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Speech to IOSH SW Branch - 24 June 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Good afternoon everyone. It is with great pleasure that I have the opportunity to talk with you today. This event marks the conclusion for me of an amazing and enjoyable visit to the South West of England.

For the last day-and-a-half, I have been at Devonport Dockyard to talk to staff and observe how they manage the multiple and often unique health and safety challenges that are inherent in operating a facility of that nature.

Of course, there aren't many other workplaces in this country whose activates mean - quite rightly - that they are subject to such an intense degree of scrutiny. However, there are some parallels that can be drawn with other sectors and places of work. The level of commitment with which health and safety professionals go about doing their job is common in so many places that I visit.

And, that's one thing you always notice about health and safety professionals. Their passion and profound belief in what they do. That's not terribly surprising given that we're all committed to preventing people from suffering death, injury and ill health - which will include debilitating illnesses and in some cases premature death as a result of the harm caused by work.

But, as you probably know only too well yourself, this passion isn't necessarily  shared by all those that you work with and certainly not those that many of us meet outside our workplaces. This takes me immediately to what I believe to be one of the major challenges we all face in our chosen profession - getting others to share our passion for real health and safety.

I have said it many times before: it's not about paperwork and bureaucracy it's actually about people. Our purpose is gaining people's real commitment to adopting the right approach. The battle is for the hearts and minds of everyone in the organisations we work in or interact with in our workplaces.

And that demands leadership. Leadership that means:

There is no doubt at all that organisations, of all shapes and sizes, need to have access to competent, knowledgeable people who can help them to find their way through the full suite of regulations which apply to them.

Notwithstanding the substantial amount of work which has been done in recent years to simplify and reduce the administrative burden of regulation; the wherewithal to negotiate the system and to put it into practice can be daunting for many senior managers - especially those in small to medium sized enterprises where directors often wear several 'hats'. It is not uncommon in these circumstances for 'health and safety' to mean a veritable mix of everything from employment law to insurance and fire safety regulations.

In large organisations, the challenge can be quite different. Various and divergent strands of health and safety management may rest in different functions or departments - thereby making clarity and consistency of approach more of a challenge in these organisations than people feeling overwhelmed by what they are required to do.

The role of the health and safety professional in any of these scenarios is absolutely crucial. The knowledge and expertise you bring to the organisation you work with brings that clarity and consistency. And the vibrant regional IOSH networks, just like this one, enable health and safety professionals to support and mentor one another.

It's also worth saying, not least because we often forget to remind ourselves of this, that our collective efforts have continued to be successful. Our performance in health and safety in Great Britain is world leading. Indeed, other countries look to us for leadership.

Needless to say, however, that whilst this should be cause for some satisfaction, there remains no room for complacency. Let's not be under any illusions, the challenges we continue to face are still sizeable.

And these include to:

From what you have heard from me so far you have probably already deduced that my themes for this speech follow closely those contained in our strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century published little over a year ago.

I have spoken about leadership in the broadest terms. The sort of health and safety leadership that we need to see from everyone in organisations but especially from senior managers and directors at the very top. I will return to your role as leaders later but now I want to talk about competence.

Competence has many dimensions. At its most rudimentary level, it is essential that every employee receives training and is deemed competent in the skills required to carry out the job for which they are employed. However, in the best of all worlds the necessary health and safety knowledge will have been fully integrated within that training. With the result that it's relevant to the tasks each person is performing as well as each and everyone of them being clear on their responsibilities to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their work.

But competence in health and safety - especially among those who have this as a primary part of their role - requires the building of confidence in how to apply the legal requirements in a sensible and proportionate way. This means focusing on those risks which occur most often and those which have the most serious potential consequences.

Competence is about the ability of every director, manager and worker to recognise the true risks in operational activities and then apply the right measures to control and manage those risks as far as they reasonably can be.

As you might have already heard, we in HSE have commissioned a project from IOSH and CIEH to see how we might develop a voluntary accreditation scheme for the "upper end" of the safety consultancy market.

The principles of such a scheme, as we see them, are that those who gain accreditation should:

We want the scheme to be open to all who meet these requirements. And the scheme should not therefore be burdensome but rather to the commercial advantage of those who meet best practice standards. Certainly industry has expressed enthusiasm for such a scheme and HSE's own findings suggest the need to continue to drive up standards by this kind of action.

It is also clear that our new Minister in DWP - Chris Grayling - as well as Lord Young, who as you will now no doubt be aware is embarking on a review of the whole health and safety system, very much support the need for accreditation of competent health and safety professionals.

Just like the scheme being proposed, we believe that our strategy is well aligned with the programmes being outlined by the new coalition government.

The current climate brings with it many challenges but there are also opportunities. Opportunities to redouble our efforts and strive to show the real value that effective health and safety can bring to help enable businesses to achieve their commercial goals.

And an important aspect in the achievement of this is the ability for all health and safety professionals to focus on the real priorities. This skill, applies to all businesses and organisations irrespective of size. The risk profile of every organisation will be unique - and will be determined by a variety of factors.

These include:

In some organisations, it will be clear that physical hazards present the greatest risks - for example, falls from height, hazards created by moving vehicles such as forklift trucks and so on.

In other organisations, particularly some service-based, non-manufacturing sectors, the risk profile is more likely to feature occupational health risks with these being of higher priority than physical safety hazards. Herein lies a particular challenge for health and safety professionals in helping the organisation to recognise that health and safety is just that - preventing harm to health caused by work as well as addressing physical safety hazards.

Whether that 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.

Alternatively, perhaps the most difficult of all to manage are those illnesses which may have their origins in work or may be potentially or wholly attributable to lifestyle issues. Stress and other mental health issues clearly fall into this category but so do many musculoskeletal diseases. But where there are clear workplace contributors they must be tackled.

Whilst it may be very important for some purposes to identify the root cause or point of origin of some ill health cases, the key issues for health and safety professionals are to ensure that organisations:

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 that five million days due to workplace injury.

In spite of these numbers, I remain firmly 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 - and that therefore becomes central to your - and our - mission: to ensure that workplaces provide good work which generates all of the benefits and which reduces the risks of harm to health as well as safety risks.

There is a strong business case to be made to address this challenge and making this case to your colleagues may well be a significant part of the professional challenge you face in your organisation.

Our Strategy states very clearly that leadership in health and safety is fundamental. But leadership does not just come from the top of the organisation. It happens and needs to happen at all levels, through people feeling competent and confident in what they do. But for you as health and safety professionals a very special kind of leadership is required.

I don't know what the safety culture is like in the organisations you work in or with. But I'm sure that the full spectrum is probably represented here. From those where the most senior managers and directors are committed to health and safety and visibly demonstrate that commitment and leadership to the whole organisation.

But there will be others here today where that "commitment" from the top does not have the same level of credibility and where pretty much everything is delegated to you to look after as health and safety manager. You are what I call the poor old drum beater!

Some of you will be dedicated health and safety managers - by which I mean dealing with health and safety all of the time. But others here - I am sure - will have other responsibilities, especially in smaller organisations. These might include other regulatory compliance issues for your organisation. You may also be directly involved in dealing with broader risk management issues beyond health and safety - environment, property damage, security, for instance.

The potential for a civil claim can arise out of a member of the public tripping over in the street. With a much greater tendency for people in general to look to blame others when problems occur, it is not hard to see why there is a good deal of confusion. Employers' Liability Insurers underwrite risks of harm to employees. But it is often the risk of civil litigation that drives their requirements for documentation, mitigation measures and so on, beyond what is required for compliance with health and safety law.

Employers, for entirely understandable reasons, integrate a whole range of requirements into one set of procedures and management systems - all communicated to employees as "Health and Safety".

It is an essential part of your remit as health and safety professionals to highlight and draw the distinction between real health and safety work and some of the other broader risk management drivers - including insurance and civil liability which may lie behind some of the measures. The motivation behind this is not simply to distance our real health and safety agenda from everything else. For anyone to take action depends on them understanding why it is important if they are to do it and do it properly. Conveniently lumping everything into the health and safety basket isn't very helpful when it comes to "explaining". And, in many cases some of the actions your organisation may need to take which seems "unreasonable" on health and safety grounds, may well be deemed to be reasonable and prudent when the real reason is explained.

And, if you can't give a good reason other than trot out out the 'elf and safety' mantra then perhaps you need to be questioning yourself on why something is being done.

I was told before this event that it would be like: "speaking to the converted". I hope having heard me speak you continue to agree with what our strategy is working to achieve. But what's more important, is that you now understand your role in making it succeed. And, that as a result of this, you ask yourself how you can apply your knowledge to make a difference. A tangible difference to improve health and safety in your workplace in the future. I do believe we have to look at our own behaviours as well as those of others if we are really going to make the next step in becoming truly excellent in health and safety in Great Britain.

Because, if we want Boards and line managers to lead on health and safety, your role is to help and support them in enabling them to do that. We want all managers and members of the workforce to understand their role in relation to health and safety and to be willing and able to play that role as an integral part of their job and in concert with everyone else.

Your role requires a huge amount of management skill and understanding of human behaviours. You have to be able to influence, to coach, to support and to direct people at all levels in the organisation - those who are much more senior to you as well as peers.

It will most often be the case that you do not have direct line management responsibility - even for those at a less senior level in the organisation. So your ability to influence and motivate people will depend on your powers of persuasion, your ability to make the case in language that resonates with the recipient - you have to be able to empathise and put yourself in the position of everyone else in the organisation to understand how to motivate them to play their part.

If the finance director is your point of focus, you have to be able to articulate the business case for health and safety. The financial, bottom line numbers, case will carry more weight than the emotional argument.

For the production manager your arguments need to focus on how health and safety measures will improve productivity and reliability as well as safety.

For the chap who works at a repetitive task which puts him at serious risk of some form of MSD, it may (well) be the inability to play football with his mates or his kids which grabs his attention.

Being expert, being knowledgeable, being competent in your chosen profession of health and safety is vital. Your organisation will look to you as the expert who will know what the law requires, what guidance says, what risk assessment needs to cover and so on.

Knowledge and expertise are important. But the application of that knowledge is a sensible and proportionate way is absolutely vital if we're to get others on our side. We have to show them that health and safety is about common sense, proportion and tackling real risks not trivia.

Our strategy calls for everyone to be part of the solution - your role is to help everyone else in the organisation you work in to recognise their role and play their part. Perhaps your own role has to change somewhat as well. Now, go back to your workplaces and make a real difference to the issues that really matter.

Thank you.

Updated 2010-06-28