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HSL Centenary

Welcome to a special edition of the HSE podcast.

Today we're looking at the work of the Health and Safety Laboratory, an agency of HSE. To mark the hundredth anniversary of the laboratories we toured the site talking to the scientists who work there and the Employment Minister Chris Grayling.

"There's clearly a huge wealth of experience here, a century of work already done and hopefully many many more years to come and another centenary this time next century."

The Health and Safety Laboratory is one of the best kept secrets of the Peak District and of British science. From a remote hillside location just outside Buxton, scientists from HSL spend their time exploring the science of safety.

Well, I'm here in the headquarters of the Health and Safety Laboratory here in Buxton and I'm joined by Eddie Morland. Eddie Morland, you're the Chief Exec of HSL. In a nutshell what kind of work do you actually do here?

Gosh, in a nutshell, that's going to be a task and a half. We do three things really, we investigate the past, we research the future and we transfer knowledge to the present. Okay. Now what does that mean? It means that we do a lot of incident investigations of things that have gone wrong so that allows us to learn from the past. We investigate new technologies that are coming onto the market to help them get on safely and we pass knowledge on how to manage health and safety to businesses in the present day so that they don't have accidents

You talk about investigating the past, the immediate past, the incidents, that kind of thing. But also of course you have a long past behind you as an organisation. A hundred years of history.

That's absolutely right. We were formed in 1911. Winston Churchill signed the deed and we became a Home Office science station for investigating coal dust and other accidents in coalmines, explosions basically.

"We've got a two hundred and fifty gramme charge, or half a pound in old language, of ammonium nitrate based blasting explosive, a stick of dynamite and a charge of military grade fast explosive.

Now, all three are the same distance from you, all three are the same charge weight but I'd like you to have a look at the differences in effect. So, I'd like you to put your ears on for this and we will cover three shots, one after the other. Ok Carl".

"3, 2, 1, fire. 3, 2, 1, fire. 3, 2, 1, fire".

Now, I've been on the tour today having a little look round all the various things that you do. I've seen some of the explosives testing that's going on. I've also seen 'vomiting Larry', I mean he's quite a character isn't he? Tell me a little bit about him.

Well, that's looking at the issue of what is called 'winter vomiting virus', which is Norovirus, and of course it's a serious problem. It's a serious problem in hospitals if people are vomiting. How do you clean it up properly, how far does it go, and that's what vomiting Larry can tell us, and how to clean up to prevent, you know, further infections. But even in the industrial arrangements, so for example offshore platforms, sometimes the virus gets transported in by helicopter and it can knock the whole platform out, and of course then production stops, companies lose billions of pounds, so learning to manage it through experimentation is good, you know, it helps industry as well as the public.

So bits of kit like 'vomiting Larry' and those kind of experiments, they're incredibly pragmatic aren't they, incredibly real, you're trying to reproduce the real world in the laboratories here.

Well, that's the great part of our job. It's not a university, we do do research of course, but our job is to get solutions into the workplace, and our scientists and engineers are adept at talking to people in the workplace, for combining things as well, because it's usually not one strand of science you need, you need to understand human beings as well and the environment they're working in. so getting real world solutions and seeing quick benefits of that is the exciting part of the job.

In the personal protective equipment lab I spoke to one of the scientists, Rhiannon Mogridge. I began by asking her what kind of work they do there.

Well, we do a lot of work testing personal protective equipment or PPE as you can guess from the name of the lab. We do two types of testing. We test whether or not it actually offers protection. We also test how much of a problem it causes for the person who's wearing it. So for example if you send your firefighter into a building protected from absolutely everything but they then keel over within five minutes from heat stress, that would still be a problem with the equipment.

Now, is that a constantly developing field? I mean obviously when people think about PPE they think about things like hard hats, high viz and boots and that kind of thing, but obviously from what you're saying this is a field where new products are coming along all the time and improvements are being made.

Yes, exactly, and one of the biggest improvements that's being made at the moment is grouping items together into ensembles. So if you are wearing more than one item of PPE together you then have a mixture of PPE working together, and making sure that it does work together and doesn't interfere is a big developing field at the moment.

Now obviously people, when they're using them out in the field, they're going to be going into these hazardous environments. I mean how do you reproduce that kind of hazardous environment in a safe way?

Well we don't use real hazards, we use test agents. So our two main test agents against, for example, respiratory hazards are salt aerosol, so just table salt dispersed in the air, which is harmless, and sulphur hexafluoride gas, which is also harmless in the amounts that we use it.

It sounds a bit frightening, but you're telling me it's harmless.

Yeah, it's got a long name but it is completely harmless, unless you're trying to breathe it and no oxygen at all, but yeah.

So how would you actually deliver that to a piece of PPE. I mean, looking around the laboratory here, you've got a couple of kind of busts here, heads as it were, with kind of masks on and things like that, and you've also got a thermal chamber there. So I'm guessing you're trying to reproduce the kind of environments that people might encounter.

Yes, we are. We have two main chambers in this lab. We've got the thermal chamber that you've just mentioned in which we can simulate pretty much any environmental conditions from minus 40 degrees right the way up to plus 70 degrees. So pretty much anything people are likely to work in. We also have a total inward leakage chamber which is basically a big box that we can fill with our test agent, and that's for measuring the protection against, you know, gas hazards or dust hazards

So that's simply how much of the stuff actually gets through over time, that kind of thing.

Yeah exactly.

This is my first visit to the Health and Safety Laboratory and obviously what I've seen today has been very impressive. You've got a lot of colleagues in the same area. I mean, does that help, actually having people physically on the same site with you?

It does, it helps enormously. If you have a problem that's outside your field, you know, there's someone else there who'll know what the answer is.

Eddie Morland again.

So, we can put a team together, and this comes out of our incident investigation, because you always need different disciplines, you don't know which ones until the accident happens, to get together very quickly. We can put a team of six or seven different disciplines together in half an hour.

Phil Heyes, you work for the incident investigation part of the Health and Safety Laboratories. What kind of work have you been doing?

Well, it's a very wide range of work. We cover the full range of industries that's covered by HSE, and we also do investigations for non-HSE bodies, for the police for example. So it's very diverse.

I mean, looking back at the track record of HSL in this area, it's kind of almost a litany of famous accidents and disasters over the years. I mean, you did a lot of work on the Kings Cross fire, you did a lot of work on the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy, a lot of work on Buncefield. I mean, what I thought was quite interesting about looking at the presentation that you made earlier was the way in which you modelled things, for instance rebuilding Kings Cross Tube Station.

That's right. Well, one of the great strengths that we have at HSL is the combination of being able to do computer modelling, which of course with modern technology is possible in a lot of, sort of, accident scenarios. But we can also do large scale recreations of incidents. I mean, computer modelling has its place, but there are times when there's no substitute for actually doing a large scale experiment, and we have the opportunity to do both.

Yeah, because, I mean, you have the space here on the site in Buxton, so you can actually build things and then set fire to them.

That's right, we have about a square mile of site, and we have some very large scale test facilities both for fire and explosion and for engineering.

It's quite interesting, looking at the work you were doing on the Ladbroke Grove train crash, where the two trains went into each other. I understand you were looking at the way in which the diesel, the fuel that fuelled the trains, what happened to that, and it's quite interesting. You're learning new things all the time aren't you.

That's right. Well, I think, up until Ladbroke Grove, it was a theoretical consideration that finely dispersed diesel could be ignited, but there was certainly no history of it happening on a large scale. So in order to prove that theory, if you like, we had to basically conduct a large scale experiment. It's interesting to note, actually, we didn't just sort of jump in at the deep end as it were and do a full scale experiment, we did do a series of small scale tests in the lab, gradually building our confidence up, until we were, you know, we were convinced that a full scale experiment would succeed. We did an impact test at about forty miles an hour, jointly to investigate the structural integrity of the tank, and also the way in which the diesel was dispersed and ignited.

And that was obviously new information, new knowledge that previously hadn't been, people hadn't been aware of.

That's exactly right, and I think certainly in the railway industry they weren't aware, there had been fires of course on the railways, but they weren't aware that it could happen on this scale. In fac,t a feature of Ladbroke Grove was that the fuel tanks themselves detached, and they were ruptured and free to move, and as they sort of rolled down the track they actually dispersed the diesel as they went. So they actually fuelled the fire as they rolled down the track.

And those are the kind of things that you find out I guess by visiting a site, by analysing it, the kind of rapid response as you hear that something's happening.

Absolutely. It's essential to get to the site before the evidence is disturbed so that you can draw these kind of deductions from the observations.

Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister from DWP, was also touring the site to mark the labs centenary event. I took the opportunity to ask him why the work of the laboratory still matters today.

Well, I think first of all the work that the laboratory does to look at what's caused some of our most unfortunate accidents, events where people have lost their lives or been badly injured, it's clearly of importance to make sure that doesn't happen again. But it's obvious also that this is a science gem for the nation as well, that the learning that's coming from the work here has huge potential for both government and industry, as well as providing a really good foundation for ensuring that we focus our efforts of health and safety where they really matter, which is about preventing really serious things from happening.

I mean, you've spoken in the past on the podcast about the need to focus on the high risk end of health and safety. I mean, the stuff they're doing here really is that high risk material isn't it.

Well, this I think is what health and safety is all about. It's about really trying to make sure that we understand where things go wrong and why they've gone wrong and make sure it doesn't happen again. But also that we build the knowledge and understanding to make sure that those incidents don't happen in the first place.

I mean, what struck me from going around this morning was the sheer variety of the work that goes on from the explosives work through to the personal protective equipment. I mean, getting all those people together in one building must make a difference mustn't it?

Well, there can't be many centres of excellence like this in the world, and I think what we have to do first and foremost now is to really maximise the use of this facility, to make sure that we do sell its skills to companies that can benefit from it, that we do offer the skills that we've built here to other nations, but at a price, so that we really extract the best value from what we've got here and protect it, and make it a real centre of international excellence, just not national excellence. There's clearly a huge wealth of experience here, a century of work already done, and hopefully many many more years to come and another centenary this time next century.

Chief Executive Eddie Morland again.

Well, a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. Our mission really has stayed the same, which is to prevent death and ill health at work, and that's a guiding light, it's a compass for us, okay, so we are focussed on that. All that happens is, as new technologies come in, you need to recruit and get the appropriate skills, but in a place like this people like to come and work here because they can deploy those skills over many different market sectors. When I came here five years ago we didn't have as many psychologists as we've got today. Now we have a lot, and different types of chemistry and so forth. But we'll still be there, because the world of work will continue, and the world of work always wants to improve. So it's an endless cycle, and that means that we've got a great future to look forward to.

Eddie Morland, Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Laboratory, thank you very much.

Thank you.

You can find a transcript of this podcast at

And if you've anything to say on the work of the Health and Safety Laboratory then let us know at or click on the links at the bottom of any HSE web page.

Updated 2011-07-29