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'Cutting costs, not corners'

22 December 2011

The future of the HSE and health & safety in the UK against the backdrop of current challenges. HSE Chair Judith Hackitt CBE, speaking last month at the XIX World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Istanbul, Turkey.

Judith Hackitt
Judith Hackitt

‘This is the reality we all face, and we all need to demonstrate realism in how we respond to it. I have some strongly held views on the subject of cutting costs not corners - which you may have seen reported in the press over recent months - but which are also influenced by the many years I have spent in the private sector.’ She said.  

‘I want to concentrate primarily on the things we need to take into consideration as we respond to the current environment. Times are tough and the challenges are great but whilst we alter our approaches to cope with the pressures being felt on all resources, especially in the public sector, it is vital that we all remain committed to sustaining the strong health and safety performance we have worked so hard to deliver in Great Britain. This means using the opportunity that these changes offer to consider as individuals, organisations and cross-sectoral groups how health and safety can help to enable things to be done more efficiently and effectively.

Setting out the issues for HSE

 HSE has been affirmed as a Non-
Departmental Public Body and a regulator with an important function;
 Our public funding is being reduced, but against the background that we are already an organisation which recovers a significant amount of its costs, about one third, from those that we regulate;
 That HSWA remains and is recognised as a resilient and sound legislative framework;
 HSE’s approach to incident selection, reactive effort and enforcement remains unchanged;
 Most critically of all workplace health and safety remains as important as ever.  Preventing death, serious injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities remains core to those of us who are part of the health and safety system, but is also core to efficient and cost effective management in any business or organisation, especially when times are tough;
 Our strategy for Health and Safety in Great Britain in the 21st Century is still very much our route map; and it remains vitally important that everyone in the health and safety system continue to “be part of the solution”.

Three key aspects for the HSE

1, HSE funding and cost recovery;
2, Government reviews of health and safety;
3, Getting the risk/benefit balance right.  

I think it’s crucial that we set the events of the last year-and-a-half into context to ensure the truest of perspectives about the situation we’re in, and I will do that by focussing on what it has meant for HSE.

We are continuing to implement the recommendations that fall to us which came out of Lord Young’s Common Sense; Common Safety review (CSR) launched in October last year.

The Ministerial statement Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone published in March this year announced some key elements of how HSE will be changing its approach in the light of the Comprehensive Spending Review, including important plans to reduce the number of proactive inspections HSE carries out and focussing more on those areas that pose a higher risk of death or injury.

As was announced at the time of the publication of the CSR and has been widely reported, especially in the health and safety press, we will see a net Government funding reduction over the next four years. But much of HSE’s work in the major hazards area is already fully cost recovered and represents approximately one third of HSE’s total budget.  Although we will be looking at ways to further modernise and streamline our ways of working across the whole of HSE, the funding reduction of 35 per cent applies most significantly to those areas where we historically have not cost recovered and of course that includes Public Services.
A significant proportion of the reduction we need to achieve in our budget has and will continue to be met through efficiency gains in ways of working, back office services and estates, in order to maintain front-line activities, but there will be some impact on our proactive frontline activities.

I want to make it absolutely clear that our reactive work in response to incidents and complaints received will not change at all.  Reactive work - including taking enforcement action wherever it’s warranted - will continue unaffected, based on our well established incident selection criteria and complaints system. It is vital that we continue to respond to incidents and concerns when they are notified to us or where we identify particular risks.

But, the size of the savings we need to make are such that inevitably there will be some impact on our frontline activities. We intend to take an even more focussed approach to proactive work, devoting a greater proportion of our effort on those activities where risks are highest and where we can have the greatest impact. Much of this is not new of course.  To complete the HSE picture I want to touch briefly on the topic of Fee for Intervention and HSE’s proposals to implement this, as well as referring to the independent reviews that are currently on-going.

We are currently consulting on a proposal to recover our costs from those who do not manage effectively the risks that they create.  The intention is that those who are found not to be compliant with the law during an inspection should be charged for the work that HSE has to do to ensure action is taken to address the material fault. We believe that this approach is fair and equitable.

The vast majority of businesses who already do the right thing will not be impacted by this in any way but those who take short cuts and avoid taking action until we intervene, will incur a fee. This is a way of recognising those who do the right things whilst at the same time HSE getting tougher with those non-compliant businesses - those who in your terminology cut corners.

The public consultation process started in July and closed in October. Depending on the comments the consultation attracts we expect a pilot period to start in October to test the process in practice. If everything goes according to plan by April 2012 we expect to be in a position to formally introduce the regime.

Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone

This announced the Government’s decision to set up an independent review of health and safety legislation to be carried out by a panel of independent advisors, chaired by Professor Ragnar Lofstedt.

The review is considering the opportunities for reducing health and safety legislation. It is focused specifically on statutory instruments - about 200 exist - that HSE and our LA partners enforce rather than on the HSWA itself. It is expected that the report will be completed and published around October. In parallel to this the government is also carrying out what is being called the ‘Red Tape Challenge’. This is a government initiative designed to give the public and businesses an opportunity to provide their views on all regulations. Health and Safety’s major turn in the spotlight was earlier in the summer. Over 1,200 comments have been received but given the cross-cutting nature of health and safety, we should expect further comments throughout the challenge initiative. As well as informing the review being carried out by Professor Lofstedt, the comments will also feed into specific proposals for regulatory reform that will be reviewed by a Ministerial ‘Star Chamber’ of key departments later.

HSE welcomes the opportunities which such independent reviews provide for an objective assessment of how we are currently delivering and to hear views on what may need to change. It is a means to ensure that regulation which has evolved over many years continues to be relevant, common sense, proportionate to the risk and easy to navigate.

Getting the balance right - between risk and benefit

This is about doing what is sensible and reasonable, not hiding behind petty rules and bureaucracy as excuses or reasons for not doing things. It’s also about recognising that “health and safety” was never meant to and shouldn’t get in the way of any organisation doing what it is there to do and delivering the benefit of the products or services that they provide. Reasonable practicability continues to be our guiding principle - and in many organisations where risks are low that amounts to application of common sense.

Paperwork and bureaucracy never saved anyone’s life even though it may protect quite a lot of bottoms! I’d like to hear more instances of health and safety professionals in the public services saying: “that risk isn’t unreasonable”, or “this isn’t a health and safety issue” when insurance matters are the actual concern, and saying “let’s find a way to make this happen” - rather than “you can’t do that”. The current climate makes it even more important for us all to focus on real risks and proportionate action, not overdoing things for little or no benefit.

We are taking forward a substantial piece of work at the moment to review all of our guidance to ensure it offers a practical, proportionate approach for organisations to help them comply with health and safety law. I also believe that guidance is an area where companies, trade associations, public sector bodies, Trades Unions and others can come together, wherever it’s appropriate to produce industry or sector specific guidance that might be better suited to organisations needs, but which is also sensible and proportionate.

Numerous commentators continue to state that health and safety is more often about specialists producing ever increasing very safe, tidy and ‘proper’ requirements in isolation; away from operational realities, which have left operational managers with bureaucratic systems that are not fit for purpose.

Instructions as to how to do jobs safely and efficiently will always work best, rather than the addition of safety procedures as a ‘bolt-on’.  I do encourage you to take this integration challenge to heart. Because, health and safety works better in practice when it is designed as an integral part of the process to make the job easier, not get in the way.

HSE’s strategy and much of the work we have done has been focussed not just on improving the health and safety system but in also helping to draw the important distinction between real health and safety risks and riskaverse behaviour. The former is key; the latter devalues the brand and diverts scarce resources away from where they are really needed.

Let us remember that we all continue to share a common purpose in preventing death, serious injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities.  Leadership, involvement, partnership and sharing of good practice have been, and will continue to be, part of how we all achieve our shared mission.

So, in summary, there is a good deal of change going on in the world of health and safety, but the focus remains the same. Times are tough and tough decisions have to be made. Cost reduction is a challenge for us all, but it is also an opportunity to look for new and innovative ways of maintaining and where possible improving on outcomes - especially in health and safety.’

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