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Podcast - New HSE Strategy

Welcome to the HSE Podcast.

This month we'll hear about the HSE's new strategy to help cut the number of people killed and seriously injured at work and we'll hear from Ian Whewell, the man in charge of HSE's safety in the offshore industry. 

HSE Info-line's Victoria Brady provides the answer to another one of your most popular health and safety questions:

Can my employer allow his daughter to play Westlife non-stop all day?

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 will be visiting mine?

But first here's a round-up of the latest health and safety news.

Businesses and other organisations are being urged to sign up to a new pledge to protect people at work.  The HSE wants to debunk the myths around health and safety and stop their work being trivialised.  It is calling on employers to take a common sense approach to managing risk in their businesses.  We'll hear more about the new strategy later in the programme.

Guidance about how to protect employees at work is to be given away free by the HSE.  From September 2009 around 250 previously paid for publications will be made freely available from the HSE's website.  The publications will include the full range of HSE's guidance as well as Approved Codes of Practice and guidance on safety regulations.  Almost half of Britain's employees know someone who has been injured at work according to a new survey.  A thousand working people were approached by pollsters and some surprising views about health and safety were uncovered.  9 out of 10 respondents underestimated the number of deaths and injuries at work.  The true number is 137,000.  The survey also showed that health and safety myths are rife.  A third believed wrongly, that the HSE bans wearing flip-flops at work or children playing with conkers.

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Britain is one of the safest places to work in the world but last year four people were killed and two and a half thousand seriously injured each week in the nations workplaces.  Reducing the toll of death and injury is one reason why the HSE published its new strategy this month.  HSE chair Judith Hackitt explains what the new approach means:

We started this process just about a year ago now when we became the new Board of the Health and Safety Executive.  When we changed from being the Commission we decided that we wanted to take stock of the direction that the organisation was taking and to develop a new strategy that was fit for the 21st Century and took us and the whole health and safety agenda in the right direction.

What is in this strategy.  What are you going to be doing.  What's different?

We've made it very clear what we can do and the limits to what we as the regulator can do.  We don't manage risk in workplaces.  That's the job of the business leaders, the people who own those businesses.  They're the ones who create the risk.  Its for them to manage risk in their workplaces.  We can help, we can give advice.  We can give guidance and we will enforce where and when people don't do the right things but we have to have that commitment, hearts and minds commitments from business leaders and from everyone in every workplace if we're going to make workplaces safer.

So you're basically saying we're not responsible for your health and safety in your workplace.  We're here to support you but you need to take that responsibility on yourselves?

That's exactly right.  We want people to recognise the role they have to play in this and that they are the best people to keep themselves safe and that they have a job as well to keep others around them safe by doing the right thing.  This isn't just about safety in the workplace.  Its also about ensuring that you stay healthy at work.  We know that work is good for us if we're doing the right sort of work but we also know that work can harm health if people are exposed to harmful substances or if they are doing things that lead to muscular or skeletal disease over time so we really do want to remind people that this isn't just about physical safety.  Its also about ensuring that work doesn't harm their health either.

How are you going to get employers to recognise that they're responsible for the health and safety?

Lots of employers already do recognise their responsibility and they do a very good job of managing health and safety.  There is always more that they can do of course but then the other challenge for us is to get to those many businesses who yet don't do it as well as they could and certainly those who don't see this as being important, we really want to reach out and get the message to them.  I think one of the key things about the strategy is that we've recognised we need to give special help to small businesses because sometimes its not that they don't want to do the right thing but we know that its hard sometimes for small businesses to find their way through all the requirements and to understand just what is required of them but the good news in this strategy is that we're reinforcing that this is all about doing what makes sense, not going over the top and that the simple application of common sense will probably lead to you doing enough and doing the right thing.

So its interesting talking about common sense because what's happened I suppose in recent years is that health and safety has become a bit of a joke.  In the media people are always looking for those stories of the council that wont allow Christmas decorations up in case they fall on someone's head or the police officer who wont get on a bike so you're almost the victim of all that aren't you now?

It certainly had an impact upon us and upon the brand and on the importance of what we do.  I think that's very true and its sad because the real job of not just the Health and Safety Executive but all of us in workplaces up and down this country is preventing people getting killed and injured and made ill by work and it is sad that people are using the Health and Safety brand for so much trivia.  Not just because it gives our organisation a challenge and a reputation problem but what actually worries me about it is that the people, the cynics who we really need to convince that they have a role to play, get reinforced in their cynicism by all of this stuff in the media and it doesn't help us and it makes them more cavalier about taking risk rather than taking the issue really seriously.

How can you take control back of that.  How can you take control of the brand as you refer to it?

Well I think by making it very clear that that nonsense stuff is a) nothing to do with us.  We don't actually regulate most of those things that people accuse us of doing whether its conkers or pancake races or whatever.  There are no regulations covering that and I think we've got to make that clearer but I think we've also got to remind people of the real challenge and the fact that people do still get killed and seriously injured in workplaces up and down this country every day of every week in their thousands over the year and it's a problem that we just have to keep tackling.  We have plateaued in our performance.  We've made a lot of improvement over the years but we still have to get back onto track and keep that improvement coming.  This is a big challenge and its certainly worth putting time, effort and commitment into doing this because of all the suffering we can potentially save.

Visit the transcript for this Podcast episode at for more information about HSE's new strategic direction.

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

Working on the oil platforms in the north sea can be a tough way to earn a living but it needn't be a dangerous one despite the often harsh weather and potential hazards.  Its all about managing risks says HSE's Offshore Safety expert Ian Whewell:

My name is Ian Whewell and I am head of HSE's Offshore Division.

How did the HSE come to be involved in looking after health and safety offshore?

Well after the Piper Alpha Disaster in 1988 there was a formal Commission of Inquiry which was held by Lord Cullen.  At that time he looked at the responsibilities for regulating offshore safety and he concluded actually that the Department of Energy that was then dealing with it, was not the right place for it to be dealt with and decided that it should be passed to HSE and that happened in the early 90's.

How have things changed in the last twenty years or so?

I think they've changed quite considerably.  Of course after the Cullen Inquiry there were a number of recommendations made.  One of those recommendations was to set up a safety case regime which was a very very fundamental change in the way offshore safety was regulated and with that a number of new regulations were brought in.  As those regulations were progressively enforced and the safety cases were developed the whole approach to offshore safety has progressively altered with much more focus on management, on systems of work.  On looking at the way the job is done and managing the risks rather than in the past where it was very much focused on standards and making sure that the equipment was right rather than the support systems.

A few years ago the HSE undertook a big review looking at the safety of offshore installations.  There were still some health and safety problems, is that right?

Yes it was a three year review and we looked at the safety on installations.  We looked at the construction.  We looked at the maintenance.  We looked at the maintenance systems and we did find a number of problems.  In particular with fabric maintenance.  We found about fifty percent of the installations, the fabric was poorly maintained and that may not appear to be a serious safety issue but the problem is that poor fabric maintenance actually affects the broader safety issues on the installation and that was something I think many companies had forgotten and a lot of these problems arose from times when the oil price was very low and companies began to neglect some of the routine work that they should have been carrying out.

Because they basically weren't making enough money out of it?

Not only that.  It was the fact that with a low oil price there was a feeling there was probably less future and therefore they didn't want to spend the money if they thought they weren't going recoup it.

So if HSE's been looking after this area for this amount of time how come the record isn't better?

I think that the record is considerably improved over what it was which certainly got a progressive reduction in accidents and incidents in particular in relation to hydrocarbon releases.  These are releases of oil and gas so you're releasing large quantities at times of flammable liquids or gases which obviously can cause a serious problem and over the years those have been progressively reduced and they're a good indicator of how well safety is improving offshore and certainly in the early days even after Piper Alpha, we were getting up to ten or a dozen major hydrocarbon leaks every year and that actually was very serious because it was a leak of that size that actually caused Piper Alpha.

So what are the problems for you now.  What is it that you're focusing on now?

We're still continuing to work on driving down hydrocarbon leaks because effectively if we can eliminate hydrocarbon leaks we eliminate one of the major causes of incidents offshore but there are structural issues.  These installations are out in a very very harsh environment and therefore they need to be able to withstand the environmental conditions offshore and if something does go wrong, if there is a leak of some sort then they've got to be maintained in good condition because the fire protection, the explosion protection's got to work as it was designed to do and as installations get older, there's more of a problem that it wont work as intended.

Perhaps one of the ways of ensuring oil platforms are a safe place to work is to involve the workforce?  I know this is something that the HSE is interested in promoting at the moment.  How are you involved in that?

Well its certainly a big issue offshore.  Inspectors can only get on offshore installations once or twice a year if they're lucky.  The workforce is there all the time.  There is an extensive safety representative and safety committee system offshore and what we're trying to do is make sure it works effectively and the workforce really feels involved so we've held two previous events where we've invited members of the workforce and we've talked about their involvement in dealing with major hazard risks and how they could assist and reduce risks offshore and we're holding another major event in June this year in Aberdeen.

Earlier you were talking about the impact when oil prices dropped. We're now in recession. Is there an impact there too?

There's a big risk and we've really got to keep an eye on this as a regulatory body because there is a possibility that the lessons of last time where people actually stopped spending money to maintain plant and equipment, just put off things.  That may occur again and although the industry's given us their absolute assurance they wont do that, I think as a regulator the public would expect us to keep a very close eye on that to make sure safety standards aren't reduced.

And what do you do.  I mean practically what do you do to try to stop that happening?

We've just got to enforce strongly.  We've got to follow up and check and make sure that what commitments have been given by the companies are being delivered and we've got to be very aware of this risk.  I think we're more aware of this risk now because we've got the evidence that last time they simply didn't keep on top of it.

Next in our regular feature we put HSE Info-line's Victoria Brady to the test by asking her to answer one of your popular health and safety questions:

Hi, my name is Victoria Brady, I'm the training manager here at HSE's Info-line 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 health and safety and certainly we do get a lot of questions from people thinking that they have been banned.  Its certainly not something that 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 tools 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 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 a 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 obviously this isn't the case.  I mean if you think about that I mean it would be quite hard to ban ladders. 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 using them as long as its safe to do so.

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

Yeah we do quite a lot of calls in relation to that.  Just looking at the moment the HSE Info-line 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 Employers 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 to 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 constructions sites. Can you tell me when you will be visiting mine?

If you have anything to say on what has been covered in this Podcast just let us know at  

Don't forget if you want to find out more about anything covered in this or any HSE podcast you can access a transcript of each episode at

HSE's online team is keen to improve if you have found something useful, something you dislike or think there is something missing, get in touch.  Click on the feedback link at the top of any HSE website page.

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Updated 2016-03-03