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

Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) - Aberdeen - 19 January 2017

Martin Temple CBE, HSE Chair

Good evening and thank you for inviting me to speak today – improving health and safety in the workplace, while supporting businesses to flourish is something I am passionate about.

To borrow – no, to endorse - the message in SCDI’s blueprint for growth and prosperity: an agile economy needs agile regulators.  At HSE we like to think that’s what we are, and certainly it’s our ambition.  But we want to engage with you to ensure that it’s a reality and remains that way.  

In fact, it’s what makes me tick, and why I took on the role of Chair of the Health and Safety Executive in May last year. Health and safety has threaded throughout my career in business and in life.

Picture a Yorkshire farm in the 1950s.  That’s where I grew up. I can still recall it vividly. And as I’m sure you can appreciate, it wasn’t simply a bucolic scene of rolling pastures. Farms are businesses, and in those early years I learnt several things. Perhaps the first was reliability (something I value highly in business). Animals need to be fed, cows milked, crops to be sown and harvested.

But there was another lasting impression: coming across a worker from a neighbouring farm, lying dead beneath an overturned tractor and trailer. I felt helpless and, as other people converged they started to comment that the trailer had been badly loaded and this was bound to happen. I felt an incredible sense of frustration that the dead man hadn’t known about what seemed obvious to them.

Needless to say, it’s something I’ll never forget.

My own career started at British Steel and at 26 years old I was a duty holder in several businesses including nine brickworks, one of them a silica brickwork, five quarries and a mine.

At that time, the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act had only recently been introduced and HSE was in its infancy.

Although the Act was ground-breaking in setting goals for duty holders instead of prescriptive rules, in industry we were seeing all this as a real challenge.  

The mind-set at the time was “accidents happen, these are dangerous places and we can’t keep an eye on everybody all of the time!”

Being a good employer at the time meant paying more money to those taking risks, not necessarily protecting them! More risk meant more pay: dust money; condition money, hot work.  Everyone wanted these jobs as the pay was good.  And in the silica brickworks we provided masks and milk to mitigate some of the dusty conditions.  That was the mind-set back then, often with the tacit agreement of workers’ representatives.

How we have moved on!  And, despite those early attitudes, how we have changed. It is preposterous to hear those sorts of views today.

It is reassuring how businesses have learnt to manage risk and change entirely our views on what is acceptable. And in particular, people who understand health and safety realise that good practice goes hand in hand with good quality, control of costs, timely delivery and better productivity.

Yes, risk of injury still exists, it cannot be eliminated, but it can and must be managed proportionately.

But it is clear that much more emphasis needs to be given to health.

Management of workplace health risks lags behind for many reasons.  It is more complex, with many conditions having long latency and contributory causes outside the workplace.  We cannot respond as we did in the ‘70s though, about it all being too difficult. We can’t ignore known and potential causes of disease and early death; we must raise awareness and control exposure to health risks with even more vigour.

I have lived and worked in areas where mining, steelworks, ship building and heavy engineering were the main sources of employment and I now sit on the Board of a large Teaching Hospital Trust that unfortunately gets to see the results of workplace health not having been a big enough concern in the past. People who were going to these workplaces when I was 26, setting out on my career, but whose health has been unwittingly compromised through inadequate working conditions.

Today I see them suffering from things like severe breathing problems, chronic back pain and certainly not enjoying a healthy retirement, if they get to see much of a retirement at all.  It’s a stark reminder to me that preventing ill-health must be tackled.
I am very conscious of the current economic challenges facing many of you, particularly in the offshore sector, and it reminds me of my own experiences of leading businesses during down turns, and how formative they have been in my thinking. And certainly it continues to apply to me as Chair of a regulator which must recognise that only finite resources are available.  

Up until the mid 70s, steel and similar products didn’t need to be ‘sold’, there was massive global growth. Then, all of a sudden – well we should have seen it coming – there was competition, noticeably from Japan. We were told to cut costs and increase productivity, as well as upgrade our products, especially on quality, and at the same time the Health and Safety at Work Act was really starting to gain traction and environmental issues were hitting us, along with escalating energy prices. To say that the future looked challenging was a gross understatement.

Our first problem was psychological – how do you do more with less people and less money?

And to cut costs implied that you were a poor manager having been running things badly up to then, rather than a sign that you had what it took to add value to the business by finding ways of doing things more efficiently.

Eventually the damage being done forced us to change our mindset. In fact the Japanese actually helped us as we learned many of their techniques, not least of which was ‘talk to the workforce’ to help in problem solving and cost savings rather than just bringing in the technical department.

From there improvements followed – through a mix of reorganising the way we did things and analysing waste in a host of ways we had never perceived before. Most memorable was the change from producing products and proudly showing customers our quality control sections which sorted out the good product from the bad at the end of the line. We moved from that to embedding quality control in the process and we also started doing the same embedding of health and safety, energy usage and environmental controls.

Obvious stuff today, but a steep learning curve back then. Even still, it’s in good times businesses can lose that sharp edge and tough times will always force us to revisit the basics and do more with less. We found that the leaner the business became, the clearer sight we had of what was important, where problems lay and how to fix them.

The growing ethos was to get the mindset and behaviour right; redesign processes; embed required outcomes, particularly productivity, efficiency, quality, health and safety and environmental needs. And where possible, make capital investment in business sustainability. Every business that I’ve come across which is successful has these things in their model.

So what may have started as a daunting future and an uneasy period of uncertainty for many people ended with a much more effective, efficient and agile business.

I had 30 great years in Industry, and then moved to a services industry linked to manufacturing during which time I was asked to head the triennial review of HSE – these are government reviews that explore whether an organisation is still needed and being well run.

Through the review I was impressed by HSE and in particular how its stakeholders – including those who are regulated - viewed it.  But I also gained a sense that it was somewhat traditional and defensive - perhaps necessarily so at the time.
HSE has changed a lot since then, and I want to keep up that momentum and ensure it becomes confident to talk about its work with pride.

Yet despite how far the health and safety system has come, it’s often still hard to convince business to regard regulation as an enabler of economic activity, a supporter of fair competition and essential for sustainable growth.

That’s why one of the strategic themes in the ‘Helping Great Britain work well’ strategy is about ‘managing risk well’. 

Successful organisations understand that sensible and proportionate risk management supports growth, enables innovation and protects an organisation’s most vital asset, its people. Positive outcomes include reduced sickness absence, lower costs and a good reputation. Promoting this compelling business case should help even more businesses to make the most of the many benefits a good health and safety culture can bring.

Risk-based regulation affords responsible businesses, and the regulator, the agility to respond to the changing economy and innovative technologies without constantly needing to change basic legislation And HSE is acutely aware that being proportionate is not something that we just preach to others….

Our work as a proportionate, thoughtful regulator is vital and no better illustrated than our handling of an incident that had happened during a filmed recreation of a 14th century joust for a well-known television programme.

Two performers on horses rode towards each other carrying lances and shields. One carried a lance with a balsawood taper tip designed to shatter on impact with shield of the other. When he struck the tip failed to shatter completely and two spurs, still attached to the lance, rode up the shield. A spur entered a slit in the helmet piercing the other performer’s brain through his eye socket, tragically causing his death.

We don’t have a team of jousting experts in HSE (sometimes I think we should) but we went out and found some, and what we learned from one of them was very helpful.

Firstly, the helmet that had been used was suitable for ‘carnival style’ jousts, not those involving lance breaks. The sights aperture in the helmet was excessively wide and the brow plate overhung the faceplate creating a dangerous ‘catch’ zone, directing any oncoming object towards the gap.

We also learnt that if the helmet had been authentic for the period it would have had smaller sights opening, no overhang and no breath holes on the striking side to minimise the risk of the lance catching.

And the straps on the shield had been set for infantry use instead of cavalry use. That means the angle of the shield caused the splintered end of the lance to slide up into the sights of the unsuitable helmet.

But HSE inspectors also realised that historical re-enactment is largely an amateur, voluntary and community activity. Many people do filming of re-enactment free of charge, simply for the enjoyment of it and communities around the country derive great pleasure from the elective risk taken by the re-enactors.

We had to look a long way back for similar incidents – and I don’t just mean decades… one was the death of Henri II of France in 1559... Before that, Sir Francis Bryan lost an eye in 1526 and in 1524 Henry VIII had a narrow escape when he forgot to fasten his visor and got a helmet full of splinters.  RIDDOR reporting wasn’t well embedded in the 16th Century so we can’t be sure there weren’t more incidents, but having to go back 500 years to find three similar incidents does make this type of incident seem quite rare to say the least.

Had the man who died been wearing the authentic kit of the period, designed to protect him against the risks he faced, he would have been fine.  The incident attracted significant interest because of the link to a high profile and popular television series. We anticipated strong action might prompt widespread curbing of a largely amateur activity that provides huge pleasure and fun. We were concerned that organisations would shy away from permitting or organising such events. The community would understandably resent the loss.

Instead we decided to educate the community of re-enactors, on what we had found out, using those involved in the incident as advocates and the expert as a source of crucial guidance, something the widow of the deceased strongly supported.

The death was unnecessary, could have been prevented and is no less important than any other, but the way we responded to it, sensitive as we are to the wider context, increased community confidence about health and safety enforcement being proportionate and fair.

Moving from the battlefield to the field of communications, last year we started the conversation about Helping Britain and Scotland Work Well, and one of our aims was to be more transparent about what we, HSE, will do – but recognising that the regulator cannot do it all.  We must galvanise everyone in the health and safety system to act together to improve health and safety. 

In 2015 a review of the evidence of health and safety in Scotland was published.  It was produced jointly by the UK and Scottish Governments - after the Smith Commission.  It looked at Scotland’s occupational health and safety record in the context of:

The report concluded that, overall, Scotland’s health and safety record is not significantly different to that of Britain as a whole, amongst the best in Europe. There is no evidence that employers are less compliant with the law or that there are unidentified workplace risks in Scotland.  But still, the estimated overall annual cost to the Scottish economy of work-related ill-health and injury is over £1 billion.

This takes account of work related ill-health and injury having a much wider impact than the often devastating effect on the individuals affected and their families.  The impact on business continuity, profitability and even on the very survival of smaller businesses is significant – alongside the resulting demands on the NHS and other public services.

The review’s findings about existing partnerships in Scotland’s health and safety system showed that Scotland is perhaps ahead of the game in being able to act together to make improvements.   When partnerships are organised by industry – both sides of industry – they can be successful in achieving collective ownership of health and safety and collaborate in improving it. 

From HSE’s viewpoint, two of the most important industry partnerships in Scotland are Step Change in Safety, in oil and gas, and Site Safe Scotland, in construction.  Both represent genuine leadership and a willingness to engage in practical action.

HSE has a major role in the well-established Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland, chaired by my Board colleague George Brechin.  And I’m delighted that SCDI is now represented on it, alongside the Scottish Government and the Scottish TUC.

PHASS, as we call it, recently published a Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health that includes partnership interventions that will help GB Work Well in the Scottish context, and also help the Scottish Government’s objectives for reducing health inequality, fair work and inclusive growth.

You can read the Scottish Action Plan on the Fair Work Convention’s website.  I’m pleased that workplace health and safety is being seen as part of the Scottish Government’s and civic Scotland’s commitment to fair work.

I want to touch briefly on one specific action in the Scottish Plan – to illustrate one of my top priorities and how we are working with Scottish organisations. 

Although HSE has already revoked, consolidated or improved 84% of the legislation it is responsible for during the last Westminster Parliament, reducing the overall stock of its legislation by 50%, health and safety is still seen by some as a burden. We need to think beyond the law to tackle unnecessary burdens on business that others create. Issues that we have perhaps shied away from in the past.

So we are now starting to look at blue tape - by which I mean requirements imposed by businesses on other businesses they work with or provide services to. Requirements that may have good intentions, but that are over-prescriptive or go further than the law and guidance require.

It’s something I feel strongly that we have to attempt to tackle, however challenging it may be. A couple of areas which can take companies beyond regulatory requirements include:

An example of blue tape in action is the legal compliance firms who sell off-the-shelf products that purport to help small businesses, but that actually cost them a pretty penny, whilst being as useful as a nine bob note.

They sell advice that manages to be both ineffective and complex, checklist exercises with reams of paperwork but no sense of proportion, priority or relevance to the clients’ needs.  There are good regulatory compliance businesses out there, but enough bad ones to warrant HSE’s attention to avoid damaging the system.

We aren’t talking about small companies wasting a few hundred pounds and then thinking ‘that’s duff advice, we better try again’. We are talking about small companies, as few as 10 employees, paying out several thousand pounds per year and receiving in return a huge manual full of over the top, generic information. It seems like too much to manage and so the company does nothing, thinking ‘let’s just forget this expensive, difficult health and safety stuff, we can’t do it!’ – or ‘it’s so difficult we need to pay someone else again to sort it out for us’ when they might have been in a position to do it themselves before being bamboozled.

They may have sacrificed buying new equipment – for some of these contracts we are talking a couple of delivery vans or funds towards a new hire that could have helped build the business! And small businesses make up over 99% of the private sector so this isn’t something we can afford to be prevalent at all.

A good example of where small businesses can benefit from strategic working with other organisations in Scotland is HSE’s long working relationship with Healthy Working Lives – part of NHS Scotland – which provides occupational health and safety services free to small businesses.  They offer face-to-face visits to help small firms get to grips with assessing the actual risk in their workplace – not some generic checklist - and also offer simple advice to manage it. 

So, while Scotland enjoys a tailored approach to health and safety strategy and partnership working here, it also benefits from the regulatory level playing field across Britain.  And HSE’s strength derives from expertise shared across the border – for example, our technical experts in offshore well-drilling in Aberdeen and our world-leading laboratories based in Buxton, Derbyshire - which covers 550 acres and has the widest science base of any equivalent European laboratory.

I’ll finish off now by very briefly covering a few key topics that I as the Chair of HSE, along with the rest of the Board, think are vital for HSE to succeed at.

Let’s start with Communications.

Part of the solution to reaching dutyholders that don’t interact with us, and that get health and safety wrong, is  developing modern communication strategies, based on insight and new techniques that will help us remove barriers, reach more stakeholders and gain behaviour change. I can’t stress how important this is, because HSE can only ever inspect a small fraction of dutyholders, and mass inspection would not be the most efficient use of resource even if it was possible.

Communications will be an area of massive effort over the coming years. We have already made a start in this area, such as with the innovative award winning ‘Every job beware asbestos’ campaign and the communications supporting the development, launch and delivery of Helping Great Britain work well, which recently won an Award.

HSE is also developing a new approach to creating and publishing guidance, ensuring that it meets the needs of users and makes the best use of digital channels to reach them.

We must use social media more, and work with industry to capture and promote their successes as inspiration to others. We are keen to hear from you on what you have done well.

I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t be trying to reach small businesses, but that is just not true. All businesses need to be aware of basic health and safety requirements and deal with them efficiently and proportionately. And there are small businesses in hazardous sectors such as Construction, agriculture and waste – they need to give much more consideration to health and safety risks than those operating in a low risk environment.

HSE has to ensure it works closely and strategically with the most relevant stakeholders that share our commitment. For example, coordinating and liaising with other regulators to deliver effective regimes that are clear, consistent and efficient for dutyholders.  

As a regulator we need to be open and forward looking to new ideas, new opportunities and new risks, just as you do in industry.

So, having recently published our draft Health and Work strategy and draft plans for 19 individual Sectors of industry, as well as the Scottish Action Plan, there is even more incentive for you to get involved in shaping how they will be delivered in Scotland.  And we do need your help.  Look out for the HSE roadshow in Scotland on 21 March.

In closing I’m reminded of a quote from the playwright Tom Stoppard that seems apt for what is being asked of you, the leaders of industry:

‘A healthy attitude is contagious, but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier’.

Thank you for listening and I’m looking forward to hearing your views and talking further with you now.

Updated 2018-03-06