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Warminster School Speech – 29 April 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

First of all I would like to say a personal thank you to your Head master Mr Priestley for the invitation to visit Warminster School this evening. I am also delighted to see so many of you here in the audience – both students and parents. I don’t want to spend too much time speculating on what brought you here tonight but I suspect that at least some of you will have chosen to come to find out whether even half of those things you read in newspapers about health and safety is really true. I am acutely aware that “elf’n’safety”, and by association the Health and Safety Executive, is deemed to be responsible for much of the fun spoiling and risk aversion which seems to get so much press coverage these days.

As a result, one of my aims tonight is to draw a distinction between what I call real health and safety and all of the nonsense which you can read about any day of the week. Since becoming the Chair of the Health and Safety Executive some two and a half years ago I have spent a good deal of time addressing some of the myths about Health and Safety.

But before I get into that particular subject, I would like to start by taking you back in time. I will confess to not having been the most diligent student of history when I was at school – my passion was for maths and science, which was why I became a chemical engineer – but as I have become older and hopefully wiser, I have come to appreciate the importance of understanding the history of any topic before you can begin to make sense of what is happening today. In your history lessons I have no doubt that some of you will have learned about the Industrial revolution. You will have read about how almost an entire generation of people left their agricultural villages only for many to find themselves living and working in appalling conditions in the cotton mills, iron works, tanneries, mines and other workplaces associated with those times.

Although most of us associate the use of children as chimney sweeps with works of fiction such as Kingsley’s “The Water Babies”, the use of children to do such work was not fiction at all. Children were employed to sweep chimneys because they were small enough to squeeze their way through the soot and the filth cleaning the chimney as they climbed to the top. The same was true of cotton mills, where small hands were more effective at reaching into spinning and weaving machines as they were running to clear blockages.

Over time many of the worst practices were phased out, often as a result of the introduction of legislation. However, because of the different  ways in which industry sectors developed and evolved, legislation emerged at different rates and set different standards. There was the Factories Act (1833), Mines Act (1843), the Quarries Act (1895), and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises act (1963) and many more. By the 1960s the UK had a confusing array of workplace regulations which were often very detailed but each had their own inspectorates which set different standards in the sectors where regulation existed but left other sectors of the economy with little or no regulation or standards for health and safety.

But a major change to all of that occurred in the 1970s with the publication of the Robens report which resulted in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the establishment of the Health and Safety Executive.

More than 35 years after its introduction into law the health and Safety at Work Act has proven itself to be an outstanding and resilient example of good regulation. Despite the enormous changes which have taken place in Great Britain’s workplaces over that time, such as the shift from heavy industrial manufacturing to a much broader range of working activities and work patterns – like office-based working, the legislation covering workplace health and safety is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago. Why is that? It is because what the Robens report recommended and what actually happened in 1974 was the sweeping away of all the prescriptive – rules based - industry specific regulations, replacing them with a new regulatory regime based upon some very sound common sense principles.

The first and most important of those principles is that the person who is best placed to manage risk in any workplace is the person who creates that risk. In the vast majority of cases what this means in practice is that there is a duty placed on every employer to manage the risks associated with their business or undertaking. So whether you are the owner of a fish and chip shop or the head of a major construction company it is for you to identify the real risks involved in carrying out your business and  putting appropriate measures in place to reduce ( but not necessarily eliminate) the risks of harm being caused to your employees oor to members of the public who may be impacted by the work. But the law also says that every employee has a duty to act in a manner that does not put him or herself or fellow employees in danger – another very reasonable expectation simply that everyone should be behave sensibly and not recklessly whilst in their workplace.

The second important principle of workplace health and safety law which I have already hinted at in my example is the requirement to take reasonable and practical steps to manage and reduce risks, there is no requirement to eliminate all risk. This is a very important point and one that I will return to later.

But, in terms of health and safety and workplaces, what does this mean in Great Britain in the 21st century? Who are the Health and Safety Executive and what do we do? We are an organisation of some 3500 people and we regulate heath and safety in practically all workplaces throughout Great Britain. That means:

But as you can clearly see, the risks to health and safety in all of this very diverse range of workplaces are very different, which is another reason why it is important for every employer to understand and address the specific risks in their business or undertaking.

Being “the regulator” means that:

But note that at no point in all of this are we responsible for determining or prescribing the detail of how health and safety is managed in any workplace. The responsibility to manage the risk lies with the business or organisation and the people who work in it – especially those at the top who own and lead the organisation. Prosecution and enforcement is an important part of what we do but it is not our prime purpose – our mission is to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities. By definition we are therefore concerned with real risks that can cause death and serious injury. With 3500 people we do not have the resources to inspect the detail of the several million workplaces in Great Britain – and remember that’s not our job.  It is for those who create the risk to assess and manage it.

Over the last 35 years Great Britain’s approach to health and safety has been very successful. Our performance is as good as any other country in the world and better by far than most countries – and that is on all measures – fatalities, serious injuries and work related ill health. In the 1960s, up to 1,000 people died in workplaces accidents and incidents every year. Take a moment just to think about that attrition rate. That means 1000 families every year who simply saw someone go out to work one morning and who never came home again – ever.

However, last year we achieved the lowest number of workplace fatalities ever with 180. It’s strange but the media never seems to mention how good we are in the UK at anything – including health and safety.

Being good doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent though. In addition to that steadily decreasing number of people who die in workplace accidents every year, more than 100,000 people suffer serious injury: broken limbs and amputations, serious burns and every year up to 10,000 people die prematurely because of harm that has been done to their health which can be attributed to exposure to harmful substances at work. Did you know that the number of people in this country who die every year as a result of exposure to asbestos – a once ubiquitous natural fibre used in industrial contexts such as in car brake pads and building insulation – is still rising and accounts for more than 2000 deaths per year?

So this tells me that there is still a very important job to be done to improve health and safety in all workplaces in Great Britain – to advise and offer guidance to the many thousands, the vast majority of organisations out there who want to do the right thing and to be tough with those who continue to wilfully disregard their legal and moral duty not to put the lives of their employees and others at risk.

You may have noted that at no point in this talk so far have I mentioned that we ban people from doing things. Sometimes during a visit to a business a HSE inspector may observe something taking place which is so dangerous – for example, a common one is disc saws without any guarding to stop fingers, or even worse, getting near the blade – that he/she steps in and stops the activity immediately and requires it to be put right before work can restart – we call that a prohibition notice.

But I remind you that we regulate some very high hazard industries: nuclear, offshore oil and gas, major chemical manufacturing sites. And our role in all of these and everywhere else is to enable the business to go ahead and do what it is in business to do but to do it so that any of the things that can go wrong have been thought about and either put right or plans developed to deal with them if they do go wrong, so that  nobody is hurt.

So, given that this is what real health and safety is all about, where did it all go so very badly wrong? How did we get into this rather silly situation we find ourselves in today where you can pick up a newspaper every day and find some even more ridiculous examples of an activity being stopped because of health and safety. The  truth of the matter is that we don’t ban conkers or require kids to wear goggles to play, we haven’t banned the annual cheese rolling event in Gloucestershire, or pancake races, three legged races, throwing sweets in pantomimes or any one of dozens of other examples I could cite. There are so many examples that we have produced a calendar highlighting a few of the myths and putting the record straight – you can see some of these on the slides here.

I am not trying to pretend that these things are not happening – I know they are and that’s what – not just because of my job but as a citizen of this country – deeply concerns me. Firstly, because people are using “elf’n’ safety as a convenient excuse to hide behind. And secondly, it detracts from the truly important stuff that we really do.

In my opinion, there are a number of factors which drive the risk averse behaviour we all read about every day. They range from plain old laziness – people who simply can’t be bothered to do something and using “elf’n’safety” provides an easy excuse which others are less likely to challenge – merely sighing, raising their eyes to the heavens and asking: “what’s the country coming to?”. In other instances, perhaps the measures which need to be taken to plan an event are onerous and even costly. Or perhaps the insurance company who has been asked to insure the event stipulates that stringent measures need to be put in place – but this is about fear of civil litigation – fear of being sued for compensation – it is not real health and safety in the sense that I understand or mean it.

This is a culture that can feed on itself and grow. The press report an isolated example of some risk averse behaviour or a minor incident - especially one where high levels of compensation are being sought. Others will read the story, it becomes exaggerated as being widespread practice and everyone becomes a little bit more concerned about whether they may or may not be sued if they take action and things go wrong. Do you remember the stories in the paper earlier this year about whether or not we should sweep the snow away from our own driveways and the pavements outside our houses? The answer of course was that if you were fit and able i.e you can hold a shovel and a broom of course it made sense to sweep away the snow, to do your bit for your community. Nevertheless, the debate went on for days about whether you might be sued if someone tripped or slipped on the bit you’d missed!

There is also an issue here to do with personal responsibility and a growing propensity in society today to look for others to blame when anything does go wrong. We blame the weather forecasters when we forget to take our umbrella with us and get wet when it rains. We blame food companies and supermarkets for making us eat too much. So here is an interesting dilemma – parts of society expect others to look out for them and to take decisions on their behalf and then when they do and they impose restrictions on their freedom to do what they want to do, they get upset about it. And in the middle of all this “elf’n’safety” gets trotted out as the excuse!

I said at the start of this talk that I was very pleased to be here tonight. I believe education has a crucially important part to play in changing all of this risk averse behaviour and getting us back to a place where common sense prevails.

The fact of the matter is that life is full of risks – we cannot deny that or avoid them –  no matter how hard we try. And in any case, life would be pretty dull and boring if we did. Parents themselves – sorry, parents in the audience(!)-can be part of the problem if they are overprotective. You have all, I am sure, heard the phrase: “cotton wool kids” – those who have been brought up in such a protected environment where they don’t play outside, don’t play physical sports, are never allowed out on their own and so on. I know from personal experience that the decisions to let your children step out on their own into the big wide world can be tough – but its part of our job as parents to support them, advise them, but then let them go out there and experience things for themselves.

Schools and their teaching staff are also vitally important in ensuring that the formal education process also focuses on learning how to deal with risk not how to avoid it. The world’s greatest scientists didn’t become great by reading about science in a book or by being told how experiments work.– they became inspired and enthused because they carried out experiments for themselves. And, as I mentioned earlier, as a trained Chemical Engineer I know this for myself. Moreover, with some simple precautions put in place it’s relatively easy to do, just take a look at something I did recently.

School trips also provide some of the most important and memorable learning experiences we can ever have – field trips put the geography we learn in the classroom into context, foreign exchange visits are invaluable in building our language skills.

I know that here at Warminster you are very lucky. Mr Priestley and his staff are committed to practical experience and learning outside of the classroom – and I applaud them for that. There are no guarantees in life – no-one can ensure or promise you that any school trip will be absolutely safe – the only way to guarantee that is simply not to do it. But with common sense and good planning thousands of schools up and down this country run many thousands of successful field trips and activities every year and you are very fortunate to be at a school which is leading the way in some of this.

My own daughters went to school in Oxfordshire. They too were very fortunate in the school they attended. While they were there they went on  geography field trips, outdoor adventure activity weeks, foreign exchange visits and school ski trips and both of them did World Challenge expeditions – one went to Mexico and one to Tanzania. The school they went to would hold meetings with parents ahead of  major trips taking place where the school would explain how the excursion was being organised and setting out very clearly what was being done to manage risks associated with the trip. But the school was also very clear about what risks could not be eliminated and what  we needed to be prepared for. The bottom line was that the decision to go on the trip had to involve taking personal responsibility – for behaving sensibly and for being prepared to accept the risk involved. It was not unheard of for some to back out of trips but it was very rare.

After leaving school both of my daughters did gap years which involved backpacking around the world – on their own – and they are now both at University – one doing postgraduate studies in Australia. I admire their spirit of adventure coupled with their very sensible approach.

I believe that this is what education is all about. Preparing you to get the most out of life and living it to the full – and the only way that you can do that is to face up to risks and learn how to handle them. Never fall into the trap of believing you are fireproof and indestructible but don’t be afraid to get out there and enjoy life.

And finally, never let anyone tell you that you can’t do it “because of health and safety” without first asking: “why?” Because as you’ve heard from me. In most cases, the reality is: YES, YOU CAN!!!!!!

Updated 2010-07-05