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Northern Ireland Safety Group 60th Anniversary Conference

Judith Hackitt CBE HSE Chair

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak at this 60th anniversary event. I want to reflect on the progress we’ve all made, the challenges that lie ahead and the important role that one group in particular can play. I will inevitably talk about what is happening in GB from a regulatory perspective but I do so knowing that many of our challenges are the same.


Somewhere in the UK today a newspaper or website will be carrying a story mocking health and safety. Misrepresenting people like us, who care about saving people’s lives and preventing catastrophes, and presenting us as the ‘killjoys’ who stand in the way of people living their lives and enjoying themselves.

However, two weeks ago another newspaper article said this:

“Health and safety regulation is a good thing. The bureaucracy that implements it does an essential job.”

And, “try identifying ostentatiously bad safety regulation and you run into difficulties. Many complaints turn out to be myths or to involve extreme interpretations of sensible guidance.”

The newspaper that published this was The Times, in its ‘Thunderer’ column. What the article shows is some people do get, ‘real health and safety’, they understand its purpose, value and necessity.     

The list of trivia banned in the name of health and safety is endless, and is indeed a far cry from why all of us work in health and safety.

However, it wasn’t the press that invented these myths about health and safety or decided themselves that it is health and safety which stops these things happening. The stories arise because in each and every case someone in the company or organisation involved has told a customer, a client or even in some cases their own employees that these trivial matters are about health and safety.

I would like you all to think about some of the rules that you encounter in your own workplaces which relate to personnel safety and ask yourself how important they really are. Must people put lids on their coffee cups if they walk around? Are hot drinks banned on stairs and in elevators? Is everyone issued with hi-viz gear and expected to wear it? If so, how do those who really need to, stand out from everyone else? Are hard hats compulsory for everyone, everywhere irrespective of level of risk?

It is easy to see how some of these rules come about. Someone reports a near miss with a coffee spillage on the stairs. The investigation must come up with a recommendation, right? So lids on cups become mandatory and drinks are banned on stairs. It’s easier to have site wide rules about the wearing of protective equipment than to target action at those who are really most at risk, but in doing so do we help or hinder them understanding the real risks which matter?

I am very familiar with the arguments for some of these rules. It’s about creating the right safety culture throughout organisations. But that will only be the case if the important stuff is given the right level of attention and the issues are addressed as well as dealing with the many low risk activities which are easy to make rules for. The workforce will not buy into health and safety if they see focus on trivial risks while serious risks are being ignored / not tackled.

We are seeing positive signs that the media and public are starting to get the message – the perception of health and safety is shifting.

But, what we really need is behaviour to change more broadly. We need people working in industry to ensure health and safety is managed with focus and proportionality. The time for rolling out health and safety as an easy excuse has ended.

Where we are now

The UK’s health and safety performance is improving, but still, there are too many deaths and injuries.

HSE has just published GB statistics for 2012/13 which show an 11 per cent drop in major injuries and 23 less fatalities (148 down from 171) . The sectors which continue to cause us most concern in GB are the same here – construction, agriculture, waste and recycling.

While the number of workplace fatalities continues to drop - the number of people dying prematurely each year because of occupational disease is still a huge problem. Past exposures to harmful substances at work cause over an estimated 12, 000 deaths per year.

The largest cause of death from occupational disease relates to asbestos and I will talk about a new campaign which HSE has planned for GB in 2014 in a moment. More than 2/3 of premature deaths are due to cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other serious lung diseases.

So occupational disease needs to be high on all of our agendas . We need to prioritise the areas where we can make a difference through targeted inspection initiatives and awareness raising initiatives. We very much value the opportunities to meet with our colleagues from here in Northern Ireland and from the republic to share knowledge and share good ideas on what works in this area.

The direction

The many reviews of health and safety which have taken place recently  point to the need for everyone who is part of the health and safety system to focus on real risks  They have also identified the need to make it easier for everyone to understand what is really required.

So, in common with regulators here in Ireland:

This focus will continue for us during 2014 and beyond. But I believe the key to being successful in delivering these goals, is the same for everyone in health and safety - flexibility. Today’s workplaces and technologies are changing. For the UK to continue to be one of the safest and healthiest places to work in the world, we need to continuously improve and modernise our approaches to ensure they remain fit for purpose, whilst maintaining the high standards of protection.

I’d like to briefly mention a few examples of what we are doing.

New asbestos campaign

We plan to launch a new asbestos campaign next year in GB. This campaign, will take a different approach  from our earlier successful Hidden Killer campaign. We have crucial intelligence on;

So the new campaign will do some different things like

Rather than just raising awareness this new approach will use the intelligence gathered  to focus on helping trades people adopt safe behaviours . 


As another example of our more flexible approach we have also been engaged in overhauling all our guidance and regulations to get them up to date, relevant and accessible.

Over eighty percent of health and safety regulations are either being improved or removed – we are modernising and fine-tuning regulation but we’re certainly not throwing away the good stuff. We need regulations to protect people at work: but it is important to strike the right balance, and stay relevant to today’s workplaces and workforces.

For many businesses the best source of guidance is now online. We’re using the revamped HSE website to make it clear to those new to health and safety or working in low risk areas where they need to start and where they can stop.

The whole look and feel of guidance provided by HSE is starting to change. This applies to the new Health & Safety Toolbox, Health and Safety Made Simple (HSMS) and the online risk assessment tools. The number of hits on these sites alone has been quite remarkable.

In 2014 we are planning a further programme of sector-specific consolidations covering Mines, Explosives, GMOs, Biocides and Petroleum as part of efforts to simplify the Regulatory framework without reducing protections.

We are also reviewing ACOPs and guidance to make sure that they are practical and proportionate; making it easier for employers to understand and therefore meet their legal obligations.

Inspections and LA Code

I have said that the sectors which we regard as the highest risks are very similar between GB and here in Northern Ireland. We think it is important that as part of our evolving approach, that we target our activity at those sectors where we can have the most impact. No industrial sectors will be free of inspections but our approach will be targeted primarily towards areas where there is greatest risk, with fewer proactive inspections for businesses in lower risk areas who meet their legal obligations.

We have also published a national code for directing local authorities  to ensure that HSE's proportionate, risk based approach to interventions are adopted by the hundreds of individual local authorities that regulate health and safety in lower risk workplaces. 

Triennial Review

As part of UK Government’s commitment to reform the public sector, all public bodies are now subject to regular reviews. This April a Triennial Review of the HSE was announced.

During the summer, the review has been assessing whether there is a continuing need for HSE’s functions, as well as whether it is complying with the principles of good governance . Many stakeholders have been consulted.

We are now awaiting the findings of this review which should be published before the end of the year with a Government response likely to follow in the New Year. 

HSE welcomed the opportunity to contribute to this review. We look forward to the findings of the report which will no doubt help to shape our work over the coming months.

Changing behaviour

So far I have covered some of the ways in which we are overhauling the system to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century. But I now want to move on from talking about the sort of changes which regulators need to make to talk more broadly about how we can influence and change behaviours in the workplace.

One of the groups of people who I believe are key to making health and safety part of the fabric of any organisation are first line supervisors.

I am sure we’ve all been to workplaces where people scurry to find their PPE when they see that the boss is on a walkabout. It’s an important tell tale sign that the culture isn’t right.  People are  following the rules because they’ve been told to, not because they understand why they need to. It also makes a clear statement about the sort of behaviour which is accepted when the boss isn’t there.

This is why the role of first line supervision is so important. They create the culture for the rest of the workforce. They are the ones who either say “do it because that’s the rule” or “do it so that you can go home tonight to your wife and family” or even “do it because its your turn to buy the beers in the pub tonight and you’re not getting off the hook!”

The strength of first line supervisors is that they are close to the people they manage. They know them well. Many of them are “off the tools” themselves and know how to connect with their workmates – in and out of work.

But let’s not forget that they also need help to make that transition to being a leader. They need to establish credibility as a manager and will often face teasing from their workmates about moving from being “one of us” to “one of them”. If we recognise how important they really are in building and maintaining the right safety culture it makes sense that we need to help them to become good leaders.

How can we help

Training can be very helpful as long as it is in the right things. They need training in how to relate to people, not in what rules need to be enforced. They need time to express their own views and concerns about the rules which are in place. At the point when the first become supervisors there is a golden opportunity to get them to give honest feedback on what the workforce really think.

Get them to work with more senior managers to agree what matters and what is important.  If they tell you that some of the rules are silly and get in the way of workforce commitment to safety, listen and do something about it.

Joint training with safety reps can work particularly well in this area.

Those who are new to management are likely to need support, some who have been supervisors for a long time may also need support if they are going to become more effective leaders. One of the best ways to achieve this is for them to support each other.

Pipe dream or reality – the Olympic example

How can we be so sure that this approach through first line supervisors can make such a difference?  2012’s London Olympics were an outstanding success in many, many ways. In particular  the outstanding achievement of constructing and staging the Games without a single fatality to any member of the workforce was a highlight.

Real engagement of first line supervisors was absolutely key to this achievement . They created a culture of “pride” in creating a legacy which they were all part of and to be proud meant being safe and taking care of one another. I visited the site on several occasions during the big build and I attended a number of events where health and safety performance was recognised. I was consistently impressed with the level of recognition and praise which was shared with te whole workforce and in particular the first line leaders.

And finally…

So in summary.

60 years of the Northern Ireland Safety Group is a major milestone which I am delighted to be here and part of your event to recognise.

We all share the same goals and in many respects the goals remain constant –preventing people from being killed or injured in thousands of workplaces.  The progress we have all made is remarkable and the signs are promising for the future.  The tide may be turning on the negative way health and safety is perceived in the press but we need to stop the petty rules which give rise to the stories in the first place. We all need to look again at how effective we are in what we do.

We are making the legislative and guidance framework simpler, clearer, more accessible and relevant to the end users.  We are focusing our interventions as a regulator on employers who expose people to significant and unnecessary risks.

We still need cultural change in many workplaces to ensure that the really important risks are being managed and not  sidelined by easy to do but less important stuff.

We need to harness the power of the leadership of those on the frontline. They are the ones who can create the right culture, engage the workforce and give honest feedback to more senior levels   Only by doing this will we both learn from the past and ensure continued improvement and success for the future.

Enjoy the rest of this conference.

Thank you.

Updated 2013-12-17