The Voice of Reason at the HSE

The voice of reason at the HSE

The HSE has often borne the brunt of criticism from the business world and the wider public that the UK has gone “Elf n safety” mad. Judith Hackitt, Chair of the HSE is keen to dispel such resentment and has recently spoken quite refreshingly about promoting a “common sense approach” to health & safety in Britain.

Read more: interserve plc

Having been appointed Chair of the HSE in October 2007, Judith Hackitt has embarked on an ambitious campaign to win the hearts and minds of British business and its workforce. Over the past fifteen months she has given 30 speeches to a wide variety of audiences including chief executives, union leaders, politicians and of course health & safety officers amongst others.

Most recently Hackitt addressed the Occupational Health and Safety Conference to outline the HSE’s strategy for the coming years. The following goals were highlighted:

  1. Continued commitment to investigate accidents and take the appropriate enforcement action to secure justice
  2. Encourage strong leadership based on a common sense and proportionate approach
  3. Help managers distinguish between real and trivial health & safety
  4. Increase competence in health & safety for greater ownership, confidence and proportionate risk management

An extract from Judith Hackitt’s speech is summarised below:

With the merging of the Health and Safety Commission with the Health and Safety Executive in April 2008, came and important development. This important step started us on this challenging journey to bring Health and Safety into the 21st century. Holding on to those things which are good, effective and still relevant whilst at the same time, adapting and changing as the world in which we all operate changes and calls on us to address new risks. Prior to the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act (1974) which created HSE and HSC, ~1000 people lost their lives in work related incidents every year. The 1974 Act had an impact; it was a huge turning point for Great Britain’s Health and Safety system. Prior to the Act:

  • The system of regulation was disjointed, with multiple sets of regulations calling for different practices and setting different standards in different industry sectors.
  • Numerous sectors and work activities were not covered by regulation.
  • There was no requirement for employee involvement in managing health and safety.

Compared to many other pieces of legislation which have been enacted before and since HSWA, the Act is quite remarkable in its resilience. The key principles of the Act required that we all:

  • Recognise the pace of change – in business, in technology, in society.
  • do away with rigid, specific old-fashioned prescriptive solutions

And replace that with a broader and more generic goal setting approach based on the overriding principle that “Those who create the risk are best placed to manage it” The evidence is there for us all to see that this approach has worked. Since the introduction of the Act, safety performance overall has improved by more than 70% partly because of changes in the types of work people do, but also because of the effectiveness of the system. It is hardly a cause for celebration that > 200 people continue to die as a result of incidents at work every year but we should also remember

  • where we’ve come from
  • we have one of the best combined health and safety records of any country in the world

The fact that our performance has plateaued again, albeit at a much lower level than before tells us something – but it certainly doesn’t tell us that we have to change a fine piece of legislation which has served us well and delivered such a huge benefit, measured in lives saved and injuries and illnesses avoided, for more than 30 years.

So when HSE looked back at where we had come from and what we have we decided to take stock of, what has changed and what adjustments we need to make to our strategic approach to deal with those changes.

The world of work has changed in many ways. Many of the work activities and businesses which existed in the 1970s continue to operate and indeed thrive today.

And then we move on to the emerging and growing sectors which bring with them new risks to be managed and new challenges. The strength of the 1974 Act is that by setting down non specific, generic but time honoured principles, we can apply those principles today to many more SMEs, to nanotechnology, to a rapidly expanding waste and recycling industry and so on.

We must also recognise that public expectation and societal values have changed. There is a much stronger tendency for people to look to others to blame and to call for “something to be done” whenever there is an accident or an incident. There is a greater level of concern about the possibility of civil litigation and claims for damages. “Where there’s blame, there’s a claim” is a reality of the 21st Century and increased bureaucracy is often the response to ’something must be done’.

One of the saddest things about where we find ourselves in the 21st Century is that much of that bureaucracy has proliferated in the name of Health and Safety or rather “Elf ‘n’ Safety” because we do need to draw a clear distinction between that which is real Health and Safety – stopping people getting killed, injured or made ill by work – and much of the nonsense and jobs worths which shamelessly use health and safety as an excuse.

We’ve also become confused as time has progressed about who is responsible for what in relation to health and safety. The responsibility for managing health and safety in any organisation rests very clearly with those who create the risks – HSE is not responsible for managing health and safety in your workplace – that is down to you as duty holders and employers.

Without that recognition of basic responsibility and commitment to do it because it is the right thing to do – there will be no good health and safety system.

HSE provides guidance and advice of what the law requires and takes enforcement action where we find breaches and non compliance. Health and Safety professionals including ourselves provide framework and support but leadership in every organisation is key.

Today we have many more small businesses than we did 30 or even 10 years ago. However turbulent the economic climate may be over the foreseeable future, we can confidently expect that trend of increasing proportion of employees being in SMEs to continue into the future.

We know that in the past effective workforce involvement, particularly where it has involved unionised safety representatives, has delivered generally better safety performance. But today, not only are workplaces themselves very different but there are also many more workplaces with non-unionised structures or a mix of unionised and non-unionised workforces – our task is to find new and effective ways to engage current and future workforces.

Many organisations are already fully committed to a properly integrated suite of health and safety arrangements and they know that good health and safety is good business. But in the coming months, the economic climate is going to test that commitment in some places and in others there is a much longer standing scepticism/reluctance to embrace proper health and safety which we must tackle. Exemption from the law or from scrutiny by the regulator is not an option for any organisation – a common sense fully integrated approach is not an option either but an imperative for everyone.

To read Judith Hackitt’s speech in full click here

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