Is the way in which we deal with health and safety in the workplace flawed? Rory Cahill meets Health and Safety Executive chair Judith Hackitt to find out
We’ve all come up against it. The employee who defiantly refuses to undertake a basic task on the grounds that it’s ‘against health and safety’. And the trend’s ugly cousin, the tendency to blame a ‘health and safety culture’ for issues that have little, or nothing to do with the rules and regulations governing health and safety in the workplace.
For Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), this is immensely frustrating. Twenty-six Scots died at their workplace last year. And as the horror of the ICL/Stockline explosion shows, those living and working around sites where health and safety is lacking can suffer too. Health and safety at work should not be trivialized.
So how do we change this attitude? And more importantly, how do we ‘re-set’ attitudes to health and safety at a time when the economy and the very nature of work itself is undergoing a drastic change?
On the public and media attitudes to health and safety, Hackitt says it is vital that erroneous views are challenged and corrected.
“It is something that I have tried to tackle head on since I have been the chair of HSE. I think it has been going on for quite a long time and prior to my becoming chair, I know that HSE’s view was that ‘people will make this distinction’ and the idea was that common sense would prevail. But I don’t think that works. I think that if you don’t step into that vacuum and rebut some of this stuff, then people start to accept that what the Mail or the Mirror or whoever it is, says is right.
“I didn’t expect to turn things around overnight.
Also, you have to remember that this is part of a much broader frustration that people have that we are all being nannied that goes beyond health and safety and into things like bans on smoking and ASBOs on the street.” Hackitt agrees that there is a culture afoot in many British workforces that uses ‘health and safety’ as an excuse to, being blunt, skive, but also acknowledges there is a fear that drives many people to be too over-zealous in applying health and safety regimes.
“I think there are a variety of reasons for it.
People often say ‘Do we have a compensation culture in this country’ and I’m told the hard evidence is that we don’t. The level of claims is not extraordinarily high. Regardless of whether people make claims or not, people do a lot of these things, the ‘I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to risk that’ because they fear litigation might happen. There is a fear of retribution.
“There is also an element of it’s an easy get out but that has been happening for a long time. I worked in industry for many years before I came into the public sector and I have run chemical plants where people have said to me, this is a health and safety risk and you say, well, it’s not actually, is it, you are just saying that because it is an easy way of avoiding having to deal with what the problem is and by the way, you are actually devaluing what the real health and safety risks [are] by using it as an excuse,” she says.
This is a key aim of the HSE as spelled out in its new strategy, which aims to ‘re-set’ the approach to health and safety in the UK.
According to the document: “We need to regain the value of the brand for what is real health and safety and challenge its devaluation as a synonym for unnecessary bureaucracy and an excuse for not doing things.” What of Scotland then? The HSE is a UKwide body but Hackitt says, largely due to the industrial mix in Scotland, that the executive pays great attention to happenings north of the border.
An obvious reason for this is the large offshore industry, of which Hackitt says: “Whilst it is a UK industry, it clearly has a very strong Scottish focus. A lot of the 26,000 people employed in the industry are from Scotland and live in or around Aberdeen and so on. A lot of my time and attention has gone to getting my message across to the offshore industry about the need to do everything they can to avoid the risk of another Piper Alpha. We really have taken quite a strong line with the offshore industry about the need to bring ageing assets up to an acceptable standard and that’s been really quite a sustained campaign.” Another Scottish industry that Hackitt and the HSE place a keen focus upon is the somewhat euphemistically titled major hazards – translated better as the chemical and petrochemical industry.
“There is a very important petro-chemical based major hazards industry in Scotland, not just the major complex at Grangemouth but elsewhere. Again many of the issues there are similar to those in and around the north-east and the north-west of England so we pay attention to ensuring a consistent approach to regulation in those places.
“And given things like the Buncefield incident in 2005 and the BP Texas City explosion, we have been putting a lot of effort into pushing the importance of process safety with the major hazards industry, getting them to re-focus away from measuring very low levels of minor injury as a measure of performance and getting them, like the offshore industry, to think about the hazards of the process they are dealing with and how well they are protecting not just their own employees, but local communities and what can go wrong in those kind of facilities.” In Scotland, the deaths of nine people after a 2004 explosion at a Glasgow plastics factory – where health and safety guidelines were subsequently found to have not been followed – demonstrated just how badly local communities can be affected by poor practices in industry.
“If people continue to promulgate that they see health and safety as a bit of a joke and it isn’t, it is a really serious subject and it is about stopping tragedies, stopping people getting killed, and nowhere in Scotland has this been more emphasised than by this whole tragic event around the ICL incident. We have all got lessons to learn from that, there is no doubt about that.
“I think that for us there are lessons about ensuring that duty holders are focusing on the right risks and that when things are found to be wanting, the proper follow-up action is taken.
We had taken a number of those messages on board prior to the Gill Inquiry. We’ve made a number of changes in our procedures and the way we work since the ICL incident anyway but even so, there are things that come out of the Gill report that we can pick up on.
“The whole subject of assessing the risk of the need to replace underground LPG pipe work is something we now have to look at and we have been working with the LPG industry and how you do that and how you do it in a proportionate way because we don’t want to cause alarm and over-emphasise risk but clearly, we want to take the matter seriously and follow it through,” she says.
To this end, Hackitt says that despite being a ‘reserved’ body, the HSE maintains a close working relationship with the Scottish Government: “We speak with Scottish Government regularly. I think we have relationships with Scottish Government. We gave evidence to the Calman Commission on this issue of reserved versus devolved health and safety.
“We are more than willing and already, to a large extent, ensure that our interventions and our plans in Scotland are tailored to meet the specific needs of Scotland. But again, we balance that by ensuring that where there are common risks north and south of the border, we take a consistent approach.”