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Speech for association of police health and safety advisers’ annual conference

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 26 September 2008

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today at the end of your conference. Since becoming Chair of the Health and Safety Commission (now the unified Health and Safety Executive) in October 2007 I have spoken to many different audiences – from business, education, service industries, health and safety professionals and so on. It is fitting that I should speak to you today following my address in July at the Police Federation for England and Wales.

Before I deliver my key messages in relation to your sector I want to say something about my own background. I want to do that because I think some of it is very relevant to what I will then go on to say about the challenges we face in addressing Health and Safety in the Police Service.

I am a chemical engineer by training and have spent more than 20 years actually working in industry running chemical plants. It was only 10 years ago that I moved away from the “front line” and became the Director General of the trade association for the UK chemical industry and then moved on into my current role in HSE after a spell in Brussels. Having spent all of my career to this point being closely associated with the chemical industry and actually several years with direct responsibility for running high hazard chemical plants, I think I have a pretty good grasp of the concept and the practicalities of risk management. I know from personal experience that health and safety does not have to get in the way of doing any job and that when work in any sector is done safely it is done efficiently and effectively. If I had £10 for every time someone has asked me “ What do you want  - production or safety?” I probably would not be standing here today – I could have retired a long time ago. But I have always given the same answer to the question – there is no compromise or trade off, the two go hand in hand and can be delivered in parallel.

I recognise that the hazards and risks associated with police work are very different from those of the chemical industry but the principles I have just described are just as relevant and applicable. The world of work which we in HSE regulate is very wide and varied. The risks associated with construction work and agriculture are very different from those associated with office work, but health and safety law and the sensible interpretation of how to make it work in practice applies in all workplaces. Just as it is sensible for working at height controls to feature heavily in some sectors and not others, where working at height is clearly not a risk, so we recognise that the approach to risk assessment and risk management in the Police Service needs to be different and more dynamic from the approach which works in other sectors dealing with different and less dynamic types of risk. The Health and Safety Executive fully recognises that, as part of normal work, police officers are faced with significant and serious dangers. The nature of police work is such that it is not always possible to control these dangers to the same extent as is expected in other sectors. That is precisely why it is important for the legal framework of the Health and Safety at Work Act to continue to apply to all police work to provide a sound, sensible and practical standard of health and safety for police officers.

All Police Forces can develop the capability and should manage health and safety in order to minimise risks to their own officers and employees and to others whilst also ensuring an effective and efficient delivery of service in protecting us all as members of the public. This is absolutely no different from the “production or safety?” debate I mentioned earlier – it simply isn’t a question of either/or but delivering both together.

In any sector, and the Police Service is no exception to this, there is a need for a sensible and proportionate approach to risk management, in short a balanced approach – this means ensuring that paperwork is proportionate, does not get in the way of doing the job and it certainly does not mean risk elimination at all costs. We are talking here about doing what is sensible, practicable and in this particular sector, what can be done in fast moving and changing situations, not about holding up the essential work that you do because of “elf ‘n’ safety”. Clearly, all of you as Health and Safety Advisers to Police Forces up and down the country have a key role to play in helping us to get this balance right.

The fact that police officers are expected to face significant dangers as part of their job (and are often rightly commended for their bravery in very difficult and dangerous situations) is something that we all fully recognise and need to take proper account of when applying the Health and Safety Act.  Equally, precisely because of these added risks the Police Service needs to be exemplary and certainly to be much more about consideration of what might happen well in advance so that sensible, speedy and well rehearsed actions can be initiated wherever this is possible.

In spite of numerous suggestions that there is a need to change Health and Safety law as it is applied to the Police and other emergency services, let me make it clear to you that the Health and Safety Executive does not consider that any such legislative changes are necessary. We do, however, see the need for the principles which should underpin this all important balancing of health and safety and operational duties to be clearly set out. We believe that this will help both the Police Service at all levels to understand what is required, it will help you in your role in providing advice and guidance to the Police Service and will also help our HSE inspectors to apply appropriate standards.

Many of you will be aware, I am sure, that earlier this year HSE initiated high level discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers and HMIC to begin to develop some key principles to apply to operational situations.  They need to reflect the value of police officers lives, the very different circumstances in which they have to operate and reasonable expectations of society. Further meetings have taken place and we are almost ready to share a draft statement of principles with key stakeholders.

I want you to be assured of two things. First, that we strongly support the need for health and safety law to continue to apply in all circumstances for people in the Police Service and secondly, that APHSA are an important stakeholder who we want to be involved in discussion of those principles.

I am very much aware that your conference here in Cardiff this week has focussed on manual handling and musculoskeletal disorders. Given that MSD injuries remain the most frequent causation for RIDDOR reports from the Police Service to HSE, it is right and proper that you should focus on this.

But again, I want to stress the importance of common sense, practical measures which can be taken to reduce levels of injury. HSE has been conducting its own review and will produce a summary report in October highlighting the key findings of HSE inspections in eight Police Forces during 2007/8. The report will be presented first to an ACPO planning meeting but will then be made more widely available and will provide an excellent background for further discussions between HSE and H&S professionals like yourselves on what those practical and proportionate approaches should be.

One of the saddest things about where we find ourselves in the 21st Century is that a lot of bureaucracy has proliferated in the name of Health and Safety or rather “Elf ’n’ Safety” because we do need to draw a clear distinction between that which is real Health and Safety – stopping people getting killed, injured or made ill by work - and much of the nonsense and jobs worths which shamelessly use health and safety as an excuse.  Although much of this is outside of police work, we have seen numerous claims that “elf ‘n’ safety” is getting in the way of valuable police work.

You know that the subject we all care about is not about banning conkers, Pancake races and the like. I hope you also share the view that Health and Safety does not stop anyone from doing their job – it actually enables them to do it more safely and efficiently. This ranges from finding better ways to help emergency services to perform risk assessments and anticipate problems before they find themselves in life/death situations so that they can quickly adopt the right measures, to enabling small firms to comply with legislative requirements in a simple proportionate manner.

It also seems that with the passage of time we’ve  become a bit confused about who is responsible for what in relation to health and safety. Just as there are some who would seek to disapply health and safety legislation in some sectors, there are others who continue to advocate the need for many, many more HSE inspectors as the ‘only way’ to improve health and safety. I bow to no-one in my admiration of HSE inspectors and the key role they play and we are indeed in the process of recruiting to ensure we re-establish the number of front-line inspectors at the planned levels for April 2008. But it is incorrect to see ever increasing numbers of inspectors as the solution. Both arguments are flawed because they are based on incorrect assumptions. The one we’ve already discussed which is that health and safety is burdensome and bureaucratic rather than practical and proportionate and secondly that we in HSE are responsible for managing health and safety in every workplace. Irrespective of the workplace, the responsibility for managing risk lies with the dutyholder not us.

This is not just a case of misplaced responsibility – it is a more fundamental question of motivation – no-one ever did or does health and safety (or anything else for that matter) because you’re told to or because you fear being caught out if you don’t. To do anything properly and well and embed it into the culture requires that you believe it is the right thing to do. The experts in health and safety then provide the framework for dutyholders to do the right thing in their organisation in a way that will work.

Over the last few months, the Board of HSE has been working on a new strategy for the 21st Century. Let’s just remind ourselves of the challenges we face overall in Great Britain.

Our current performance is on a plateau:

There is a great deal still to do. Much more than can be achieved by HSE alone – that is why our strategy for GB as a whole as well as describing our role within that.

Our next step is to launch the new strategy – for workplace health and safety in Great Britain and HSE’s role within it.

The timing of this activity works well for several reasons. It has provided an excellent focus for the new Board to adapt and consider its new role and where it wants to lead HSE over the next five years or so.

We have the benefit of considerable debate about Health and Safety which resulted from the GB Work and Pensions Select Committee enquiry. We have been able to review all of the evidence from a variety of stakeholders along with other pertinent work which has been done by the Better Regulation Executive, Dame Carol Black and others, and we have the opportunity presented by the Calman inquiry to consider how to tailor our activities to best suit the needs of Scotland, and other devolved administrations.

This has given us the unique opportunity for the Board to take the lead in setting out its thoughts on the strategy. Our strong relationship with Local Authority co-regulators has enabled us to involve LAs as true partners as part of the Project team. The first draft of our strategy has very recently been reviewed and endorsed by the HSE Board.

Our plan is to launch the strategy formally in early December and at that time we will initiate a consultation process which will enable stakeholders to comment. But we want stakeholders to do more than comment – we are particularly keen to engage in dialogue not only on what HSE can or should be doing but also to identify the key active roles which we need others to take to deliver the strategy.

We will emphasise the importance of leadership – from the top of every organisation. We will place leadership at the heart of what we see as the overriding strategic aim – the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activity.

There will be a strong focus on a proportionate approach – by dutyholders in being pragmatic and sensible in their approach to risk management, by health and safety professionals in giving competent advice which takes account of the need to encourage a common sense approach – competent professionals do not call for risk elimination.

We will make it clear that worker involvement and consultation is important in every organisation – where trades unions are present and where they are not and in all organisations irrespective of their size, dispersal of work locations, or nature of the work to be done.

Every organisation is different and the risk profile will vary from one organisation to another. To reduce the toll of work-related injury and ill health we need to improve our ability to focus on priorities – whether by industry, by sector, by region of GB, or by individual issue. We need every organisation to take ownership of the process to identify its own risk profile. That prioritising process must also recognise and distinguish health and safety and the different approaches which will be required to address the precursors of both.

The Police Service is a clear example of where this approach will bring benefit. Not only will we be able to consider the risk profile but also to agree what is a sensible and proportionate approach to addressing those risks.

In seeking to manage risks to police officers we need to put that in the context of the broader role of police work and the extent to which hazards can or cannot be foreseen or anticipated.

Equally we need to ensure that in our approach to enforcement and learning lessons from incidents where injuries have occurred that these should not be revisited with the benefit on hindsight. It must be the underlying organisational factors which led to those decisions which must be scrutinised.

It is key that we all understand and work in accordance with these principles in taking forward our work in the 21st Century. That applies to members of the Police Service, to HSE staff and to people like yourselves who play a key role in providing expert advice on health and safety to our Police Forces.

The best advice you can give is advice which is fit for purpose and enables our Police Service to do its vitally important work safely – a win-win-win for everyone.

I know that I now stand between you and the end of your conference and the start of the weekend. Let me leave you with a summary of what I hope we can achieve going forward:

Thank you for your attention. I am now happy to respond to any questions.

Updated 2009-04-06