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Health and safety in the 21st century - balancing act

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, IOSH Yorkshire 27 November 2008

First of all, let me say that I am very pleased to have been invited to Pontefract to speak to you today. I have chosen to give my address on the subject of Health and Safety in the 21st Century. I was appointed Chair of the Health and Safety Commission just over a year ago - on 1st October 2007. Since then the Health and Safety Executive and the Commission have merged to become the new Health and Safety Executive with a unitary Board of non-Executives which I chair.

This important and modernising change to the Governance structure of HSE typifies the challenge and the balancing act we must undertake in Health and Safety in the 21st Century - we must hold on to those things which are good, effective and still relevant whilst, at the same time, adapting and changing as the world in which we operate changes and calls upon us to address new risks.  Even in the course of this first year as Chair I have been very conscious of the massive upheaval which has happened in the financial world which has impacted on all of our lives in many different ways. 

But in health and safety terms I'm conscious that there may be some of you in the audience today who cannot remember life before the Health and Safety at Work etc Act. In fact some of you may not even have been around in 1974! So I thought I would start by quickly reflecting back on what the world of work was like back then.

And so it was the case that with remarkable year on year consistency Great Britain's Health and Safety Performance had plateaued at a point where ~1000 people were being killed at work every year.

So at the point where we reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our health and safety system and its suitability for the 21st Century it's important to recognise the huge turning point which occurred in 1974 with the Robens Report which resulted in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act and the establishment of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive.

Compared to many other pieces of legislation which have been enacted before and since HSWA, the Act is quite remarkable in its resilience.

The key principles of the Act required that we all:

and replace that with a broader and more generic goal setting approach based on the overriding principle that "Those who create the risk are best placed to manage it".

If I have any quibble at all with the Robens approach it is that not only are those who create the risk "best placed" to manage it, they also have a moral as well as a legal duty to manage the risks that they create. That embellishment aside, the approach that was taken in 1974, the Act which enshrined those principles in law and first brought us a proportionate, targeted, risk-based approach built on consultation and engagement is as relevant today as it was more than 30 years ago.

And the evidence is there for us all to see that this approach has worked. Since the introduction of the Act, safety performance has improved by more than 70%. It is hardly a cause for celebration that > 200 people continue to die at work every year but we should also remember

The fact that our performance has plateaued again, albeit at a much lower level than before tells us something - but it certainly doesn't tell us that we have to change a fine piece of legislation which has served us well and delivered such a huge benefit, measured in lives saved and injuries and illnesses avoided, for more than 30 years. 

What we in the HSE Board believe it tells us is that we need to look at what has changed and then make necessary adjustments to our strategy to deal with those changes.

The world of work has changed - in many cases almost beyond recognition.  Not just in people shifting from one type of job to another.  Many of the business and work activities which existed in the 1970s continue to operate and, indeed, thrive today. We still have Agriculture, Construction, Extractive Industries and my own personal background industry - chemicals. Many of the risks in these industries remain the same as they were back then but equally many things have changed - greater automation, new processes and technologies, more diverse workforces and working practices, changes of ownership, changes in business profile from region to region, changed governance and operating structures.

And then we move on to the emerging and growing sectors which bring with them new risks to be managed and new challenges.  So what we actually have today is a much broader range of organisations with a wider variety of risks to be managed.  The strength of the 1974 Act is that by setting down non specific, generic but time honoured principles, we can apply those principles today to many more SMEs, to nanotechnology, to a rapidly expanding waste and recycling industry and so on.

We must also recognise that public expectation and societal values have changed. There is a much stronger tendency for people to look to others to blame and to call for "something to be done" whenever there is an accident or an incident.  There is a greater level of concern about the possibility of civil litigation and claims for damages. "Where there's blame, there's a claim" is a reality of the 21st Century and increased bureaucracy is often the response to 'something must be done'.

One of the saddest things about where we find ourselves in the 21st Century is that much of that 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.

You know that the subject we all care about is not about banning conkers. You may all be familiar with the fuss over the Ripon Cathedral pancake race - not far up the road from where we are today and how the story was gleefully seized on by the press.  I hope you know that was not real Health and Safety because we are not in the business of stopping things but actually enabling them to be done 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.

We have to regain the real Health and Safety brand - and that will not happen if we wait for the media to correct this ridiculous barrage of myths which proliferate - we have to replace the nonsense with the real story.

It seems that with the passage of time we've also become a bit confused about who is responsible for what in relation to health and safety. There's a significant body of opinion which continues 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. Should we have one in every workplace?? The logic is flawed because it is based on the incorrect notion that we in HSE are responsible for managing health and safety in your workplace. We are not - you and your colleagues are.

This is not just a case of misplaced responsibility - it is more fundamental question of motivation - no-one ever did or does health and safety (or anything else for that matter) just 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 you to do the right thing in your business or organisation in a way that you know will work because you have thought about it and are committed to it.

I am constantly amazed by the number of organisations who still seem to see some trade off/deal to be done on health and safety. It usually takes the form of "If we in Organisation X make a voluntary commitment to Y Health and Safety initiative what will you in HSE give us in return?". The rewards for doing health and safety properly will come from your own organisation - less accidents, greater staff motivation and better business performance - not from the regulator. That's what I mean about clarity of roles and responsibilities.

So, as we embark upon our new strategy for the 21st Century let's just remind ourselves of the challenges we face.

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 is for GB as a whole as well as describing our role within that.

But before we get into the strategy lets look beyond the headlines and drill down into some of the patterns behind them:

So we began the process of modernisation for the 21st Century with new governance arrangements and, as you have heard already today in my presentation, we have been taking stock and revisiting the principles of the Robens report and have found them fit for purpose and still relevant.

Our next step is to launch the new strategy on 3rd December 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 now are in a better position to tailor our activities to best suit the needs of the various regions and the UK as a whole.

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.

Next week we will initiate a consultation process which will enable stakeholders to comment. But we will be inviting 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.

Given that the strategy document has already gone to the printers, I can tell you that many of the topics I have talked about today will be addressed. The strategy will not be revolutionary but it will set out to optimise the performance of the overall health and safety system. It will clarify the roles of the regulated, the regulator, the workforce and the many others who are part of the system.

We will emphasise the importance of leadership - from the top of every organisation starting with the Boards and individual directors. 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 or dispersal of work locations.

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.

One obvious example of risk profiling is in the case of industries which have the potential to cause significant harm including to the public via low frequency but high impact incidents. These industry sectors make a major contribution to GB plc and we will work with them on how to put programmes in place that manage their particular risks effectively and also the business activities to continue to succeed.

The chemical industries across the region and along the Humber Bank specifically, will be particularly interested in how we further develop the COMAH regime, for instance.

We will also continue to put effort into those sectors which continue to carry a high risk and higher actual occurrence of serious injuries and fatalities. Because they carry well known risks cannot be an excuse for continued performance which is out of line with what other sectors manage to achieve. We may well need to pilot new ways of addressing these persistent areas of concern.

My fellow Board member, Judith Donovan, from here in Yorkshire has been spearheading our pilot work in Agriculture which is also being launched next week.

In addition to addressing this persistent but current problem we need to pay attention to prevention in future generations. Programmes like IOSH's "wise up 2 work" tool play an important part in raising risk awareness in young people whilst they are still in school and before they enter the world of work.

Small businesses will continue to be a major component of the British economy. We will work with the SME community to help them understand how to comply with health and safety law in a way which is proportionate to the risks of their business and which gives those businesses greater confidence to take decisions for themselves within a goal setting framework.

HSE and its partners in Local Authorities will focus on key activities to ensure that dutyholders manage their workplaces to assure health and safety of the workforce and the public where they are affected by work. Those activities will include

We will also clarify the role of Health and Safety in delivering the broader Government agenda, other regulation, Health Work and Wellbeing, Better Regulation and education of future generations in understanding risk.

The challenge of course will be to maintain focus on improving health and safety performance but balance that with taking into account wider issues which impact on health and safety where it is sensible to do so, including recognising the new and very real pressures created by the economic downturn.  The link between good health and safety and good business has never been more pertinent.

As I have said, setting the strategic aims is a vital part of putting a strategy together but it is only part. Those aims will only become real when we have completed the next part of the process - defining how we deliver. That's what we will be working on during the consultation process and beyond.

But in the meantime let me leave you with a vision of what I hope we can achieve:

Ladies and Gentlemen - Thank you for listening. I have tried to give you an overview of the challenges I believe we face in Health and Safety in the 21st Century and to highlight the areas where we need to look specifically at what this means in your region. Thank you again for the invitation to speak to you. I am happy to respond to questions.

Updated 2009-01-06