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Speech to Devonport Dockyard - 24 June 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Being Part of the Solution: Leadership in health and safety

Introduction

I am delighted to be here today and I value the opportunity to visit a site with such an enduring and illustrious past and which continues to have a significant role to perform at all levels, whether they are on the local, national or international stage.

Yesterday, I was taken on a fantastic tour of the dockyard. Earlier this week, I attended the launch of the European campaign on safe maintenance in London. I only wish I had done the visits the other way round. I would have loved to have been able to tell the people at the event in London about what I've seen here in Devonport over the last 24 hours.

You've asked me to focus this morning on the strategy for health and safety in Great Britain and to highlight how the themes of leadership, competence and workforce involvement relate to it.

The HSE Strategy

Let me start with the strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain and how it was developed. Essentially, it sprang from a decision by the new Board of HSE, formed two years ago, that we needed to reset the direction for the system.

Why was that? There were several factors. Workplaces were and are changing fast. The number of small and medium sized companies was expanding. And we are continuing to see an increasing culture of risk aversion in society as a whole. For too many organisations, health and safety had become synonymous with petty bureaucracy instead of what it should be - a professional assessment of risks and a focus on the most important ones - you know that. You live with that as part of the culture of this site every day.

Britain has a good record. We're a leader in health and safety. In fact, last year workplace fatalities fell to a record low of 180 and the last year looks set to be even lower. Indeed, other countries look to us for leadership and many seek to adopt our approach. But every fatality is a tragedy - someone who is lost forever to family, friends and colleagues. And we still have over 100,000 employees suffering serious injuries every year as well as several thousands of people dying prematurely from work-related diseases.

So, the Board felt that a renewed vigour was necessary to get health and safety repositioned and back on the agenda.

So we launched the new strategy for health and safety about a year ago - stressing that while it had been led by the Board of HSE, it is very much a strategy for everyone who is part of the system in Great Britain - and we want it to be owned and delivered by all.

This is why we sought inputs from many organisations and consulted widely. It's also the reason why we have asked organisations to show their support for the strategy publicly and provide case studies to show how they are implementing it.

The principle of ownership is central. It is for those who create risks to manage them. It is not for us to prescribe how to manage health and safety in individual organisations. It is for individual organisations - what we call 'duty-holders' - to manage the risks they create - to decide what is reasonable and what is practical.

The overriding mission in the new Strategy is to: "prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities".

Its key points are that an effective health and safety system requires strong leadership, workforce engagement, widespread competence and sound, practical advice.

Achieving excellence in health and safety

I believe that excellence in health and safety is achieved through culture and passion, not rules and procedures. It comes from demonstrable action not words. And that's why leadership is so critical. Because without it, the other things won't happen. Individuals or groups who take a clear lead can stimulate others and have a positive impact on them.

Making health and safety a genuine priority

So leadership is vital - but what does it actually require? The starting point is the vision of the organisation and its view on the world - its mind set. These will influence greatly its behaviours. As a result, excellence in health and safety should be seen as part of any vision of sustained excellence for the organisation. This does not mean "gold-plating" - far from it. But what it does mean is that it is part and parcel of "what we do round here", "what we do even when no one is looking or checking up on us". Seeking excellence in health and safety is about it being ingrained and being second nature - developing a positive, dynamic, all embracing safety culture - not blame, nor witch hunt. I particularly liked the £2 reward for good practice examples, which I heard about yesterday.

You can't achieve the right culture through process and procedures - it has to be based on effective leadership from the top and taking a range of interventions across the organisation that embed a health and safety mindset in every employee.

I've taken a look at what Defence Equipment and Support are doing here. And I'm encouraged to see that in its current strategy the Board has chosen to make the explicit commitment of "making safety a priority in everything we do".

And of course, it could be argued that you have a head start here. Managing the major accident hazard potential associated with Great Britain's nuclear deterrent is paramount. For quite obvious reasons, this aspect of your operation comes under the greatest public scrutiny and there is an expectation that you should strive to achieve the highest standards on site and then maintain them.

Indeed, to help do this, I know that recently, HSE Inspectors have been working with you and your contractors to implement the regulatory strategy for Leadership and Management for Safety, which has been developed by HSE's Nuclear Directorate.  The strategy draws on lessons from events such as the Columbia space shuttle disaster and the explosion at BP's Texas City refinery.

It sets out to promote awareness of the contribution that leadership, organisational and cultural factors make to safety and to influence leaders up to and including the boardroom.

And recent events provide a stark reminder of why a proactive and dynamic approach is so important. Mercifully, catastrophic incidents happen rarely. This fact, however, can cause a dangerous and insidious level of complacency to develop that can lead to ill-informed strategic decision making. This has been seen repeatedly as a contributory factor in a number of major accidents and was again most recently highlighted as a significant factor in the Nimrod Inquiry Report, which I'm sure you are all familiar with.

For all these reasons, minimising the likelihood of a high consequence/low probability event must remain your top priority. However, it is important to ensure that in the pursuit of this aim other things, such as conventional safety hazards and occupational health issues, are not relegated to afterthoughts or placed in the 'nice to have' category. Indeed, you should seize the opportunity available to tap into the wealth of experience and knowledge that comes with operating a high hazard facility of this kind to see what further lessons can be learned and then applied to all aspects of what you do.

But looking at your record, I see that your experience broadly reflects that of Great Britain in that you have driven accidents and injury rates down - and you now face the challenge of improving your performance further.

There is nowhere else I can think of which combines major hazards, high levels of maintenance and refit activity, shipping movements of all kinds as well as a mix of cultures and approaches from MoD and the military through to the private sector like this site.

To do that requires you to fully understand and profile the risks that your organisation faces so you tackle the ones that really matter. This prioritisation of risk profile will be unique to your organisation. When you've decided on your collective and separate priorities you can determine how to measure what is actually happening within the organisation to achieve the improvement in goals you set. Many aspects of what you do will require leading indicators because you simply cannot allow things to happen which generate lagging indicators.

I believe it is far better for the Board of an organisation to have a quarterly or six monthly in-depth review than a monthly look at a set of lagging indicators. A review of monthly performance provides a very limited view of potential problems.

It's encouraging if there have been no injuries or major incidents but a retrospective review doesn't necessarily tell you whether this was down to luck or good management. It is essential that the Board asks the right questions of the right people about future risks. Asking the right questions enables you to seek out areas where the organisation is vulnerable, rather than being falsely assured that all is well.

Moving from good to excellent requires the development of leading indicators and in order to know what leading indicators to measure you have to understand the real DNA of every business.

Occupational Safety

Being able to focus on the real priorities is an important skill for any organisation to acquire. At a large and complex site such as this, physical hazards present the most obvious risk.

I know, for instance, that workplace transport was recently identified as presenting a potential danger and following a successful trial of CCTV equipment it has now been rolled out across your fleet of vehicles - a sensible and proportionate approach to a real problem.

More challenging though is the identification and management of occupational health risks.

We must not be under any illusions. Over 1.2 million people report every year that they suffer from ill health which is work-related. More than 24 million of the close to 30 million working days lost every year are due to work-related ill health compared to less than five million days due to workplace injury. In spite of these numbers, I remain on the side of those who maintain that work is good for us all. Those who work, live a longer and healthier life overall. But that's only the case if work itself doesn't cause harm.

Whether it be short-term and obvious - like dust inhalation. Or obvious, but much longer term - such as noise and exposure to harmful substances, which may cause serious damage to health and safety but with a very long latency period we have to ensure that the issues are considered fully and that appropriate measures are taken to manage them. I know that I don't need to remind you on this site of the legacy of asbestos which continues to be our biggest single killer in the UK.

I've noted that you have recently been investing a great deal of time and effort in health issues, including engaging with HSE specialist inspectors. It's your primary responsibility to tackle these issues.

It's important that you take a proactive approach to identifying the specific things that might cause ill health in your workplace just like you already do for safety hazards and then take reasonable steps to introduce ways to control them.

Worker involvement

Once the key risks are identified, leaders then have a responsibility to engage with the workforce in understanding and identifying ways to mitigate them. It is important to have employees who are competent and confident in dealing with the things that really matter and who feel they are engaged constructively in managing health and safety.

This requires specific, tangible interventions that empower individuals. And I note that you have initiated such interventions at Devonport, for example through your health and safety culture programme, particularly the 'Time Out for Safety' aspect of the initiative.

This is because it establishes a short time in the working week where workers and their managers can have an open and honest dialogue about any health and safety concerns they have. The advantage of this approach is that it helps ensure the real risks are identified, everyone is given an equal chance to contribute to the formulation of the resulting solution and as a consequence of this greater degree of ownership it is more likely to work in practice.

I'm also very pleased to see the active role Trades Union representatives are playing in this initiative. This is important because a key aspect in improving performance comes through learning lessons and sharing best practice. The extensive network of support that Trades Unions provide means that knowledge and expertise can be spread far and wide so that innovative ideas developed in one company or department can be picked up and applied in another with good effect.

The key for me is winning hearts and minds by motivating and coaching everyone to play their part, rather than for a small group of people charged with health and safety responsibility 'beating the drum' in a way that only works as long as they continue to beat it.

Health and Safety as an enabler

In these challenging financial times there is always a risk that health and safety can slide down the agenda as commercial pressures and reductions in budgets mean short term goals and targets take greater priority.

But, health and safety makes good business sense all of the time. Let me explain why. If leaders perceive health and safety as being about bureaucracy and paperwork it will be seen as a burden. But if they see it as being a means to enable improvements in costs, productivity and reputation, then it becomes a positive, good business practice.

In financial terms reducing risk leads to reduced costs. Good health and safety leads to fewer absences, reduced staff turnover, better morale and increased productivity. In reputational terms, it means improved standing among suppliers, partners, the local community and a better name among your peers. These are all points to remember and deploy, especially when economies need to be made. And, when there are others to convince of the real reasons for good health and safety.

But leadership does not just come from the top of the organisation and a few key people like yourselves. It needs to happen at all levels, through people feeling competent and confident in what they do. Everyone should be/has to be a leader in health and safety in some way.

Contractorisation

Staying with the idea of leadership. Our view is that leadership can reach beyond the confines of a single organisation and extend to other parts of industry.

The complex operation here, means that you have numerous contractors appointed to carry out the diverse range of activities which take place on this site. You have a responsibility to ensure that these companies' activities are managed properly, that there is clarity about the standards they are working to and that their work is effectively coordinated so that it doesn't inadvertently place their own or other workers at risk. All of which will also help contribute to ensuring the work is completed on time and to budget.

But you also have an opportunity to influence the contractors you use so that they in fact learn from you and can adopt and develop best practice and in so doing pass it onto others that they work for in future.

One recent example which I encountered personally demonstrates the positive impact a client can have in supporting contractors and getting them to play a pro-active role in improving safety across the entire system. The work was carried out by a demolition business on behalf of a major oil company. As part of the contract, the demolition business was required to comply with much higher standards of health and safety than they had previously experienced. But rather than finding this restricting, they discovered that working to this regime was an 'eye-opener' into the benefits of good, practical health and safety. Not only did it minimize risk, but it maximized efficiency.

The demolition company then carried this experience into other contracts, applying a similar regime, whether or not clients insisted upon it. Effectively this meant that they were acting as an advertisement for good health and safety among a community of clients.

You have the opportunity to do something like this - to start a chain reaction that improves health and safety well beyond your own business.

Leadership principles

I want to end by highlighting a couple of health and safety principles that I think need to be applied at every level - from the individual or team to the organisation or sector. These are both reflected in our strategy and they are: first, personal responsibility; and second, proportionality.

Personal responsibility

Real leadership is characterised by skills and competences which go beyond technical expertise. Passion needs to be combined with exceptional people skills, the ability to influence and motivate - and above all to communicate in language that is meaningful to people.

And I believe it is important that directors and managers adopt an approach that is personal as well as process-driven. It is vital to get out and about - to visit workstations and talk to staff.

If you don't like what you hear, resist the temptation to go on a witch-hunt - take personal responsibility for creating a culture where concerns can be expressed and solutions found. It's quite possible that you may solve the problem simply by listening to your employees!

And don't be afraid to ask what they can do differently to improve safety - promote and share responsibility.

Proportionality

The second principle is proportionality. As you probably know, I am personally very committed to ridding health and safety of the image of bureaucracy, interference and stopping things happening.

To remind you. The HSE's mission is the "prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities". Our role includes developing national strategy, recommending policy and inspecting working environments from offshore oil production to the nuclear industry, construction to agriculture. In other words, it's about major risks and mitigating them. We do not ban conkers, Morris Dancing or plastic duck races. You know we concentrate on what matters.

Health and safety management is not about elimination of all risk - it is about doing what is 'reasonably practicable' to manage foreseeable risk and then getting on with the task. An array of glossy folders containing 10 page risk assessments for the most trivial of risks are counter-productive. They create cynicism amongst employees instead of inspiring them. What inspires is a clear focus on major risks and a practical, commonsense approach to managing them.

Conclusion

Thirty-six years ago when the Health & Safety at Work Act was passed, apathy was identified as the enemy of progress. Since then, we have made enormous progress. We now have the best health and safety system in the world. But we must still seek to improve, learn from others and events, and never stop being aware of the risks.

In moving from very good to excellent, I would identify one of the major challenges to be the development of a sustained and sustainable approach based on common sense and passion - a culture where everyone buys in and plays their part and no one has to keep beating the drum.

In driving our performance to a new level, we need to encourage hotspots of excellence - where committed leaders set the right priorities, take personal responsibility and promote a proportionate approach. Those hotspots can then radiate good practice to all those whom they influence.

You are used to operating in an environment where there is little margin for error and where your activities frequently come under the most intense scrutiny. But the high profile that you have, means that you can act as a centre for excellence, whom others look to - to learn how to do things better. I want to thank you for your continued support for our strategy. There is still a great deal of work to do. But to succeed, we need you to lead by example, be clear about your priorities and then implement the things that will make sure your workers and all those that might be impacted by the things you do are safe and secure.

Thank you.

Updated 2010-06-28