Judith Hackitt interview

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Iris Cepero interviews Dame Judith Hackitt, outgoing chair of the Health and Safety Executive.

What has stood out for you during this year as Chair of HSE?
A lot of things. I think the enormous amount of change that we have successfully implemented is a really important thing that stands out for me. We have executed a massive programme of update of regulation and guidance, all of which I think has made the whole system much more fit for purpose, much easier for people to access and again insight into.

The other thing that has stood out for me is the amount of engagement that we have done with our stakeholders and with the public. And, in particular, the change that I think we have brought about in terms of people seeing what we do differently and having a much better and more accurate view of what HSE is all about.

And among the achievements during your period, what is the one you feel proud or more personal about?
Probably changing that public perception of what health and safety is really about. This is what I came into this job to do and I think I have really shifted that a lot.

At the time I took on this role, I was very concerned that an organisation that does very good things and always has, had somehow got tarred with this brush of being responsible for all this health and safety nonsense. I was determined to change that and separate out what we really do from a lot of the nonsense that goes on that was getting in the way. And I think we have been pretty successful at moving and changing that.

What has been the most challenging moment or issue?
I think this whole job has been challenging, that’s why I took it. I thrive on doing challenging things and that’s why I have enjoyed doing this job. There are many different types of challenges in a role like this. One is that this organisation has a massive number of external stakeholders and so carrying them along with a change programme, as we have had to do, has been quite a significant challenge.

Let’s be clear – the working, changing, modernising of the regulation and modernising of all the guidance has been done by the staff in HSE, and they have done a brilliant job. The part that I have had to play in all of that is bringing all of those stakeholders along with us against a background of quite a lot of resistance from people out there who, for a variety of reasons, were reluctant to see those changes take place.

You mentioned the changes in public perception. How have you seen the change in public perception change over the last
few years?
The first is that people in the press and a lot of people who I talk to outside of the sphere of work now understand what is really going on and that there is a whole host of people out there who use health and safety as a convenient excuse. This is the important bit that is nothing to do with workplace health and safety and preventing people getting killed and injured. So the fact that people understand that puts us now in my view on a track to tackling the root causes of that nonsense that does go on.

What I have also been able to do in this role is to identify the people who are doing the right thing and that has also been enormously rewarding, because there are people who fall in the face of all this rubbish and get on and do what they ought to be doing, and they are exemplars of doing the right thing, whether it’s the people I met who run the disabled river boat school on the Thames for disabled children, whether it’s the school I went to a few weeks ago in Eastbourne where kids are running around on the marshes and in the water and shooting and all of those things.

It is fantastic when you see people who have that kind of attitude. And we are able to differentiate between those people who clearly have the right attitude and those who frankly are just sitting back and saying, I can’t be bothered and I have got a good excuse.

There have been big changes in terms of how risk communication can be done with the new technologies. How do you see the move from the analogue to the digital world and what are the opportunities that have come with that changeover?
It has been quite a big change for HSE because previously much of our material was produced in book form; we sell quite a lot of publications. What I have seen over the eight years I have been here is a huge transition into digital, so everything now is by in large accessed via our website. That means you have to structure it in a different way, the great thing about that is you can help people get much more quickly to what it is they want to know without having to search through dozens of pages of publications that are frankly irrelevant to them.

Having said that the digital age brings challenges for all of us, not least of which is the many different ways in which you now have to communicate your message because we are dealing with a workforce now who range from 20 to 80 years old, you have got people at one end of that scale who don’t read posters; they don’t read printed formats at all and everything has to come to them via Tweets or if it’s not accessible on their mobile phone they don’t want to know.

And at the other end of that spectrum you have got people who still very much rely on printed format only and a very different language style. Bridging that gap across several generations and ensuring that our messages resonate with working age people in all of those age groups is a challenge not just for HSE but for all of us working in this space.

The new HSE strategy has been announced; what is your hope for it, how do you see what will happen, how is this going to move forward from now on?
I am very proud of the new strategy and I am also very excited about it because the way we have introduced it just really demonstrates HSE at its very best in terms of engaging with people externally and getting them fired up and enthusiastic about something.

And recognising that it is a strategy for the system not HSE’s strategy, I think it’s been great. What I now see is the opportunity for a whole host of people out there, all of those external stakeholders becoming involved and playing their part in moving things forward based on the items on the six key themes that we have identified in the strategy.

That’s not to say that other things aren’t important, the six key themes are simply a statement of the things we need to focus on, where we need to make most improvement. There is no doubt about that: we have got to broaden ownership, we have got to get away from this sense of ‘it’s all the health and safety managers’ responsibility’; we need to focus more on health than we have been doing and that doesn’t mean we, HSE, that means all of us. I think we have encapsulated it, and people are saying yes, those are the things we need to focus on, and yes we can work on this, and we will work on this.

Some people were surprised when this strategy was announced just before the new chair is appointed?
Remember I said this is a strategy for the system not for HSE, so having launched my first strategy for the system back in 2009, which has been in place for five or six years, it’s time to move on, it’s time to take stock of what we have achieved, look at one of the areas where we need to make more progress.

An organisation is constantly changing; there will never be a point when there are not some people moving on, moving forward and so on, and I think the Board felt very strongly – because it was the Board decision, not mine – that we would produce this strategy, that now was the right time. Our new chief executive had been in place for a year [Richard Judge, November 2014] and it was really important to make the statement to all of the stakeholders that this is where we think the system is going.

What your views are on the system, from the consultants at one end, to the lawyers, the regulator, organisations like the British Safety Council and IOSH, the trade unions. Where the system can do better with all these super themes you have identified?
Let’s talk about the good things first. We have a first class, world-class regulator and the fact that other countries come to visit us, ask us to go and visit them to learn from us is testament to that. The system as a whole is also world class; that’s how we produce year on year of performance that is as good, if not better than anyone else in the world.

So we start from a position of strength. I think there are a number of features which make it as good as it is, not least of which is that the whole system is built upon a notion of workforce engagement. The fact that it is about involving everyone and giving formal roles to worker representatives to ensure that the views of the people at the coalface are truly represented in how health and safety is managed, is an integral part of our system here and it’s all to the good as far as I am concerned.

At the same time, we need an awful lot of people to have the courage to back off and stop chasing every decreasing level of risk which is burdening everyone in the system with paperwork and bureaucracy. You asked me specifically about consultants, and I have said before and I will continue to say, that there are too many consultants in health and safety; some are good, some are not so good; the good ones for me are the ones who are either the real experts, so the high end of highly technical expert consultants that businesses need to help them deal with the really technical stuff. But also the people who do what I think good consultants should do, which is to listen and understand what a business’ needs are and then provide tailored solutions which meet those needs.

The consultants I have a problem with are the ones who believe they can do everything, those who provide off-the-shelf-solutions and the ones who burden small businesses especially with wholly unsuitable systems and, worse than that, not only do they take lots of money off them for systems that don’t suit them, but they give them a false sense of security that they have done things when they haven’t. Because book work on the shelf is not what’s needed.

Human factors are one of the main contributors to incidents in the workplace, what else can be done to educate people. Is there a point in having some kind of education at schools from early ages?
Let’s unpack this a little bit. I first want to refer back to myth busters, because one of the reasons for doing the myth busters website was that you have got the media turning health and safety into a subject that promotes cynicism.

My concern about that is that it works against the people whose jobs include trying to persuade people to have the right attitude in the workplace. It works against you because the same people read the newspapers and see all this nonsense about health and safety and think that maybe health and safety is nonsense, which doesn’t generate the right attitude in them when they come to work.

After that, the most important thing is making people feel responsible for their own safety. I am passionate about that need to generate personal responsibility. I think a number of the things that I have seen working best are where companies have a sense of everyone looking out for everyone else, whether that be across the board or whether it is buddying-up systems or whatever it is, when you encourage people to think about looking after themselves and looking after one another you get a very good safety culture.

When it’s all imposed from the top it all comes in the form of formal management systems; frankly it doesn’t work because people are only doing what they have been told to; they don’t understand the reasons why, you get this wilful compliance creeping in where people go, ‘ok if that’s what you want me to do, I will do it, I don’t think it’s right but I will do it anyway’.

So if you really want people to buy into this, it’s about making them feel cared for and make them feel their worth. You do have to talk to them and tell them this is about going home to your families at night and I don’t want you to get hurt, it’s not about rules and regulations.

We are quite good at safety, but not as good at the challenges of occupational health. Will we see more of health work by HSE in the future?
The simple answer to that is of course. We have said so in our strategy, we have said that we have got to give as much priority to health as to safety.

But – and here is the big but – that is the case not just for HSE but for everyone who is part of this system, because it is only when everyone recognises how important it is that we tackle work-related ill health and then it will start to make the same progress that we have made on improving work-related safety.

What do you think about using the workplace as a kind of vehicle to promote public health messages, for example better lifestyle choices?
I think it will be for companies to decide how they want to address health and where they want to draw the boundaries around work-related health and broader issues such as wellbeing. For us as a regulator, it’s quite clear that our remit is about work-related ill health and work-related causes of ill health but does that mean that we have a role to play in the other things? Of course it does, but it will be a supporting role, not a leading role and not a formal role.

But promoting the general notion that good practice around health extends beyond the workplace, of course we can do that, of course we can support those messages because I think for many companies that holistic approach is going to be the right way to go at this.

Any message for the new chair of HSE, whoever it is?
To whoever it is, this is a great job; absolutely great job. [George Brechin has been appointed interim chair]

Do you want to comment about your new role as chair of EEF. Are you excited?
JWell, yes, I am excited, it will be good to get to grips with some new issues. In some ways, it’s going back to things that I am familiar with in terms of working and representing the industry in the broader sense, and understanding some of the economic issues as well as the health and safety issues.

But as I have said to many people that I have spoken to in the last month: don’t for one minute expect me not to continue to be passionate about health and safety; this is something that has been part of me for as long as I have been working and I am committed to playing my part in health and safety.

I think it’s a good example of what the strategy is all about; simply because I am moving on from HSE doesn’t mean that my role stops; it means that I have a different role to play in the system, but rest assured that I will be playing my role in delivering that strategy.

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