This website uses non-intrusive cookies to improve your user experience. You can visit our cookie privacy page for more information.

Knowing the rules is one thing - making a real difference is something else

Speech by Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair to students at Leeds Met University

30 March 2009

Slide 1

I am very pleased to be here and to have the opportunity to talk to you all today. Tim has been instrumental in setting this session up so a particular thank you to him for the invitation. I am sure that there are some of you in the audience today who have heard me speak before because we are all part of a community of people who passionately believe in our shared mission – preventing death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work. [Slide 2]

This talk is about the difference between rules based execution of the task versus real leadership. It is also about the pivotal role you as H&S professionals can have in making real leadership happen. Some of you will have heard or read remarks I have made about the need for balance, common sense and a proportionate approach. It is also very probable that a number of you, most I hope, will be aware that HSE has produced a new strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century. It is my intention to talk about the strategy to you today and to talk about the need for common sense and a proportionate approach.  

Slide 3

But today I want to focus on these things in the context of your roles as health and safety experts or practitioners. I want to talk about real competence and confidence in use of judgment and delegation. Inevitably that means that I will also talk about the roles and responsibilities of others.

I will talk about how your work and the way in which you perform your role can help – or in some cases hinder – the effective working of the system as a whole. But I also want to stress from the outset that this is a talk about how we can work together to build on success. The progress we have already made in Great Britain in health and safety terms could not have been achieved without the commitment of the whole community of health and safety professionals. Just as we have made it clear that our new strategy is about evolution not revolution, so my talk to you today is about how we can become even more effective in what we all do and hopefully as part of that process to silence some of our critics and cynics who would see this as a gathering of the “Fun Police”, the “Health and Safety Taliban” or other equally derogatory names.

I will start by saying some more about the origins of some of these reputational/brand devaluation issues. I will cover some of the broader contextual issues including changes to the workplace and the economic uncertainties we face and what all of this means in terms of ensuring that H&S is repositioned as an enabler not an obstacle to work and business.
I will then go on to talk about the new strategy – its key messages, what we learned from the consultation and where we go from here. That will then take us into a more in depth consideration of respective roles and responsibilities, culminating in a discussion of the many facets of the role of the health and safety professional and how that needs to be adapted/refined to enhance delivery of the strategy and that all important overriding goal of preventing harm to people caused by work activities.

Let me also say upfront that I am more than happy to answer questions at the end of my presentation – be they questions on the content of the presentation itself or any other Health and Safety related matter even if it is not specifically covered by the presentation.

Slide 4

So let us start with reputation. We all know why we are here. We have chosen to work in the field of Health and Safety because our personal values tell us that work should not be a place or a process which causes harm to those who work in it or are affected by its activities. Every member of every workforce has a fundamental right to work in an environment where health and safety risks are properly controlled. But that is not the same as working in an environment where all risk is eliminated. Risk is a part of all of our lives all of the time – in and out of work – and learning to manage risk is what we are about, not eliminating it. We get that, but it seems that many others do not. We understand the principles of doing what is sensible and reasonable and then getting on with the job – we are enablers of the whole range of work activities including many which are high hazard – ranging from high hazard chemical processes through to those whose work is to protect the lives of other members of society in high hazard situations such as our emergency services.

So our focus is on identifying practical steps which can be taken to reduce (but not eliminate) the risks of people being killed, injured or made ill by those and other work activities and we know because we are all very familiar with the statistics the size of the challenge we continue to face.

Last year the number of workers killed in workplace incidents was 229. But this is only one measure of performance. A further 95 members of the public were killed by work related activities. Thousands of people die prematurely every year from work-related diseases – the annual number of work related cancer deaths is estimated to be in excess of 6000, around 4000 deaths occur each year due to past exposure to asbestos.

HSE’s statistics do not cover deaths which occur whilst driving on work related business but of the 2500 or more who die on our roads every year it has been estimated by others that as many as ⅓ of these are work related. Last year there were almost 28,000 major injuries reported and close to 110,000 cases where absences of 3 days or more resulted. 563,000 new cases of work related ill health were reported during 2007/8 contributing to the total of more than 2 million people who are suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their current or past work.

So given that this is what we care about and want to change – why is it that Health and Safety has become synonymous with a whole host of other things which bear little or no relation to the real Health and Safety agenda?

Some of you will be ‘dedicated’ H&S managers – by which I mean full time dealing with Health and Safety. But others here I am sure will have other responsibilities especially in smaller organisations. These may include other regulatory compliance issues for your organisation. You may also be directly involved in dealing with broader risk management issues beyond health and safety – environment, property damage, security. I know that this is almost certainly the case for those of you who are local authority inspectors where your remit and your inspection responsibilities extend beyond health and safety.

Those of you who do have this broader purview will perhaps have a greater insight into the lack of distinction/clarity in dutyholders and the broader public’s minds about these different areas of risk. [Slide 5] The fact is that for many of these stakeholders “elf n safety” has become a convenient basket into which they dump all risks. The potential for a civil claim arising out of a member of the public tripping over in the street or being hit on the nose by a sweet at a pantomime all fall into the category of “elf n safety”. Couple the bunching of a whole range of different type and size of hazards with a much greater tendency for people to look to blame others when problems occur and it is not difficult to see why there is a good deal of confusion. Employers’ liability insurers underwrite risks of harm to employees – it is often the risk of civil litigation which will drive their requirements for documentation, mitigation measures and so on, not compliance with health and safety law.

Employers, for entirely understandable reasons, integrate a whole range of requirements into 1 set of procedures and management systems – all communicated to employees as “Health and Safety”.

The problem, as we know, with this approach is that the media in particular pick up on the trivial and often isolated examples – one instance becomes a widespread ban on something and headlines about elf n safety gone mad abound.

Changing the growing blame culture in society, curbing the distorting effect of media stories is well beyond the remit of us as health and safety professionals. But it is well within our remit to do much more to explain and highlight the difference between our very important real health and safety work and much of this other activity – some of which is driven by other real factors and some of which is just plain nonsense.

Slide 6

But I am sure that we can also do more to ensure that the way in which we approach our own agenda is consistent with that common sense proportionate approach to risk management. Drawing a distinction between real health and safety and the other stuff is not enough unless we can also show a consistent and proportionate approach to our work. If we tie up the organisations we work with or are employed by in bureaucratic systems which slow people down unnecessarily and which get in the way or are ignored we are not performing that key role as enablers and ensuring that dutyholders are motivated to do the right thing because it makes sense.

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. 

But this does indeed mean that you as professionals providing advice and guidance to that ever expanding and changing array of organisations have to think hard about how to apply that goal setting regulation to new risks, new businesses, new situations.
All of this has been relevant to our mission and to regaining the value of the Health and Safety brand for some time but it becomes even more important as we face what is already a difficult and worsening economic climate. As businesses fight for survival it is essential that we are able to position our work on the right side of the line. Doing health and safety has to be part of helping a business to reduce cost, increase efficiency, motivating employees. In those businesses and organisations where H&S is perceived as a cost, and as a burden and as calling for ‘unnecessary’ activity, it will not be a priority, performance will suffer, nonsense health and safety stories will proliferate and, worst of all, health and safety performance is likely to worsen not improve.

The economic downturn cannot be an excuse for not doing health and safety but it is a great opportunity to reinvigorate a common sense, proportionate approach which will help business to succeed in a variety of ways.

Slide 7

The new Board of HSE embarked upon the development of the new strategy almost exactly a year ago. We decided that the governance change and the merger of the Commission and Executive were not newsworthy in themselves but that the change provided a very timely opportunity to reset the direction not just for HSE but for the H&S system as a whole. We looked carefully at all of those things which were changing around us – more small businesses, less unionised workforces, but more diverse workforces and working patterns, different types of businesses with new risks as well as the continuation of existing sectors with well known risks but a continuing challenge to improve performance.

It was also clear to us that there was confusion about roles and responsibilities. Not just in terms of assuming regulation was in place to stop things as I’ve already mentioned but also in terms of understanding who is responsible for doing what. In my first few months as Chair of HSC, I encountered on numerous occasions the assumption that it was HSE’s job to manage workplace Health and Safety.

I was delighted that when we embarked upon the development of the new strategy we had full involvement of Local Authorities from the outset. This is a true mark of significant progress in partnership that we have made in recent years.

Our strategy development work was completed and the new strategy launched for consultation in December. We have been enormously encouraged by the level of interest it has generated, by the number of people who engaged with us in the consultation process and by the very positive and supportive responses we have received.

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the content of the strategy but let us just quickly consider the key points – the mission and each of the goals.

Our mission statement is important – not only because of what it says we are all here to do but also in drawing some of those important boundaries around areas where we do not see ourselves either taking the lead or, in some cases, having any involvement at all.

Our mission is the prevention of death, injury and ill health. Everything we all do is aimed at avoiding harm while enabling work activity to proceed. It is part of our mission to prevent harm to people at work and to those affected by work activities – members of the public who live around businesses or who receive services from businesses where these have the potential to harm them.

Slide 8

But our focus is on work activity not public safety in the much broader and general context. Neither are we in HSE best placed to manage and monitor sickness absence and return to work programmes. That is not to say that it is not important to manage rehabilitation – indeed it may be a facet of some of your own roles but it is not part of the Health and Safety system which HSE and LA regulators lead.

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.

Our first goal in the strategy therefore 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.

Part of preventing death, injury and ill health is about providing an effective deterrent for those who put others at risk or deliberately flout the law.

Our approach to enforcement has three key objectives – compelling dutyholders to take immediate action to deal with risk, promoting sustained compliance with the law and holding people to account for their actions.

Our second and third goals are linked.  We want to encourage strong leadership based on a common sense, proportionate approach.

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.

Linked to that, we also want to help managers to distinguish between what are real health and safety issues and what is unimportant or trivial.

Slide 9

Our next goal is 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.

I will return to the subject of competence later.

There is a wealth of evidence that involvement of the workforce goes hand in hand with good safety performance and yet we know that there are many organisations where it still doesn’t happen.  Our next goal is to reinforce the promotion of worker involvement and consultation in workplaces of all sizes and irrespective of whether they are unionised or non-unionised.

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.

Slide 10

We also know that it is important that we set priorities and address those issues which are most important and using the right resources and approaches.

Whilst there are some similarities in dealing with workplace health issues and safety issues there are also some important differences.  Our goals in creating better workplaces for everyone therefore are:

We also have to ensure that our resources and our approaches are appropriate to the organisations we work with.

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.

Slide 11

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.

Finally, we need also to strive to achieve balance in managing the interfaces between health and safety and other regulation. Taking account of these wider issues is the final goal of our strategy.

Slide 12

During January we held a series of workshops throughout the UK and the response from stakeholders was extremely positive. More than 700 people attended our workshops and we have received more than 200 written responses to the consultation. What is even more important the responses have been supportive – welcoming the clarity of what we are going to do and not do, offering suggestions for areas where others can work with HSE and LAs in partnership on delivery.

We are now planning the launch of the final version of the strategy for late May/early June and we are also working hard on formulating HSE’s own delivery plans as part of our business planning cycle. One of the areas where you can expect to see some early activity within HSE is on developing new approaches to H&S training for managers and employees which will build on the very good knowledge based training programmes which are already in place. It has become clear to us that in order to promote greater levels of workforce involvement throughout a diverse range of organisations we need to encourage joint training of managers and workforce together and that the training needs to build confidence and competence in identifying joint solutions which are pragmatic and reasonable as well as safe. This will require the development of softer skills including leadership, exercising judgment and improving teamwork and communication.

If we are to re-establish HSE’s role where it should be in leading the strategic direction of the overall system and using the full range of interventions to ensure the prevention of death, injury and ill health, it is essential that we ensure that all dutyholders are better equipped with the skills they need to perform their role in managing the risks they and their organisations/businesses create. We must ensure that employees are properly trained to understand their personal health and safety responsibilities for themselves and for others as well as ensuring that they know how to raise concerns through an effective safety representative/workforce involvement system.

Slide 13

The strategy and all of this realignment of roles and responsibilities has important implications for health and safety managers in organisations and for those of you who inspect and advise organisations whether that is as third party consultants or as LA regulators. Let me remind you here of my earlier comment. I am talking about building on success, a process of evolution not revolution, to make what we do even more effective than it is today. Our existing system is far from being ‘broke’.

If we want Boards and line managers to lead on health and safety, your role is to help them to do that – not to do it for them. I can see a strong case for moving away from the title of “Health and Safety Manager”, because ultimately we want all managers to manage health and safety as an integral part of their job. If your current title is Health and Safety manager then I would prefer it to become “Health and Safety Advisor”, “Health and Safety Champion” or “Health and Safety Facilitator” because all of these titles more accurately describe the role you should be playing within your organisation. All too often Boards appoint a manager and, if they are following HSE guidance, a Board director to “champion” health and safety. But if having done so, the rest of the Board then abrogate their own responsibilities. This is not what we need. Pushing for real, visible leadership and ownership from the Board and senior managers in your organisation is as much a part of your role as carrying out safety audits and providing the Board with assurance that you have it all taken care of.

It is inevitable that people in your organisations will continue to look to you as experts who know what the law requires, what the guidance says, what a risk assessment needs to cover and so on – so they should. You are the experts, you have worked hard to gain that knowledge and expertise and you make an important contribution to your organisation. But your key role is to advise others on how they should integrate health and safety into their functions and responsibilities.

A fundamental requirement of your role is to be able to apply your hard earned knowledge in a way that is proportionate and useful to others. Your competence has to include being able to identify which risks are most important in any given organisation and focusing on them. There will be some areas of what you know which will be inapplicable or irrelevant to some of the organisations you work with. Knowing when to say things are not important or low priority is also important to help organisations focus on the real priorities and take appropriate action which will have a real and positive effect – on health and safety and for the business.

If you are charged with being the producer or custodian of H&S management systems and procedures it is important that the system you put in place is fit for purpose – that means that it must fit the culture and nature of the work of the organisation. Shelves full of procedures in folders are highly unlikely to make a difference on a farm or in the office of a small factory. The purpose of the procedures is to ensure that the job is done properly but that means that the procedure must reflect reality, it must be practical and it must be written in language that will be meaningful to the person who is intended to use it. Health and Safety systems should be designed with the priority aim of providing the workforce with something useful and practical not as a means to assure or impress the management, the regulator or the insurer that everything has been covered and in compliance.

Slide 14

When we talk in our strategy about the importance of competence this is what we mean. Competence is not simply about knowing your stuff, although clearly that is important in the base case. But there is a world of difference between a qualified person and a competent person, and the real difference is about the ability to apply that hard-earned knowledge in a way that is proportionate, meaningful and useful to the intended audience.

I am aware that there may be significant pressures to produce more than just what is ‘good enough’ but now more than ever is the time to take this approach. Because:

I can even make a case for consultants to organisations adopting this approach even if in the short term it means less income because the package you provide is less lucrative. Earning a reputation in the market place as a no nonsense, common sense provider will result in repeat business and positive recommendations to other potential clients. In the current economic climate more than for very many years, money is tight and businesses will seek out real value – there is a real market opportunity here.

There is, of course, a risk that in taking this proportionate and pragmatic approach, the business will miss a small or low probability risk and will then seek redress. But here lies the real test not only of your competence but of your confidence and integrity. The business we are all in is doing what is reasonable and what is practical to reduce risk, not eliminate it altogether. If our own behaviour and advice is too risk averse we will not set the example to others who need to take the lead. And it is over the top, risk averse, bureaucratic advice which gets ignored or to which people at best pay lip service rather than taking action which ultimately results in people getting hurt or harmed just as if nothing were done.

Knowing the rules and requirements is essential. Knowing how to apply that knowledge in practice in a way which motivates others is what really saves lives – and that’s the difference we’re all trying to make!

You may not agree with my views and if not I am sure you will tell me, but I came here to interest you, to engage you and to stimulate debate. Be in no doubt that I attach great importance and value to the work you all do. I want to explore how we get even better and how you can play an even greater role in being part of the solution.

Slide 15

Thank you.

Updated 2009-01-06