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Universities and Colleges Employers Association: Launch of the Health and Safety Guidance for the placement of Higher Education Students, London

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 24 November 2009


I am very pleased to be able to speak at today's event and to lend my support to this guidance. I would like to thank all those involved for organising today's launch and thank those who have helped to develop the guidance -the guidance is proportionate and sensible in its approach, which complements the new Strategy for health and safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century.

In a society where risks to young people attract rather a lot of attention and interest, in some parts of the media, it is becoming increasingly important that students are offered opportunities to experience the real world of work. Clearly, life, including work and education, is full of risks that can't be eliminated. I have stated publicly on a number of occasions that the education system needs to highlight and embed a basic understanding of risk as a life skill so that young people joining the workforce are more risk aware. Learning about managing risks, including health and safety, will help develop our young people into well balanced and knowledgeable adults ready for the world of work. Whilst this needs to start in the school based environment, it is important for this to continue into higher education where placements may often be closely aligned to the type of work which students will eventually do on a full time basis.

I would like to take the opportunity to talk to you about the new Health and Safety Strategy for Great Britain launched by HSE in June this year and how your work, and the way in which you perform your role, fits into the effective working of the system as a whole. The progress we've already made in Great Britain in health and safety could not have been achieved without the commitment of the whole community of stakeholders. We want to improve further and as the new Strategy clearly states we need everyone to be part of the solution.

Every member of every workforce across the country, in whatever sector, has a fundamental right to work in an environment where health and safety risks are properly managed and controlled. This is not the same thing as working in an environment where all risk is eliminated. Risk is clearly always going to be part and parcel of people's lives -both within and outside of work -and learning to manage risk is the important thing.

As you may know, last month marked the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which still remains the basic legislation under which all Health and Safety regulation operates. The Act is just as relevant now as it was in 1974 -a truly remarkable feat considering the significant changes that have taken place in the workplaces across Great Britain. One reason for this resilience is the goal-setting approach - providing clear principles, not least of reasonable practicability.

The legislation is based on the principle that those who create the risk are best placed, and indeed required, to manage that risk. That still applies to all workplaces today. It's legislation that has proved to be effective -measured by a performance in health and safety in Great Britain, which is world class.

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"

As well as outlining what HSE is here to achieve, it also covers areas where others have responsibilities or are better placed to make a difference -this new guidance being launched today is a very good example of this happening in practice.

Context is very important, and we must start by recognising that our health and safety system in Great Britain is far from broken. Only recently, we have seen a drop in workplace fatalities, which last year fell to a record low of 180. There was a reduction from the previous year of more than 7,000 in the number of workplace injuries classified as serious or incurring more than three days absence from work.

In spite of these encouraging statistics for 2008-09, which represents continued world class performance, this is still not good enough. Workers killed in workplace incidents is only one measure of health and safety performance. Thousands more are injured or made ill, including over 100,000 employees suffering serious injuries and several thousands dying prematurely every year from work-related diseases -the annual number of work-related cancer deaths is estimated to be in excess of 6000 and around 4000 deaths occur each year due to past exposure to asbestos.

So we must maintain all that is good -and what works well -about our regulatory system, and at the same time we must also reset the direction and adapt, when necessary, to allow us to take account of change and the broader context. This allows everyone to play their part -they gain better understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

The role of HSE is to provide strategic direction, to lead the health and safety system as a whole. In addition to inspection, investigation and enforcement, we conduct research, propose new regulation where and when needed, alert dutyholders to new and emerging risks and provide information and advice.

Drivers for a new Strategy

The new Board of HSE decided in 2008 that it was time to reset the direction not just for HSE but also for the Health and Safety system as a whole. Recognising that we were building on an already strong system, we needed to adapt things to address and accommodate:

So, HSE drew up and launched a draft Strategy in December 2008, followed by extensive stakeholder consultation. We were greatly encouraged by the strong support we received for the Strategy. And I am delighted to say that our call for organisations to join us, and others, to become part of the solution has met with an amazing response -over 1000 organisations have signed up to a pledge to work with us. In addition to signing the pledge, several organisations have already produced work-plans describing what they will do to support delivery of the Strategy.

Your guidance is yet another good example of how organisations other than HSE can play a key role in delivery of the Strategy. I am not sure how many of you here today are familiar with the content of the strategy so I'd like to consider just a few of the goals.

The difficult economic climate at present is not an excuse for neglecting health and safety. In fact I would say that it's more important than ever to ensure good health and safety management -to reap the benefits and avoid the significant costs of disruption associated with poor health and safety performance. Good health and safety is always good business, including in the education system. We need to embed the basic understanding of risk as a life skill so that young people joining the workforce are risk aware. Those new to the workplace or particular industries, will encounter unfamiliar risks. Clearly student placements provide for many, their first real experience of workplace risks.

By ensuring that students are risk aware but understanding that this is different from risk aversion / avoidance, there is a real opportunity for them to contribute to organisations during their placements as well as learning from them. In challenging economic times, being able to offer value and not additional liability as part of placements will be important to those you partner with.

HSE is committed to working with all organisations who are trying to do the right thing on health and safety but it is important that HSE also enforces the rules and ensures justice where and when needed. Enforcement does several things -compelling dutyholders to take immediate action to deal with significant risk; promoting sustained compliance with the law; and holding people to account for their actions. This is about HSE taking the lead -ensuring that lessons are learned as well as holding people to account for their actions. It is a proportionate approach, not something to be feared by those who are doing their best to do the right thing.

Strong leadership, engagement and a common sense approach are key to effective health and safety -in any and every organisation. Leadership is fundamental because it sets the tone for whether health and safety happens -or not, and how it happens. The type of health and safety culture that exists in organisations will be decided by how leaders manage it. If they see that it makes good business sense this will lead to openness and involvement. Leaders will be seen to care about the people they employ and manage. But if, on the other hand leaders see health and safety as being all about bureaucracy, paperwork and procedures, this is likely to lead to health and safety being seen as a chore, a burden and therefore not properly and appropriately addressed.

The Strategy also recognises that building on people's knowledge and competence applies to everyone in the system. We need people who lead the organisation, who are confident and competent to exercise judgement and common sense. This is true of all organisations -they need good, reliable and fit for purpose advice and guidance from professionals. Competence has to be measured in a sensible and proportionate approach to tackling real risks with a minimum of paperwork - again a message that chimes with your new guidance.

We don't lead the world in health and safety performance by generating paperwork. We do it by managing risks sensibly and proportionately.

So, how does all of this apply to the Education sector? In 2008 the Universities Safety and Health Association and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association jointly published guidance on Leading Health and Safety -guidance which built on the HSE -Institute of Directors version. By coincidence last week I found myself acting as the external member of a very senior group at Oxford University reviewing their health and safety leadership against your guidance. This shows how working in partnership can be done and I applaud the two associations for this broader guidance on health and safety management in Universities and Colleges as well as the specific guidance you are launching today on placement of Higher Education Students.

I am very keen that you go home after this event thinking about how you can stimulate senior staff (across all professions) in higher education to provide stronger leadership on health and safety -be that through training, input to Faculty meetings and so on. It is important to understand that within health and safety legislation, organisations of all sizes must have the competence to meet their duty to control the risks posed by their work activities to employees and to students. Truly effective health and safety management requires competency across every facet of an organisation and through each level of the workforce.

What matters is that there is a proper focus on both the risks that occur most often and those with serious consequences. Competence is the ability for every director, manager and worker across the education sector, to recognise the risks and then apply the right measures to control and manage those risks.

As leaders in Universities and Colleges, it is doubly important that you set an example for others to follow. Your approach to managing health and safety is important for your own employees but also in the message it provides to your students.

The two major causes of ill health and injury for those working in the education sector are work-related stress and slips and trips.

In terms of work-related stress, increasing the understanding and knowledge of these concerns, continues to be one of a number of HSE measures taken to try to reduce stress. There has been a lot of activity since the Management Standards for work-related stress were introduced in 2004, and we're currently looking to evaluate this work -to find out what's effective in preventing stress-related ill health and how best to take this work forward. We're hoping to find good practice solutions from the higher and further education sector, and are working with stakeholders to find duty holders who have taken effective action and then publicise what they have done.

Slips and trips' injuries, which account for around 60% of serious injuries in the education sector -with many of these resulting in broken bones -cost this sector an estimated £48.6 million per year. Clearly, this is a major concern and HSE has recently concluded a second phase of its Shattered Lives campaign to highlight the issue. Shattered lives continues to draw attention to the impact of a slip, trip or fall at work and one of the key sectors for the most recent phase of the campaign was the Education sector. HSE also launched an e-Learning tool to support understanding of these issues amongst workers, STEP -the Slips and Trips e-Learning Package. This package provides a specific course designed for those working in the Education sector.

But your responsibilities do not stop there. Your students go on field trips, overseas placements, to other academic institutions, industrial placements and, indeed, they will encounter risk in your own institutions - especially if they are studying science or a vocational subject where they will carry out practical work.

So you set the tone and create first impressions for many on how to handle health and safety. You may also be the first to experience the consequences of a generation of young people who arrive with you having been brought up so far surrounded by cotton wool.

So in the worst case, you face the dilemma of dealing with risk naïve young people and having to educate them on what risk is all about. This isn't about risk elimination -it really is about common sense and proportion. I know that during the rest of the day you will hear much more from lawyers and insurers about issues associated with placements, but I would encourage you to focus throughout on doing what is reasonable and sensible.

I have 2 daughters in their 20s -both of whom are still students. One is a graduate marine biologist. When she did her dissertation as part of her degree course she chose a project which involved entirely literature based research, but nonetheless she was handed a 20-page risk assessment to complete. That's my case study contribution to this event to highlight what constitutes non-sensible, non-proportionate behaviour which sends out the wrong message to students.

So, all that remains is for me to reiterate my congratulations to you on your new guidance on student placements. Not just on producing it but on the approach, which is in line with HSE's new Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain. I encourage you to take this further -by becoming exemplars of a common sense and proportionate approach to health and safety with your own employees and setting the right example to the next generation of leaders who will emerge from your establishments.

Thank you.

Updated 2009-11-26