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Martin Temple interview

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Iris Cepero interviews Martin Temple, the new chair of the Health and Safety Executive.


In May this year Martin Temple took the chair of the Health and Safety Executive. He was not new to the industry; his role in EEF, the largest sectoral employers’ organisation in the UK, first as director-general from 1999 to February 2008, and later as its chair, brought him close the health and safety universe. But, above all, he was known as the man in charge of leading the government triennial review of HSE, published in 2014.

His appointment early this year did not come then as a surprise; for some it was even the obvious choice as his review backed the HSE’s five functions under the Health and Safety at Work Act: standard-setting and making regulations, enforcement, research, guidance, and ministerial advice.

In our one-hour interview, in which he looked relaxed but focussed, keeping some notes at hand in case a figure needed double-checking, Martin talked about resources, collaboration, occupational health and partnership, but one word was coming out almost in every question, repeatedly: communication. That seems to be a focus of his work for the coming years as you will see in the coming pages.

What are the main challenges HSE faces today?
Clearly one big challenge is that whatever we do has got to be done within finite resources. So we’ve got to be quite clear on what our mission is and the effective use of the resources; we’ve got to deliver on that mission. But, within that, there are some things that are now coming up to the top. The first one is going to be the work-related health issues. It is going to be a very important topic from our perspective and I think for the country as well.

The health service in the UK is under so much pressure; I think HSE has got to contribute towards a solution for that. We will always be fighting the battle of trying to make health and safety easy for everybody to understand and apply.

It is interesting, the very big organisations with the highest risk, to some degree are almost on top of best practices, because they’ve had to address it in much greater detail. So the real challenge is going to be using that common-sense approach, real proportionality, to get to those much smaller businesses who either don’t want to think about health and safety, or actually for some reason think it doesn’t apply to them. We look at big factories as opposed to shops and offices, but we know health and safety really does apply to everybody, because slips, trips and falls happen anywhere and health-related issues, such as stress, can happen anywhere. So the challenge is getting that common sense approach.

When you then look at it you realise that what binds all that together, what overlies all is, actually, communication. You have just got to ask yourself, how many organisations can we inspect? We’ve got well over a million dutyholders out there, and we can only inspect a fraction of those, so the rest of the people we’ve got to actually get across to them, telling them what their duties are and what their roles are. The simplest thing to do is to communicate with them effectively.

We’ve got, if you like, the plus and the minus of this now. The minus is that it’s still hard to communicate with the smaller businesses. It always is, on any matter it is hard to get to them. But, the good side of it is that with all the modern social media tools, all the new ways of communication, you send out messages to people even in a subliminal sense. All new tools can help get this message across. I think one of the challenges we’ve got therefore is to actually get some of those tools working for us in a way that is compelling to people and gets inside them in a way that they don’t necessarily realise that they are picking up the message, and then subconsciously start doing things more safely and more healthily.

A new health strategy is going to be launched by the end of the year. Why now and what will make it different from the previous approach on health?
The health side of the strategy is going to be a challenge but it is one we’ve got to face up to and really work hard to deliver. Even in your question I think you’d touched on some of the real issues there. Why now? Probably it’s not that we’ve not ignored it in the past, but sometimes we felt we were a bit of a lone voice. Today, a relatively low level number of the deaths and injuries are in the safety box, but we still see massive figures on health-related deaths, and severe sort of conditions that usually end up in death. This is the big area that we really have got to turn our hands to tackling. We see the safety risks are controlled to a better extent.

There’s no way I want to give the impression that safety is done, because it never will be, it will be never-ending. But we can see that people have got the tools and they are using them much more effectively. In industries like construction, over the last few years, by grasping the nettle, they have brought the figures down quite remarkably. But health is a much more complex area.

As a nation, you’ve got the health service under pressure so people are looking for root causes to these things and how to stop them. Companies are looking to increase productivity and when people are off ill, or go off long-term sick, you’re having to replace them. It’s disruptive, it involves cost of recruitment, costs of re-training and new recruits aren’t as productive as those who are well-established in roles. So the whole issue of productivity and economic benefit to companies is related to health issues as well because now a bigger chunk of our workforce falls into that category. So you say to yourself, ‘hang on, this is an area that we really have got to address’. It’s where we can see the biggest difference that can be made if we get hold of it effectively.

Why haven’t we done it before, is probably the question. That is because it is complicated and the long-term latency illness is not immediately obvious. Yes, we’ve got asbestosis, silicosis, and things like that which are well-established that we can also identify and chase up.

Musculoskeletal disorders are also a big issue; and it’s now getting to grips, you’ve got tools and you are getting people trained to use the right tools in the right way at the right time. But health is a continuum. How do you get a problem in the first place? How do you stop it? How do you look after them, how do you get them back into work and how do you look after them when they retire? You’ve got to look at the lifestyle and who is responsible for the lifestyle that affects health as well.

We can’t do all of that, but we’ve got to look at how do we work with people along the chain to make sure that we’ve tried to stop the problems at their roots, but when we haven’t, there is a natural continuum relationship with those people.

Likewise, in wellbeing, we know that some of these health-related issues are not just as a result of work. I suppose the best example might well be stress and mental health issues and that is, it may well be a myriad of personal problems that’s causing stress. Work might not be helping but neither might their family or financial issues.

We can’t fix all that but what we’ve got to make sure that our focus is on prevention in the workplace, and then, that we are working with those other organisations that actually are looking at people in their lifestyle, and so there’s a continuum of a message, a consistency of message, making sure that gaps are filled in by the people along that chain.

The HSE strategy Helping Great Britain work well was launched a few months ago. How is the work going on to make it a reality?
We are very proud of this strategy by the way. It was developed before I came into post, but I was actually involved in it from another role and I have to say I support the strategy. I am not coming in as a new chair saying we need a strategy; we need a new focus. I actually think it was a very well-developed strategy. The new health strategy fits in as part of the overall strategy; it fits well in how we have our priorities. It is not something on its own, it fits with everything that we have to look at within the workplace to make sure that people are not killed or injured or made unhealthy at work. That’s part of our overall mission.

We are not going to have an instant success next year and say it’s done. It’s going to be something that is going to be developed steadily over years. I hope by the time I’ve finished being chair I can look back and say, well I can see we’ve got the new momentum here, we’re starting making a difference. But the results of course start coming in 10, 12, 15 years’ time when we see, hopefully, work-related ill health issues going down.

But the strategy Helping Great Britain work well itself, is a big one, it looks at the way we communicate in different ways, it looks at the way we manage and train our people differently.

I spoke earlier about finite resources; we have only so much money to do what we’ve got to do. Health and safety is for all, it’s not just us, it’s for everybody so we’ve got to make sure we have partnerships with the right people who’ve got the right values and the right motivation to deliver the health and safety messages and hopefully give us the results that we all want to see.

You mentioned resources and economic constraints as a main challenge. How would you manage those limited resources? 
First of all, we keep driving for efficiencies within the organisation and I mean proper efficiencies. Often people think that if you are doing things with tight resources it means that the quality will go down. I come from an industry that actually says if you do things differently you can sometimes re-organise the way you use your resources. That is trying to make sure that, for example, we target our inspections to places where we think we can add most value or, if you like, be most effective.

And we’ve developed tools to do that. Nearly all our inspections are absolutely targeted, because we think there is an issue that we need to address or we think we can make most impact. And the other one is communications.

Because that’s going to be the biggest challenge and that’s where we’ll be putting a lot of our resources to make sure we can get this across. It’s got to be in ways that people really get the message quickly because if we give them a great big thick book, they will just never read it.

We’ve got to be able to get that message there quickly and then give them the link, for if they need or want to find out more, where they can go and find all that detail. But we’ve got to capture their imagination first. I think we can do this strategy very effectively within the resources we’ve got. We have a commercial agenda, as you know, which hopefully will draw in more funds to help supplement this where we can so we can even do more.

The HSE triennial review in 2014 turned a very critical spotlight on Fee for Intervention, arguing on the perception of a conflict of interest between cutting accident rates and raising revenue. Almost four years later, the HSE’s annual report have revealed that FFI is still costing more to run than it generates. How effective is it and what is its future?
Look, the main thing in my criticism of FFI wasn’t what FFI was trying to set out to do, but that apparent direct link about funding of HSE and recovering costs. I don’t think that’s what it should have been about and I don’t think it is what it was about.

The whole point of FFI was to make sure that people were doing the right things. I believe that the fundamentals behind FFI are good and will remain good, and I’ve not changed from that. That is back to the fact that those who create the risk, the dutyholders, should take responsibility. If they fail, then I am afraid then they have to understand that there is a cost of failure here. They must face up to that. That’s what FFI tries to do.

In a way, your question about shortfall illustrates the very point on which I disagree with you. I am not looking at FFI about shortfall at all, I don’t look at it as an income earner, I look at it as a lever to get people to do the right things and to understand the cost of failure in their health and safety system. Therefore, I don’t look at the money, I look at whether it’s been effective and what I can see is that people are noticing it.

Every time we look at all the complaints around it, we don’t have that many complaints about it. I think that the evidence is such that actually where FFI has been applied is where people were transgressing in terms of their dutyholder’s responsibilities. It is a big system; it is a big world out there. There will always be issues around it and I’d just say that we are committed to keeping FFI in place, we believe it has the right levers in terms of trying to get people to do the right thing, but we are constantly going to monitor it because we know there are perceptions that it is wrong or unfair here or there.

We know there are issues around it and if there are issues, then we will look to address them. In many ways it’s a big thing to have introduced and it is relatively early days in that respect. So we will keep monitoring it to make sure that if there are perceived unfairness or real unfairness, we will try and amend it as we go along. But the fundamentals of FFI remain strong and good and we continue to support them.

International work has been named an area of opportunity for funding HSE (together with shared research; data analytics and digital offerings). How is the international work going?
Let’s go back again to my review [triennial review]. I am very keen on this. From my standpoint, first of all if we are doing it, it’s got to support the core mission of HSE. It’s got to be relevant to what we do as an organisation and enrich the organisation as a result.

Therefore, there are two facets that I believe are important. The money is one of them but I am going to park that because to some degree it is secondary in my thinking. We should be looking at core stuff, we shouldn’t also duplicate stuff which is being done by others well, and it is being done by others but not always well. If something is being done well by others we shouldn’t be going there.

Why do I like commercial work? It’s because particularly if you take international work, commercial work broadens an organisation’s horizons. People look further afield; they see how others are doing things. They see other challenges, other exposures, and other issues that are facing businesses, other ways people work and so it informs an organisation about what is going on elsewhere in the world and you can learn from that. If you take a contract, you’ve got commercial imperatives, you’ve got to deliver to quality, to time, to cost.

I think HSE has worked well on many of those things over the last few years. They have had to because of the tightening resources. Having to deliver a commercial contract helps the organisation to learn and be more effective and efficient. It helps the organisation develop in the way it works. Therefore, I believe it informs an organisation, it helps behavioural change, and, by the way, it earns us money as well to do the things that otherwise we might not have been able to do.

That’s why I think international work is really valuable because it satisfies most of those things, though UK work of course satisfies some of it as well.

The international work has grown 50% per year in the last three years. It might not seem much to some people but it is about £1 million last year, which is pretty good going.

A lot of that has been building up our ability to actually getting the right people in positions to be able to talk commercially and to understand how it fits with what we can do most efficiently and effectively. There’s been quite a learning curve and we are now looking at a pipeline of opportunities which will allow us to start really driving this forward much further. So I believe we will be the richer for it, richer in talent and knowledge, and the way we organise and work as much as in the money.

In which regions and areas in particular are you working?
It’s typically the Far East, South East Asia, but we see opportunities in all sorts of other places, and in certain sectors. We are working with other parts of government, particularly Foreign and Commonwealth Office to look at these programmes. They are helping us to look for where the opportunities might be, and certainly government relations would be a good area for us to work.

What can you say about HSE proactive inspections, in particular on small business?
Many small businesses operate under local authorities and we are working with them. I would say that with small business it is less about inspection, it’s much more about communication and other ways to get to these small businesses.

We have programmes such as Estates Excellence, which it is a good concept and it’s a good model, whereby we are really taking it into a local context where groups of small businesses can be together, in close proximity, typically an industrial estate where we actually help them to help each other, where they learn from each other. I think that’s going to be much more effective than just going and trying to inspect because we can’t inspect all these businesses.

So we are trying to help them to help themselves, because companies often take a lot more notice of the company round the corner because they see them with all the same business pressures that they’ve got. Therefore, they are much more likely to follow when they see a fellow businessman actually saying it was a good idea.

We are using tools like webinars with unlikely organisations, if you like, like HMRC where people can join it. They can be anonymous, and hear from people about the issues around health and safety, or in the case of HMRC, tax, and that allows people to listen without necessarily declaring they’ve got a concern. That helps us direct our answers back in a much more effective way when we hear what’s really coming up from these companies.

When it comes to small business, inspection is not one that I put as a high priority because it’s impractical, and probably unnecessary. The priority is getting the message across to them. If we can work with local authorities as well, that’s where probably more of the inspection might come about because they’ve got the people that are more attune to visiting them and might well be visiting them for other reasons, for example environmental issues.

How do you see the HSE in five years’ time?
MI desperately hope that we look back and say we have started moving on the health agenda, that we have got higher levels of awareness, we know where the roles and responsibilities and the priorities are.

We’ve found ways in which we can look at them developing stronger regimes around areas of health such as asbestosis. But also we are getting to grips with how we manage risk around stress and mental health and things like that. Just starting moving, pushing those forward.

I’d like to think at the back and say that we’ve really got an established commercial business going that is not only bringing income but also made us richer as an organisation. I would also like to see all the things we have done for our own workforce, because we will have to be good communicators, both internally and externally.

I would like to think that in five years’ time we’ll have a superb training scheme to make sure that all our staff is not only skilled technical people where they have to be, but really good managers and really good communicators. We’ve got, if you like, a different level of challenge now as technology evolves quickly, people work in different work patterns, and communication is key to get that across, we’ve got to be super good at all those things and we’ll only be as good as the training we put into our workforce and that is something

I’d like to look back on and say we’ve really got to grips with that.

I’d like to think we’ve developed some good established partnerships
to deliver on the big strategy and not just health.

What is the best part of the work. And what do you like less so?
You’ve heard me talk, do I look as I am not enjoying it? I am enthusiastic about it. I think that first of all, it is very important. I want this organisation to be very proud of it.

The general public, if you like, have got in their minds now rather a bit of negativity about health and safety. I actually think absolutely the opposite. What better thing could we be doing than trying to save people’s lives, stop people being injured, make people work and live healthily, or help people to work and live healthily?

I think we should be incredibly proud of that and it is something I am proud to be linked with and I think we’ve got to actually get society to be proud of the fact that we have got such a very successful regime. I think it will help bring that back to looking at health and safety as actually an enabler, not a blocker.

I want people to be saying we can have the village fete because we know we can do it safely this year and next year and not have that problem we had last year.

I want people to think that health and safety is going to be of economic benefit to their business, not something that they have just got to do because the law says so. And I want the government to say we are getting less pressure on the health service because actually people are taking more notice of looking after themselves and keeping themselves healthy.

I believe in this, so I want us to be proud of health and safety.
He never answer the second part of the question.

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