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Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair - Panel contribution at the House magazine, Westminster briefing event

Past the performance plateau: A new strategy for health and safety

28 April 09

I am sure you will all be aware that HSE launched the draft strategy for consultation on 3 December in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

There can be very little doubt that everyone involved in Health and Safety and indeed everyone in every workplace shares the same mission – every one of us in this room wants to play their part in preventing death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities.

Over the last 30 years we have made tremendous progress in improving Great Britain’s Health and Safety performance. The legislative framework has proven itself to be both adaptable and resilient. Our performance improvement to date is something we can all take great pride in but certainly not be complacent about.

Certainly not grounds for complacency.

When we became the new Board of HSE in April last year, we decided to take the lead in developing a new strategy.  We were able to build on the many strengths of what we already have but also take stock of what has changed and what is likely to change.

I won’t list all of those changes today but just 1 or 2 examples. We know that in the past effective workforce involvement, particularly where it has involved unionised safety representatives, has delivered generally better safety performance.  But today, many more workplaces have non-unionised structures or a mix of unionised and non-unionised workforces – our task is to find new and effective ways to engage current and future workforces.

The primary responsibility for managing risk rests with those who create the risk in the first place – that means employers, self employed and manufacturers or suppliers of articles or substances for use at work. We decided it was time to remind people of that and be much clearer about respective roles and responsibilities.
The role of HSE and our Local Authority partners is to provide strategic direction and 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.

So what does our new strategy say? Our first goal is to continue our commitment to investigation of work related incidents and ill health and to take enforcement action to secure justice.

We know that this activity will continue to take up considerable resources within HSE and local authorities – but it is an important part of our role.  Investigation, and ultimately prosecution, not only secures justice but is also vital if we are to learn from events and share the knowledge to prevent recurrence in similar circumstances.

We make no apology for taking a strong stance on enforcement but this has to be balanced with the considerable time and resource we also devote to advice and guidance.

The second and third goals of the strategy are linked.  We want to encourage strong leadership based on a common sense, proportionate approach and we want to help managers to distinguish between what are real health and safety issues and what is unimportant or trivial.

Leadership means accountability and visible ownership.  Real health and safety leaders win hearts and minds of all their colleagues – directors, managers, workers and contractors.  They shape the organisations’ ethos on health and safety – including on what it is and what it isn’t.

We also want to increase competence in health and safety to enable greater ownership, confidence and promotion of sensible and proportionate risk management.

Competence has to be properly defined – it is simply not enough to be an expert and “know your stuff”.  Competence is about the ability to apply one’s knowledge sensibly, proportionately and appropriately – that means profiling and prioritising risks and then recommending the right set of measures to control and manage those risks effectively. 

We have also made promotion of workforce involvement a key element of our strategy.

We believe we need to encourage a partnership approach based on trust, respect and cooperation.  An important step in achieving this will be the promotion of joint training for safety reps and managers to build shared perspectives on health and safety.

Our goals in creating better workplaces for everyone are:

Small businesses are an important part of our economy and it would be incorrect to assume that all small businesses are automatically low risk.  Just as with larger organisations the level of risk is determined by the nature of the activities and how well those activities are managed.

It is important that we find new ways to help SMEs to understand and meet their obligations in a proportionate way – and we will commit time and effort to adapt and customise our approaches to help SMEs achieve compliance.

At the other end of the scale, we have a significant number of highly specialised industry sectors which do have the potential to cause significant levels of harm to their workers and to the public at large.

We will continue to work hard and maintain a strong focus on reducing the likelihood of low frequency, high impact catastrophic incidents whilst recognising the strategic economic and social importance of their continued activities.

Our consultation period is now complete and it has been a very positive experience. Over 700 people attended our consultation workshops up and down the country and we received over 200 written responses. We have been greatly encouraged by the level of support we have received for the strategy. We are now making minor adjustments to the strategy and will launch the final version on 3 June here in London.

What we’ve done so far has been the easy part – writing and agreeing the strategy. The real challenge lies ahead – in delivery. And it’s not just a challenge for HSE – it is one we all have to play a part in – that’s why we put so much emphasis upfront reminding people of all of our respective roles and responsibilities.

Last week I was delighted to attend the launch at City Hall of the IOSH booklet aimed at helping elected local government members to understand the important and multifaceted role they can and should play in leading health and safety in local government.

This really is a shared agenda – it’s not about what HSE needs to do more of or do differently – it’s about all of us doing our bit. I am very firmly of the view that leadership is about what we do, not what we say. If we in the public sector at national and local government don’t lead by example of what we do, we are not well placed to lead – or advise – others on what they should do!

Updated 2009-01-06