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Speech to IIG/HSE Workshop, Health and Safety, London, 22nd November 2011

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

The reform agenda

Thanks Dick - good morning everyone. It's a pleasure to be here.

I'm delighted that this Group exists. You will all know that I am one of the greatest advocates for the importance of Professional Institutions. The Institutions you all belong to have always had a crucial role to play in driving up health and safety standards across the broad range of industry sectors and enterprises where your members are active. There are numerous instances where the commitment and assistance of these bodies has enabled HSE to make progress in achieving our mission of the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities.

I know a few weeks ago Dick canvassed your opinions on the areas that you wished to hear me speak about and I'm also aware that this presentation will kick-start your discussions in the two workshop sessions to come. So in my remarks this morning, which are setting the scene for the day, I want to, first, reflect on some of the announcements that have been made regarding health and safety over the course of the last year or so, and explain the role of HSE in implementing the Government's programme of work in this area. I will start with Common Sense: Common Safety before moving onto Good Health and Safety Good for Everyone. Second, I’ll set out what I believe the impact of these changes are, specifically for this group and the people it represents and lastly set some challenges for your syndicate groups to consider and discuss.

But I want to start by emphasising that we are talking about improving delivery of measures to achieve the same overall aim - the importance of workplace health and safety has not changed at all. Achieving the mission that I spoke about in my introduction remains front and centre as the core objective of what all those of us who are part of the health and safety system do - not just what HSE does.

When the Board of HSE developed its new strategy for health and safety in Great Britain back in 2008/9, we were aware that we needed, as far as possible, to ensure that it would remain relevant for a number of years even if circumstances and situations changed.

Throughout the last couple of years we’ve referred back to the strategy and it is clear that it remains relevant and continues to be our overall road map.

The strategy has offered a very sound basis on which to respond to the various reviews and the broader government work programme. The whole change of approach indicated by the Coalition Government underlines the need to improve the health and safety system, the need to draw the distinction between real health and safety risks, which threaten serious harm to people in the workplace, and the other types of risk-averse behaviour that people mistake for health and safety but in reality is much more to do with a compensation culture or mentality.

Now, let's look more closely at the events of the last year. It is important though to put some context around the areas of focus in all of these events. By and large Lord Young’s review and the programme of work announced by our Minister in March this year didn’t consider the subject of major hazard industries and the prevention of catastrophes. A lot of the focus has been on making things easier, especially for those at the much lower risk end of the spectrum who have become confused and even weighed down by the so-called "burden of bureaucracy".

One such example has been the launch of our simple to use risk assessments for low risk activities. Use of the risk assessment tool requires people to consider whether or not their work environment is low risk or not. Higher risk premises can still use the simplified risk assessment tool as a first step and the tool will also prompt them to give further, more detailed, consideration to any specific higher risks which they identify during the process.

If businesses decide that they do not have all of the expertise they need to assess and manage the risks they identify in their business, they may decide to seek expert advice. This has led to the development of the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register and since its launch in March this year the number of those registered stands at over 2,500. HSE is very grateful to the professional bodies that have helped to deliver this initiative. I am sure that one of the topics that will arise in the discussions today is around if there is a need/ appetite for further development of registers of competence around health and safety. I will return to this subject later.

Producing guidance has also always been a key part of HSE's role. We have a strong reputation, not only in the UK but worldwide for producing guidance that is straight forward and clear. But given that we all want to focus on real risks and proportionate action, not overdoing things for little or no benefit, we need to ensure that all of our guidance is fit for purpose in today’s world. We have produced Health and Safety Made Simple - again aimed a small and low risk businesses. You will be seeing more of this easier to read, easier to navigate kind of approach in HSE guidance in future. We are taking forward a substantial piece of work at the moment to review all of our guidance to ensure it all offers a practical, proportionate approach for organisations to help them comply with health and safety law - making the various regulatory requirements easier to navigate. Guidance is an area where companies, trade associations, Trades Unions and professional institutions can make a major contribution, wherever it's appropriate in producing guidance that follows these same principles of proportionality and practicality and might be better written in language that meets there organisations' needs.

I now want to quickly cover the key elements of the ministerial report Good Health and Safety; Good for Everyone, published last March.

HSE will be seeing a net reduction in Government funding over the next four years. We will be looking at ways to further modernise and streamline our ways of working across the whole of HSE, but remember that the funding reduction of 35 per cent applies most significantly to those areas where we historically have not cost recovered. Much of HSE’s work in the major hazards area is already fully cost recovered and represents approximately one third of HSE's total budget.

Our reactive work in response to incidents and complaints received will not change at all. Reactive work – including taking enforcement action wherever it's warranted – will continue unaffected, based on our well established incident selection criteria and complaints system. We will continue to robustly enforce the law and respond to incidents and concerns when they are notified to us or where we identify particular risks.

But, inevitably there will be some impact on our frontline activities. As I've already made clear, we intend to take an even more focussed approach to proactive work, devoting a greater proportion of our effort on those activities where risks are highest and where we can have the greatest impact. We will use evidence and intelligence to identify high risk hot-spots in generally lower risk sectors and we will maintain effective engagement with those sectors where we stimulate and assist sector-led improvements through engagement and partnership, rather than inspection.

Much of this of course is not new and our work with you in the past demonstrates this type of approach in action.

We are currently in the process of piloting a new regime that would see us recover our costs from those who are found not to be managing effectively the risks that they create. The intention is that material non-compliance with the law which is identified during an inspection should incur a charge for the work that HSE has to do to ensure action is taken to address the material fault. We believe that this approach is fair and equitable. The vast majority of businesses who already do the right thing will not be impacted by this in any way but those who take short cuts and avoid taking action until we intervene, will incur a fee. This is a way of both recognising those who do the right things whilst at the same time HSE getting tougher with those non-compliant businesses. I emphasise again that this new approach will be applied in the areas where we currently do not cost recover, not in the major hazards areas where our approach is much more proactive and based on permissioning regimes.

The public consultation process on Fee for Intervention closed in October. A pilot period to test the process in practice has begun and we are taking account of the feedback from the consultation process. We expect to be in a position to formally introduce the regime by April next year.

Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone, also announced the Government's decision to set up an independent review of health and safety legislation. This has been carried out by a panel of independent advisors, chaired by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt.

The review has been considering the opportunities for reducing health and safety legislation. We are anticipating the publication of its recommendations in the next few weeks and we, like you, are keen to see what the report recommends. You will also be aware that the government is also carrying out what is being called the 'Red Tape Challenge'. This is a broader government initiative designed to give the public and businesses an opportunity to provide their views on all regulations. Health and safety's major turn in the spotlight was in the summer. Over 1,200 comments were received but given the cross-cutting nature of health and safety, we should expect further comments throughout the challenge initiative. As well as informing the review being carried out by Professor Löfstedt, the comments will also feed into specific proposals for regulatory reform that will be reviewed by a Ministerial 'Star Chamber' of key departments later. HSE welcomes the opportunities which such independent reviews provide for an objective assessment of how we are currently delivering and to hear views on what may need to change. It is a means to ensure that regulation which has evolved over many years continues to be relevant, common sense, proportionate to the risk and easy to navigate.

So having talked broadly about developments in recent months I now want to turn my focus on to your particular area of interest.

You will no doubt recall that when we published our strategy: Health and Safety in the 21st Century in June 2009 its supporting strap line was an invitation to everyone who is part of the safety system to be: "part of the solution". This was explicit recognition that we needed everyone in all parts of the system to come together to lead the way, share good practice with one another and, as in your particular case, demonstrate how health and safety can make a significant contribution in enabling scientific, technological and engineering innovation to happen.

Good health and safety is and always has been a positive contributor to the bottom line of any business and the wider economy so long as it is applied sensibly, proportionately and in the right way, focussing on the things that will really make a difference to health and safety performance.

In the sectors you work in I'm convinced that this is best achieved when it is integrated into the entire lifecycle not just bolted on at the end. From conceptual through to construction, then operation and finally decommissioning, when superseded by new technologies, the changing risk profile of a project or activity needs to be identified and the most important risks addressed as far as they can be even though they may not be eliminated.

To create these inherently sustainable solutions we need designers and engineers whom, first from the initial training they receive and then through a lifetime of continued professional development, are educated about risk and can then put all of their acquired knowledge and expertise into practice without endangering either their own health and safety or that of others.

Risk is part of everyday life and risk assessment and management is an essential responsibility of every practicing professional engineer. Risk education needs to be integrated into students' study. More specifically, the management of risk should be viewed as a thread running through everything a professional engineer designs and the judgments and decisions they make.

I want to mention particularly the recent work carried out by the Engineering Council which culminated in it publishing: Guidance on Risk for the Engineering Profession. As well as making it clear about the responsibilities all engineers have to think in multiple dimensions – so that the solutions they devise for one problem don't in turn create problems in other areas – it also highlights how vital it is for engineers to be committed to communicating about risk and especially their responsibility to contribute to the general public's awareness of what it is and what it might mean. If scientists and engineers believe they can provide the solutions, it is essential for them to communicate the practicalities of this with others too.

For communications to be effective, it needs to be appropriate for the audience it is being targeted at. I mentioned earlier HSE's current work on reviewing and revising its guidance. This work will not lead to lower standards or lower levels of protection. Instead it will create guidance that is easier to read, easier to navigate and ultimately easier for the reader to apply in practice. I think everyone in this room could cite one example of guidance that is overly complex or difficult to apply in practice whether it be originated by HSE or from another source. When we think about guidance we need to think about how we can avoid overcomplicating things because if we don’t, it can only have one of two outcomes: either people attempt to use the guidance and become confused or over interpret requirements just to be sure of compliance or the guidance is ignored completely and its valuable lessons are lost.

But the Engineering Council's publication on risk is a start, not an end in itself. The organisations you represent have a broader role in communicating the concept of risk and encouraging the sharing of learning and good practice among yourselves and to the general public.  Despite all of the technological advances over many decades, scientists and engineers are still not trusted by large parts of society. This is at least in part the result of a collective failure to communicate effectively. Some of the recent high profile incidents which have happened around the world – whether in industrial processes, energy generation or transport systems bear remarkably similarities to other events of the more distant past. There is plenty to suggest that learning is not being shared, and there appear to be some obstacles to sharing – not least fears about potential legal consequences. This is an area that I hope you will find time to give consideration to today – how do we find ways to overcome these obstacles and ensure that lessons of the past and present are properly embedded in learning and sharing across all professions.

Real communicators listen as well as talk, they acknowledge the concerns of stakeholders and respond appropriately. If we are to create an environment for growth and innovation in science and engineering, learning from each other, being prepared to acknowledge when mistakes were made and recognising when risks cannot be eliminated must be all be among your priorities. Many people in the developed world today are more risk averse than previous generations, and it has become a fashion to look for others to blame and hold responsible for all outcomes. But risk and responsibility go together. If we don’t explain that risk is part of all of our lives, all of the time and that there is a risk in doing nothing as well as a risk in taking action; and showing that we learn from mistakes, we will not gain the levels of support necessary to bring about the things you and your organisations are all trying to achieve. This is an area where we all need to be proactive; grasping the nettle, and seeking out opportunities to open up discourse on the subject.

HSE's strategy focuses not just on improving the health and safety system but also on helping to draw the important distinction between real health and safety risks and risk-averse behaviour. It will continue to be part of our role to react to 'set the story straight', when a silly news article appears about health and safety but the subject of risk communications is much broader than that. We have to show ourselves to be listening, learning and sharing knowledge to continually improve the system.

Leadership, involvement, partnership, sharing of good practice - and communication - have been, and will continue to be, part of how we all achieve our shared mission. Today is an important opportunity to consider how we can work together, and separately, to develop safe and sustainable growth and innovation in the UK. If I look at my own profession of chemical engineering, it is really encouraging to see the growth in the number of young people who want to join the profession. I think they understand the challenges that lie ahead for this country and more widely around the world and they want to play their part. We need to ensure that they and their mentors, who are already in the professions represented here today, understand and practice the integral role of appropriate health and safety skills in every profession. Health and safety is not a separate profession in itself, it is part of what we all do every day. Today is a good time to review how well we are doing that and where we go from here.

Updated 2011-11-28