 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 senior managers who naturally take the lead in many other aspects of running their business, see health and safety as someone else’s responsibility. You as health and safety professionals are most likely to be the ones to whom that responsibility passes – but do you see yourselves as leaders? That will depend to a very large extent on the health and safety culture in your organisation. Is Health and safety a priority or a core value? There is a big difference! It needs to be part of how you do business all of the time  and that needs to be clearly understood by everyone, not something that must be done but can 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 you responsible for? Your own employees? Yes of course and your organisations employ 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 and also members of the public who are affected by your work activities.

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? Do you have the authority that you need to commandeer the resources required. The chances are, that at the very least health and safety priorities will compete  with other priorities 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? Reporting on outcomes ( nos of LTAs and minor injuries) tells you how you have performed looking backwards but what do you need to measure in real time on  an ongoing basis to  gain assurance that things are in control and that the right actions are being taken to prevent incidents and harm from happening?

I would like you all to think about the current culture of your workplace. Ask yourself why the culture is as it is. Whose behaviour helps to create the right culture and who sends out the wrong signals to the organisation?

I have no doubt that all of your organisations state clearly that safety is important. 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 – on 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?

Is there by any chance any possibility that your organisation overreacts to trivial occurrences? – the “investigate everything” mentality. I was recently alerted to a debate going on within the IOSH community over this very issue – and it all started with a wasp sting.

I would be the first person to tell you that it is important to learn from incidents. Not only those that happen in your own organisation but  learning from others is also important. When an incident happens to someone else, how hard do you seek to learn what went wrong? Are you sure that when you do investigate incidents that you get to the real root causes of incidents because these are foten the things that will tell you what is missing in the culture of the organisation.

But please do not be tempted into the “lids on coffee cups”, “signs on everything” mentality. Personal responsibility is an important part of creating the right culture in the organisation. Focussing on trivial risks and stating the obvious can be a major contributor to cynicism about health and safety among your own employees as well as external stakeholders and observers – especially if time is being spent on small risks and the bigger issues are being ignored or put off.

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 there is a major catastrophic risk out there, in the field or on the road that is not being properly managed.

Standing up for what is really important and having the courage to say “No, I don’t need to do this” when you are faced with trivial or insignificant issues is what leadership is all about in many of the positions that you hold.

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. That confidence you exhibit as a leader of course needs to be coupled with an underlying sense of unease about what could go wrong. But leadership  appears 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 – and if -  to respond when concerns are raised.

Your role is to seek assurance that the right safety priorities are being addressed and properly monitored, You do not want to be reassured “all is well” – even when it isn’t, but you must also resist going after every issue no matter how minor and insignficant.

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

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 – but you also need to help all of your colleagues to see what is really important – and what isn’t. 

It’s also very important to ensure that everyone understands the role they have to play and the difference they can make – and it’s 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, I’d be confident that you have made it explicit to them that if they are not happy that a job can be done safely they should not do it. But 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?

Leadership is about  exercising judgment, being prepared to challenge (upwards and downwards), listening to what others say, and being proportionate.

We have the best health and safety system in the world. You are part of that system just as I am. We can all be very proud of what we have done and  the collective performance improvement in health and safety which we’ve delivered over the last 40 years or more. That others was want to learn from us is yet another measure of our success. But we also need to take stock from time to time and calibrate whether we are all staying true to the principles which have created our great system –

We have done this analysis in HSE and we have been helped in this process by several searching reviews. How do you measure up????

Thank you.

Updated 2014-11-21