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IOSH 10, 24 March 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

From Beating the Drum to Conducting the Orchestra

The thing you always notice about health and safety professionals is their passion and profound belief in what they do. That's not terribly surprising given that we're all committed to preventing people from suffering death, injury and ill health - which will include debilitating illnesses and in some cases premature death as a result of the harm caused by work. Compared to a career spent counting beans or playing monopoly with other people's money, who wouldn't be passionate about making a real difference by saving people's lives?

(Well), the conundrum here is that I actually believe this is the major challenge we all face in our chosen profession - getting others to share our passion for real health and safety. I have said it many times before: it's not about paperwork and bureaucracy. Our purpose is gaining people's real commitment to adopting the right approach. The battle is for the hearts and minds of everyone in the organisations we work in or interact with.

There is no doubt at all that organisations, of all shapes and sizes, need to have access to competent, knowledgeable people who can help them to find their way through the full suite of regulations which apply to them. Notwithstanding the substantial amount of work which has been done in recent years to simplify and reduce the administrative burden of regulation; the wherewithal to negotiate the system and to put it into practice can be daunting for many senior managers - especially those in small to medium sized enterprises where directors often wear several 'hats'. It is not uncommon in these circumstances for 'health and safety' to mean a veritable mix of everything from employment law to insurance and fire safety regulations.

In large organisations, the challenge can be quite different. Various and divergent strands of health and safety management may rest in different functions or departments - thereby making clarity and consistency of approach more of a challenge in these organisations than people feeling overwhelmed by what they are required to do.

The role of the health and safety professional in any of these scenarios is absolutely crucial. The knowledge and expertise you bring to the organisation you work with brings that clarity and consistency. I have the highest regard for organisations like IOSH: the formal training qualifications they provide and the vibrant regional networks that enable health and safety professionals to support and mentor one another is outstanding. I also hold all of you in high regard for the time and the commitment you have personally devoted to becoming experts in your chosen field.

It is also worth saying, not least because we often forget to remind ourselves of this, that our collective efforts have continued to be successful. Our performance in health and safety in Great Britain is world leading. Needless to say however, that whilst this should be cause for satisfaction, there remains no room for complacency. Let's not be under any illusions, the challenges we continue to face are still sizeable.

And these include to:

(So,) in addressing the subject of this presentation today, evidently one of the challenges of the future, for all of you, lies in developing the skills to address the on-going changes. It also means continually updating the systems you implement in your workplace to address the real and current issues.

I am sure that you can also see some of the things I've spoken about as being highly relevant to what we've said in HSE's Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st century regarding competence.

Competence itself has many dimensions. At its most rudimentary level, it is essential that every employee receives training and is deemed competent in the skills required to carry out the job for which they are employed. However, in the best of all worlds the necessary health and safety knowledge will have been fully integrated within that training - with the result that it's relevant to the tasks each person is performing as well as their being clear on their responsibilities to take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their work.

But competence in health and safety - especially among those who have this as a primary part of their role - requires the building of confidence in how to apply the legal requirements in a sensible and proportionate way. This means focussing on those risks which occur most often and those which have the most serious potential consequences. Competence is about the ability of every director, manager and worker to recognise the true risks in operational activities and then apply the right measures to control and manage those risks as far as they reasonably can be.

As you may have heard, we in HSE have commissioned a project from IOSH and CIEH to see how we might develop a voluntary accreditation scheme for the "upper end" of the safety consultancy market. The principles of such a scheme, as we see them, are that those who belong should:

We want the scheme to be open to all who meet these requirements but clearly members of IOSH and indeed CIEH are likely to already meet standards of this nature. And the scheme should not therefore be burdensome but rather to the commercial advantage of those who meet best practice standards. Certainly industry has expressed enthusiasm for such a scheme and HSE's own findings suggest the need to continue to drive up standards by this kind of action.

I've already said that ability to focus on the real priorities is an important skill for any health and safety professional. This too, applies to all businesses and organisations irrespective of size. The risk profile of every organisation will be unique - and will be determined by a variety of factors.

These include:

In some organisations, it will be clear that physical hazards present the greatest risks - for example, falls from height, hazards created by moving vehicles such as forklift trucks and so on.

In other organisations, particularly some service-based, non-manufacturing sectors, the risk profile is more likely to feature occupational health risks with these being of higher priority than physical safety hazards. Herein lies a particular challenge for health and safety professionals in helping the organisation to recognise that health and safety is just that - preventing harm to health caused by work as well as addressing physical safety hazards. Whether that be short-term and obvious - like dust inhalation. Or obvious, but much longer term - such as noise and exposure to harmful substances - which may cause serious damage to health and safety but with a very long latency period.

Alternatively, perhaps the most difficult of all to manage are those illnesses which may have their origins in work or may be potentially or wholly attributable to lifestyle issues. Stress and other mental health issues clearly fall into this category but so do many musculoskeletal diseases.

Whilst it may be very important for some purposes to identify the root cause or point of origin of some ill health cases, the key issues for health and safety professionals are to ensure that organisations:

Over 1.2 million people report every year that they suffer from ill health which is work-related. More than 24 million of the close to 30 million working days lost every year are due to work-related ill health compared to less that five million days due to workplace injury.

In spite of these numbers, I remain firmly on the side of those who maintain that work is good for us all. Those who work, live a longer and healthier life overall. But that's only the case if work itself doesn't cause harm - and that therefore becomes central to your - and our - mission: to ensure that workplaces provide good work which generates all of the benefits and which reduces the risks of harm to health as well as safety risks.

There is a strong business case to be made to address this challenge and making this case to your colleagues may well be a significant part of the professional challenge you face in your organisation.

This brings me to the most important aspect of thinking ahead for your career, and to the title of my speech. And that is to ask: are you currently beating the drum or conducting the orchestra on health and safety?

Our Strategy states very clearly that leadership in health and safety is fundamental. But leadership does not just come from the top of the organisation. It happens and needs to happen at all levels, through people feeling competent and confident in what they do. But for you as health and safety professionals a very special kind of leadership is required. I don't know what the safety culture is like in the organisations you work in or with. But I'm sure that the full spectrum is represented here. From those where the most senior managers and directors are committed to health and safety and visibly demonstrate that commitment and leadership to the whole organisation.

But there will be others here today where that "commitment" from the top does not have the same level of credibility and where pretty much everything is delegated to you to look after as health and safety manager. You are the poor old drum beater!

Some of you will be dedicated health and safety managers - by which I mean dealing with health and safety all of the time. But others here I am sure will have other responsibilities, especially in smaller organisations. These might 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, for instance. The potential for a civil claim can arise out of a member of the public tripping over in the street. With a much greater tendency for people in general to look to blame others when problems occur, it is not hard 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 that drives their requirements for documentation, mitigation measures and so on, beyond what is required for compliance with health and safety law.

Employers, for entirely understandable reasons, integrate a whole range of requirements into one set of procedures and management systems - all communicated to employees as "Health and Safety".

It is an essential part of your remit as health and safety professionals to highlight and draw the distinction between real health and safety work and some of the other broader risk management drivers - including insurance and civil liability which may lie behind some of the measures. The motivation of anyone to take action depends on them understanding why it is important if they are to do it and do it properly. Conveniently lumping everything into the health and safety basket isn't very helpful when it comes to "explaining". And, in many cases some of the actions your organisation may need to take which seems "unreasonable" on health and safety grounds, may well be deemed to be reasonable and prudent when the real reason is explained.

But how does the drummer become the conductor of the orchestra?

If we want Boards and line managers to lead on health and safety, your role is to help and support them in doing that - not to do it for them. We want all managers and members of the workforce - the whole orchestra - to understand their role in relation to health and safety and to be willing and able to play that role as an integral part of their job and in concert with everyone else.

Your role requires a huge amount of management skill and understanding of human behaviours. You have to be able to influence, to coach, to support and to direct people at all levels in the organisation - those who are much more senior to you as well as peers. It will most often be the case that you do not have direct line management responsibility - even for those at a less senior level in the organisation. So your ability to influence and motivate people will depend on your powers of persuasion, your ability to make the case in language that is meaningful to the recipient - you have to be able to empathise and put yourself in the position of everyone else in the organisation to understand how to motivate them to play in your orchestra, to your tune.

If the finance director is your point of focus, you have to be able to articulate the business case for health and safety. The financial, bottom line numbers case will carry more weight than the emotional argument. For the production manager your arguments need to focus on how health and safety measures will improve productivity and reliability as well as safety. For the chap who works at a repetitive task which puts him at serious risk of some form of MSD, it may (well) be the inability to play football with his mates or his kids which grabs his attention.

Being expert, being knowledgeable, being competent in your chosen profession of health and safety is vital. Your organisation will look to you as the expert who will know what the law requires, what guidance says, what risk assessment needs to cover and so on. And so they should. You are all experts in health and safety, you have worked hard to gain that knowledge and expertise and you make a valuable contribution to the organisations you work with.

But you will change the culture of organisations by winning hearts and minds, by motivating and coaching everyone else to play their part in health and safety - not by doing it for them. Beating the drum will get them to march in time to your beat - but the effect will not be sustainable - it will be dependent upon your continuing to press home the messages and provide the health and safety leadership.

Real leadership in health and safety is characterised by skills and competences which go beyond technical knowledge and expertise. Your passion needs to be combined with exceptional people skills, the ability to influence and to motivate, above all else the ability to communicate - to everyone in language that is meaningful to them.

These are the career challenges and opportunities that I believe lie ahead for health and safety professionals. Our strategy calls for everyone to be part of the solution - your role is to help everyone else in the organisation you work in to recognise that role and play their part. It's now time for you to pick up the baton and conduct the orchestra!

Updated 2020-01-03