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Opening remarks at HSE’s Major Hazards Conference

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, 29 April 2008 at the Qeii Centre, London

A warm welcome to everyone to a unique event convened by HSE as the regulator of most of the industries present here today and involving all major hazards and key stakeholders with the purpose of sharing good practice and learning across the whole major hazard sector.

Before I introduce the day, there are a few domestics that I need to explain together with details of what is being recorded for posterity [detailed domestic arrangements omitted].

OK ….Domestics over, I’ll return to my introduction, and will start by reflecting that in my many years of working in industry and now seeing industry through a different lens I believe there are a number of key lessons to be learned:

  1. Safety and especially process safety is something you can never “fix” completely and walk away from declaring “job done”
  2. Process automation and management systems whilst having brought serious benefits to industry can also create a false sense of security – at all levels. People at the sharp end running the plants can come to believe everything is being controlled – the process is steady, incidents don’t happen and for much of the time that may be true. However, when unusual signals come in (alarms for example) how well are they responded to? How well are people trained to deal with increasingly rare excursions from the norm? and do they know how to analyse what might be wrong? When was the last time any one shift had to handle an unusual situation? Did they pass on any learning to others? Does the culture of the organisation encourage such learning?

Higher up the tree measures of performance can also create a false sense of security – right up to Board level. An absence of incidents and injuries is of course good news – no-one can deny that. But is it really enough to give assurance of what may or may not be about to happen?

  1. The challenges you all face in managing major hazard facilities are neither new nor unique. Many of the failures which have led to serious incidents in all of your sectors are repeats of similar failures in other incidents in the past – they may be down to lack of inspection or maintenance, failure of an alarm or trip system, undetected faults or leaks. The similarities between some recent events and events of 10, 20 or 30 years ago point to a problem of loss of corporate memory. This is different from a false sense of security in that the lessons of the past may either have been forgotten because the people involved have moved and the lessons were not recorded and embedded in improvements, or maybe the lessons were never learned at the time and are not therefore known by some of the people now in positions of leadership.

I am also struck by the similarity of the challenges faced by you all in your different sectors – increasingly ageing facilities some well beyond originally expected operating life; skills shortages in key trades and professions; cost and production pressures; balancing varied and often conflicting priorities, massive change of ownership – the list is a long one. But the key point for me in all of this is that in each of your sectors there is a tendency for you to view your problems as unique or special to you, and also to not look enough at others’ experiences as learning points for you.

Given the ability to see this from a different perspective, where I have had the privilege of visiting many of you and discussing those challenges with you individually I’d just like to make the observation that you are much more alike and have much more in common than you realise.

It is common for leaders to think they need to have all the answers or at least to find their own solutions but I think we are here today to explore a very different type of leadership – one where we share knowledge - not only our solutions but also our problems and the challenges we are facing. I am very confident of two things:

  1. someone else in this room will be struggling with a similar challenge
  2. someone else in this room has probably already struggled with a similar problem and found a solution which they are willing to share with you.

Back in February I chaired a smaller but similar conference to this for UKPIA during International Petroleum week. There were a number of non-UK delegates at that conference and I was surprised at the number of them who remarked to me that such an open dialogue between companies, regulators and stakeholders could never happen in many if not most other parts of the world. We all have a unique opportunity here today to do that and one which we must all make the most of.

Not only can we share experience which will make all of the businesses here today safer but we can also help to make them all more competitive. Others would find it difficult to emulate such a process. That provides a huge incentive for real leadership which is our quest here today. Let’s all make the most of this truly unique opportunity we have in front of us by committing to open and honest dialogue, real and lasting cross-sector networking, and a willingness to share, learn and to embed improvements.

I would now like to hand over to our first speaker - my colleague and Chief Executive of HSE – Geoffrey Podger.

Updated 2012-12-28