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IOSH Annual Honorary Vice Presidents’ luncheon

Speech by Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair, House of Lords, 8 May 2008

Thank you for the invitation to be here at this IOSH Vice Presidents’ lunch today, also for your invitation to become an Honorary Vice President and for this opportunity to address you all on behalf of the guests.

I have now been Chair of HSE for just over 7 months and I thought I would reflect on one particular aspect of the Health and Safety agenda which should be of concern to everyone here today – the need to educate the broader community of stakeholders on what real health and safety is all about.

From the start of my appointment it was clear that there was a need to continue the good work started by my predecessor Sir Bill Callaghan on Sensible Risk, but the more I’ve engaged in this issue the more concerned I’ve become about the many different ways in which we need to tackle the irritation of ‘Elf n Safety’.

At one level, it would be easy to disregard much of the coverage of nonsense stories – conkers, of course, but to that list in the last 6 months alone we can add banning of pancake races and wet T-shirt competitions, Santa Claus and the seat belt in his sleigh and banning of plastic swords in a village pantomime. To all of us clearly this is nonsense and I know that no-one in this room gives any credence to these things really being driven by Health and Safety Regulation – so we could assume that common sense will lead most people to reach the same logical conclusion. But can we? I think not. And this is the key reason why I have chosen to adopt such a high profile in challenging much of this nonsense as has your President Ray Hurst.

One of the scariest programmes I have seen on TV for a very long time was a recent Channel 4 TV Programme entitled “Cotton Wool Kids”. I don’t know how many of you saw the programme but let me just give you a flavour. It included a 13 year old boy who is driven to and from school every day by his father and who is not allowed to play or socialise with his friends outside of school, a 9 year old girl who was being driven around town by her mother who pointed out all the ‘suspicious’ characters in the street (who were all actually pretty normal) as potential rapists, kidnappers and murderers, and a 3 year old girl who escorted the reporter around her garden identifying and articulating every minute hazard there as a real danger to be avoided at all cost.

Whilst all of this can seem a million miles away from our world of real health and safety and workplaces in particular – the underlying problems are ones which do affect us and the work we are trying to do.

In the last six months I’ve spoken on several occasions about the importance of educating children and young adults to be aware of risk and to learn how to deal with it – NOT avoid it. It is essential that field trips and adventure activities are made available to young people but we must also educate their parents about risk. Because they will be exposed to some risk in these activities and that is not a bad thing, - provided they’ve been taught to deal with it and that the really serious risks have been properly managed.

We must also appeal to teachers and encourage and support them to see risk education as an important part of their role in preparing the next generation for the realities of the adult world they are about to enter and how to view that with common sense and proportion. HSE and DCSF officials are currently identifying ways to provide more support to teachers on managing risk responsibly, but sensibly.

It is good that teaching about hazards, risks and risk control are part of the national curriculum, but classroom learning must be backed up by real experience.

I recently visited a Lifeskills centre in Bristol which receives 80,000 year 6 children every year for a fun-filled 2 hour session learning about risks – it was fantastic and the experience clearly made a very positive impact on the children – but I was also very concerned by the fact that what these children were experiencing in Avon and Somerset is not available comprehensively to all school children in GB and indeed the long term funding of that excellent facility in Bristol is uncertain.

If we don’t allow children to experience managed risk I have grave concerns about the future for workplace health and safety. If the next generation enter the workplace having been protected from all risk they will not be so much risk averse as completely risk naïve – creating an enormous task and dilemma for their employers – how to start that health and safety education process or to continue to try to protect them from all risk which is of course impractical and impossible.

This is why the joint work of IOSH, HSE and the BSC in designing and launching a basic hazard awareness course and qualification for 14 – 16 year olds has been such an important step.

But we still need to address the challenge of health and safety education and skills in every workplace. Health and Safety must not and cannot be the sole domain of the Health and Safety Manager. Every manager and every employee needs to understand their role and their responsibilities in relation to Health and Safety and to see that as a positive and enabling force – not an excuse to hide behind and stop the job.

The good news of course is that we are building on a very strong base here in GB; - a health and safety performance to be proud of, although there are still many challenges to address.

  1. There are many companies and organisations which have a strong health and safety culture and who epitomise that enabling process by also being very successful businesses.
  2. We also have a wealth of talent and expertise in the Health and Safety professions – in HSE, in IOSH and many other organisations.

But we all also have a duty to walk the talk when it comes to the common sense approach. Given the wealth of ‘evidence’ in the media of “health and safety gone mad”, we must all ensure that our professional advice and guidance doesn’t add to that burden of bureaucracy and red tape. We have to lead the way in demonstrating that proportionate common sense approach and I can promise you that this is one theme that will feature in HSE’s new strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain when we publish it later this year.

I have no doubt at all of the huge commitment of everyone here today to Health and Safety but we do need a combined strategic approach to re-position Health and Safety as a positive, common sense, enabling force for good. We need to address it with the media, in schools, in universities, in public places and in the workplace. But most of all we have to have a consistent and appropriate approach ourselves where we as professionals truly lead by example.

Updated 2009-01-06