Focus

Focus Archive

New Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century
Speech given at the Hawkesmere Croner 5th Annual Health and Safety Agenda Conference by Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair on 10 December 2009

January 2010

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. I am interested to note that so far today your conference has already covered:

I will return to all of these issues either directly or indirectly in my presentation. However it would be remiss of me not to note that you have also covered the important subjects of occupational road risk and fire safety. Although these issues are not directly under the regulatory remit of HSE, they are important topics - they represent serious risks to people at work and to the public. For you as Health and Safety managers and directors from employing organisations, it is right and proper that a conference such as this should cover the full spectrum of risk which are of concern to you. Although I will not speak about these issues specifically within my presentation, I want to assure you that HSE fully acknowledges their importance to you and the need for you to manage all aspects of health and safety in your workplaces - irrespective of the regulatory regime to which the risk relates.

New Strategy

My main purpose in being here today is to talk to you about the new Strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century. Although the new Strategy was driven forward by the Board of HSE, I want to be clear that it is a strategy for the health and safety system as a whole, not just for HSE and its co-regulator partners in local authorities.

October marked the 35th anniversary of the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, which remains the basic legislation under which all Health and Safety regulation operates. This Act is just as relevant today as it was 35 years ago - a remarkable feat when we consider the significant changes that have taken place in the workplaces across Great Britain. A key reason for its resilience is down to the goal setting rather than the prescriptive approach - providing clear principles, not least of reasonable practicability.

The legislation is based on the principle that those who create the risk are best placed, and indeed required, to manage that risk. That still applies to all workplaces today. It's legislation that has proved to be effective - measured by a performance in health and safety in Great Britain, which is as good as anywhere in the world and better than most other countries.

In spite of some very encouraging statistics for 2008-09, which were published recently, this is still not good enough - we still see nearly 200 people die in workplace incidents every year, over 100,000 people suffer serious injury and several thousand people suffer premature death as a result of harm done to their health by conditions they've experienced at work.

We must keep on maintaining all that is good - and what works well - about our regulatory system, but we must also reset the direction and adapt, when necessary, to allow us to take account of change and the broader context. This allows everyone to play their part - they gain better understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and start seeing and believing that they are part of the solution.

So against this background of a system which is far from broken but which needs to be adapted for the very different world of work in the 21st Century, I now want to look at some key elements of the new Strategy.

HSE published the draft of the new Strategy for health and safety in Great Britain in December last year. This was followed by a wide-ranging three month consultation with large workshop events being held across Britain. I know many of you and representatives from your industries were involved and the final version was launched in June this year.

The way ahead

The Strategy describes the whole health and safety system, making clear that HSE itself has important responsibilities including:

However, it is not HSE's role to manage health and safety workplaces. This responsibility clearly lies with those who create, and thus own, the risks - for example the owners, directors, senior managers or "dutyholders" in organisations.

The real health and safety agenda is described in the collective mission:

"the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities".

During consultation we received confirmation of strong support for this being a mission that everyone shares. Delivery of health and safety is not something that belongs solely with HSE. There is a role here for everyone to play. It's been our shared efforts in the past that have helped deliver our current safety performance. And it will be our collective performance in the future that will help deliver the new strategy and increase performance further.

The formation of the new HSE Board in April 2008 was the trigger for the development of the new Strategy but the key drivers were:

Given these drivers, HSE consciously invited people to let us know how they could contribute - this is why the Strategy is subtitled - "Be part of the solution". More than 1000 companies have now signed up to the pledge to work with us to be part of the solution.

The Strategy consists of 10 strategic goals and there are a number of issues involved including:

Leadership

Leadership features highly in the Strategy because without leadership from the top of the organisation it is impossible to develop a culture where all the other elements of the Strategy will happen. Improvement in motivation and productivity of workplaces happens because of the clear and inspirational leadership from the top.

Leaders need to understand the nature of what they are managing, the real risks involved. They have to measure the right things - not take comfort from lack of incidents. They need to have confidence and competence to decide what is and what isn't important, to exercise judgement about what is reasonable and practical to do and they need to be consistent. Words will not be enough if actions tell a different story.

Competent workforces

We want competent workforces, trained to exercise their judgment, not just people complying with rules and procedures. As I said before, HSE are here to help and guide but our guidance is not intended to prescribe for every workplace. We are not experts in your processes - you are! Good leadership should lead to cultures where everyone is encouraged to exercise judgement and make decisions. And I don't just mean the Board members or senior management - it means the whole workforce - thinking and deciding for themselves. Workforces need to be properly involved - which means good training, early involvement in finding solutions to problems, and listening to their concerns.

Workforce involvement needs to extend to all of the workforce - unionised and non-unionised, direct employees and contracted workforces. The new Strategy makes it clear that we're looking for an increase in competence across the board.

Obviously every business will have a different risk profile - for some, health issues will be higher on the agenda whether that be related to stress or harm caused by exposure to harmful effects in the workplace. In others, physical safety issues will continue to be the highest priority. Leaders, with engagement from the workers, need to determine priorities and focus on those pressing and real risks. I really can't overstate the importance I attach to leadership, worker involvement and ensuring competence across all sectors, in delivering the goals of the new Strategy.

Tackling Health at work

The new Strategy also talks about the need to address health as well as safety issues. Whilst there are some similarities in dealing with workplace health issues and safety issues there are also some important differences. Our goals in creating better workplaces for everyone therefore are:

By stating this, we have made it clear in the Strategy that we need to ensure that organisations focus on work related health matters as well as safety. The risk profile is the starting point for determining which groups of workers are most at risk, and what the nature of the hazards are in that organisation. In some organisations the risks will be tangible and immediate safety hazards, whereas in other organisations the risks may be more health-related and may be longer term but are certainly no less important because of that.

HSE can and does offer advice and guidance on numerous specific topics related to workplace health.

In addition to our campaigning work on asbestos, we also provide guidance on managing stress in the workplace, on dealing with risks which cause Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), on workplace noise which leads to hearing loss, on exposure to dusts which can lead to Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The list of potential workplace health risks is a long one. But here, just as with safety, is where we need to be clear about the role of the regulator and the roles of others.

It is for every organisation to identify the nature of the health risks which exist in that organisation. In some places, most likely office based environments, the greatest health risk may well be stress, but in others, it will be dust or exposure to some other cause of harm.

Health, just like safety, has to be managed and led by those who create the risk in the first place. I think it is only reasonable that we acknowledge that health can be more difficult to manage than safety.

Health risks may take much longer to manifest themselves. The causes of ill health may not be immediately obvious, sometimes they may have their origins in or be exacerbated by factors which occur outside of work. But "because it's more difficult" is no excuse for taking no action. There are some very practical things which every organisation can and should be doing.

Perhaps the most obvious - after risk profiling what the hazards in any given workplace might be - is to look at causes of ill health and sickness absence among the workforce. If the workplace is a contributory factor in ill health then it's unlikely that only one member of the workforce will be suffering - telltale patterns of incidences of ill health which could have a workplace connection provide useful pointers to what needs to be looked at - and managed.

We know that more than 2 million people suffer from illness which is in some way attributed to current or past work. Of the 29.3 million working days lost in a typical year (2008/09), around 24.6 million are estimated to be caused by work related ill health. Quite apart from the direct suffering to individuals and the emotional toll on them and their families and friends, the business case for tackling work related ill health is compelling.

This is increased in the current challenging financial times, across the public and private sectors. The pressure to do more with fewer resources and less people is real and it may increase some of the risks of ill-health - especially stress. But sickness absence represents a huge cost - loss of productivity, experience and expertise, cost of temporary cover and the knock-on opportunity cost of services which simply cannot be delivered as a result of staff absence. Just as with safety, the best approach to ill health is prevention.

Tackling health is, therefore, as important as tackling safety, and addressing health and safety is a fundamental and integral part of the much wider agenda aimed at protecting people from harm.

That way we deliver benefit not just to individuals but to society as a whole.

It is clear that we must 'raise the game' on health but we must make it relevant to the wide variety of workplaces which exist.

Just as with every element of the Strategy our task is to ensure that we focus on the real and specific risks and tailor the approach to suit the risk profile, the workplace, the workforce and so on. The only way we can do that is for us all to play our part.

Having mentioned some of our guidance in relation to health matters, now is a good time to highlight the key decision we took at the time of launching the Strategy to make HSE's guidance freely available to all to download.

This decision has received a very positive response from all of our stakeholders. It underlines our commitment in the Strategy to support SMEs - by making guidance more accessible to them, and others, but it is only one of several steps that we and others are taking as we now move on to the important process of delivery.

I have said on more than one occasion that it is actions, not paperwork, which saves lives. Similarly, a strategy alone will not prevent death, injury and ill health in Great Britain's workplaces or lead to improvement in performance - unless we turn that strategy into action through concerted and coordinated delivery.

In November 2009 we launched our online Pledge Forum. With well over 1000 organisations now signed up to work with us to play their part in improving Great Britain's performance in health and safety - the forum provides a means for those organisations to share their delivery plans and their good practice with others.

I am already seeing some excellent examples of activity to deliver the Strategy - from within HSE and from other organisations. I am really encouraged by what is happening and I do believe we can make it all happen.

Many of you here today are health and safety managers within your organisations. I think it is important that I close by considering important elements of the Strategy in relation to your role.

The first relates to leadership. Your role within the organisation is to lead by influencing and motivating others. But the most dedicated health and safety manager cannot be a substitute for real visible leadership from the very top of the organisation. Your role has to be to manage up as well as down in your organisation - you have to make sure that others are performing their roles and responsibilities. It is just as important that you ensure that directors are aware of their responsibilities and that they demonstrate visible leadership themselves - delegating it all to you is just not good enough!

My final word is on competence. I have said a great deal over the last 2 years about the need to apply common sense and good judgement to health and safety management. Common sense means a proportionate approach, it means knowing what is fit for purpose and good enough, and ensuring that procedures and systems reflect reality. For health and safety professionals this means not only knowing how to apply that knowledge in a practical and proportionate way. One of the many delivery activities related to the Strategy is the important work HSE is now facilitating involving the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) in developing a competency framework based on these principles! Here is yet another good example of where it is not for HSE to lead or to regulate such a system, but to ensure that others develop a framework which meets the need and builds confidence that others can seek - and find - competent, proportionate advice from Health and Safety Professionals. Expert advice will always be needed by organisations and the acquiring of the knowledge to become a health and safety professional requires hard work and dedication. We envisage a competency framework which assures others that they can seek advice with confidence not only that it is correct but also that it is fit for purpose.

I have covered many topics in this presentation, all related to the new Strategy. I really hope that it has provided some links with all of the other subjects you have covered today. I am very happy to answer any questions you may have.

Note

10 December 2010 - 6th Annual Health and Safety Conference: Health and Safety Agenda for 2010, London: Programme organised and chaired by Sheila Pantry OBE
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