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Transcript - HSE in 2009

Welcome to the final HSE podcast of 2009.

In this episode HSE Chair Judith Hackitt reflects on the key events and changes to British occupational health and safety in the last 12 months.

I've been greatly encouraged to see the way we have been engaging with industry. Offshore performance has improved this year. We've been very busy on new nuclear in terms of preparing for the new generation of nuclear reactors and getting ourselves fit for purpose for what's coming. We've had an award winning campaign on asbestos so there have been so many highs this year.

Victoria Brady talks about how HSE's Infoline deals with health and safety myths, but first here's a round-up of the latest health and safety news.

The Health and Safety Executive has launched a new online pledge forum on its website for people to discuss workplace health and safety. HSE is asking people to sign up to the pledge and demonstrate their commitment to making their workplace safer. Over a thousand companies and individuals have signed already and they can now discuss health and safety issues with each other via the new online forum.

Two constructions firms involved in a major scaffolding collapse in Milton Keyes were fined £126,000 last month for their role in an incident that killed one man and seriously injured two others. All three men were on the 14 metre high scaffolding when it collapsed in April 2006. Both firms had admitted breaching health and safety law at earlier hearings.

HSE has published interim reports on two nuclear power station designs being considered for construction in the UK. This is the third phase of a four step assessment process with the HSE concluding that both designs could be suitable for construction once satisfactory progress is made in a number of technical areas.

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It's been a busy year at the Health and Safety Executive. HSE Chair Judith Hackitt looks back at 2009.

Well as ever 2009 has been a busy year for Health and Safety Executive. It's comprised a lot of good things, a lot of good points, some lows but we can cope with that. I think one of the high points for me has been the new strategy. We decided in 2008 that we needed a new strategy for health and safety in Great Britain in the 21st century. We were very keen to build on success so it's all about evolution not revolution but one of the key parts about the strategy is the very clear statement that HSE can't achieve this alone. We need other people to be part of the solution with us and over a thousand organisations have now signed up online and pledged to work with us and we're actually already seeing some of those come up with their own action plans and delivery plans so it feels very different from anything that we've done before at a strategic level.

What's one of the kind of key things from that?

There are examples from large companies, small companies and it's some of the smaller businesses are some of the ones that have been most encouraging to me. For example I attended a meeting of motor vehicle repair people just a couple of months ago where they were actually launching some new guidance which they'd written themselves for the whole of their industry and they were actually looking and thinking about what they were going to do next with reference to our strategy to say how can they do more to improve safety in their sector.

We've talked before about health and safety myths and that seems to be a little bit of a theme of the year as well. Are you kind of making headway in getting rid of those ideas that are often written about in the press?

Well I can't say we've put them all to bed. I wish I could and certainly as part of the strategy we made it clear that what we had to do was to regain the brand for the real health and safety agenda and I'm confident we are making progress. People do understand what we're about and even in the press you now today see many more comments which recognise that this just isn't about regulation it's also about people's willingness to make civil claims, whether or not there's a compensation culture, the role of people's own unwillingness to accept personal responsibility. So the debate is broadening and that's, that's good because that means people are starting to see that this isn't just about a regulator stopping people having fun because that's not what we do.

What about on the other side? What about things that haven't gone quite so well this year?

Well I think we would have to recognise and be very clear that the Gill report into the ICL explosion in Glasgow which happened in 2004, the report was published in July this year and it clearly identified that there were some things that we, HSE, should have done differently at the time. There was an explosion at ICL Plastics in Glasgow in 2004 which resulted in a number of fatalities. The explosion happened as a result of corrosion to an LPG gas pipeline underground which leaked into a basement and caused a large explosion and it's been difficult I think for everyone in the organisation to, to listen to that and, and hear it but for me it's, and I think for the whole organisation it's been a turning point. We know we've made a lot of improvements, a lot of things have changed for the better since then. We have to recognise that we like others can make mistakes but that we have to move on, acknowledge that and learn from the experience just as we tell other stakeholders they must do the same.

And, and what were the problems for the HSE?

The problems for us were that we had identified concerns prior to the incident, many years prior to the incident and our follow-up to ensure that action was taken was not as good as it should have been.

In October you released new statistics about health and safety and actually it was the 35 year anniversary of the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

That's right, 35 years on we were able to publish some statistics which showed a real improvement in performance. Very encouraging statistics, 180 fatalities in the year. A considerable reduction in the number of serious injuries but one year alone is not enough. It just shows that we can continue to make improvement and we need to keep on that road but it was good that in a year when we recognised the 35th anniversary of the Act we could demonstrate that that Act, although 35 years old, is still fit for purpose and is still delivering health and safety performance that's as good as anywhere in the world.

And a new Act came in as well at the beginning of 2009.

There were new regulations came in at the beginning of 2009 which increased the penalties available to the courts to punish health and safety offences, yes. We welcomed that very much because we think that it's important for those penalties to provide sufficient deterrent and to recognise that health and safety offences are important and they should receive penalties that are on a par with other misdemeanours that are fined in the courts for, for misdemeanours by business.

Looking back on the year what was, what would you say was the thing that you were kind of most pleased with?

Undoubtedly for me the thing I was most pleased with was the strategy but ultimately the strategy only ever leads to performance. I've been greatly encouraged to see the way we have been engaging with industry. Offshore performance has improved this year and we've reported on that. We've been very busy on new nuclear in terms of preparing for the new generation of nuclear reactors and getting ourselves fit for purpose for what's coming. We've also worked with a whole host of other industries. We've had an award winning campaign on asbestos so there have been so many highs this year. Some lows, yes, but overall I think it's been a good year for HSE, and it's been a good year for health and safety.

And finally what about next year?

Well next year is about delivery of the strategy. Working with those stakeholders who've put their hands up and said we want to work with you, we want to be part of the solution and we're all really looking forward to that. I think we have to recognise of course that 2010 is going to be a year when we will have an election and whichever government we have post-election we know we are going to face considerable scrutiny in terms of the role of the regulator, the cost of the regulator, public spending and so on but that doesn't hold any fear for me. I think we're in a good place, I think we have a good story to tell, I think we can more than justify our existence and so I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Visit the transcript for this podcast episode at for more information about the issues discussed in this interview.

The HSE - protecting people's health and safety at work.

Now in our regular feature we put HSE Infoline's Victoria Brady to the test by asking her to answer one of your popular health and safety questions.

Good afternoon, HSE's Infoline, Andrew speaking, how can I help?

Hi my name's Victoria Brady. I'm the training manager here at HSE's Infoline and I'm going to answer all your health and safety questions for you.

I've heard that ladders are banned at work. Is that right?

No that's not correct. That's one of the common myths I think with, with health and safety and it certainly we do get a lot of questions from people thinking that they have been banned. It's certainly not something we would do. I mean obviously under the Work at Height Regulations 2005 you have to complete an adequate assessment and you have to select the, the tools which are, which are best for that job in hand really. So for example if you only need to use the ladder for 15 to 30 minutes for example you can, you can lock the ladder off or someone can foot the ladder. You've got a good handhold and you only need to use one hand then there's nothing stopping you from using a ladder but you have to do that assessment initially to decide whether that would be appropriate or whether some other form of equipment would be better such as using scaffolding or mobile elevated work platform.

This was a bit of a myth that kind of developed was it after the new regulations about working at certain heights came into force, is that right?

Yeah that's correct. When the Work at Height Regulations came in force in 2005 there did seem to be this perception that they would ban ladders but, but obviously this, this isn't the case. I mean if you think about that I mean it would be quite hard to, to ban ladders. I mean people still need them to work and they are suitable for short duration work so you know if they're suitable then people should be, should be using them as long as it's safe to do so.

Do you get a lot of calls which are really you know health and safety myths?

Yeah we do get quite a lot of calls in relation to that. Just looking at it at the moment the HSE Infoline actually have their own section within the Express magazine which is produced by the Health and Safety Executive. We have a section which deals with sort of the funny questions we get asked in relation to health and safety. We do get quite a lot of silly questions. Just a couple here for example, we have had somebody phone up who was a lap dancer to know whether they needed employer's liability insurance.

I want to complain about my employer. He's putting my false nails at risk.

Yeah I mean we do get quite a lot of funny phone calls but the problem is I mean people take this quite seriously, you know they do phone up and these are serious questions...

Yeah. them.

Can my employer allow his daughter to play Westlife non stop all day. Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a death-trap for people with big feet. Anything to do with health and safety and they just ring you up.

Definitely. I mean obviously we deal with certain sets of regulations here but I think generally people put everything under health and safety so just assume that we're going to be able to deal with it.

I hear HSE is carrying out surprise visits to construction sites. Can you tell me when you'll be visiting mine.

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Updated 2011-04-08