Director of safety

John Locke – the man that now ‘carries the can’ for the general inspectorate. As part of our 60th anniversary celebrations, we will be reproducing material from the British Safety Council archive. The interview with John Locke, first director general of HSE, which first appeared in the February issue of Safety Management in 1975, provides a fascinating glimpse back in time.

John Howard Locke was born in 1923 and educated at Hymers College, Hull, and Queens College, Oxford. He spent the period 1945 to 1965 at the Ministry of Agriculture, and subsequently worked in the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Transport before joining the Department of Employment in 1968. He was responsible for the establishment of the Manpower Services Commission and for the reorganisation of the Department, Employment Service, Training Service and Unemployment Benefit Service. He was also responsible for action on the Robens Report and, from the end of 1972, he took over as Director of Occupational Safety and Health in the Department, with the Chief Inspector of Factories and the Chief Employment Medical Adviser reporting to him. He acted as Chairman of the ‘shadow’ Management Board for the new Health and Safety Executive before his appointment as Director General from 1 January.

Mr Locke, would you like to comment on the story in the January issue of Safety and rescue about negotiations between yourselves and representatives of the factory inspectors

John: I’d like to say two things. Firstly, we are, as you know, discussing with the factory inspectors the question of a fundamental reorganisation of their work in the field. Reorganisations of this kind always create a certain amount of concern. Until we can see how it is going to work out, the people involved are not entirely sure how they are going to fit in. So we are reassuring them as best we can in a situation where no decisions have yet been taken.

I think, however, that some of the difficulties before Christmas were due to the fact that we had not made proposals to the IPCS (International programme on Chemical safety) about grading. We hadn’t done this because we were considering whether to suggest some changes in the existing grading structures. Our proposals have now been put and are under discussion, and I believe that the
IPCS will find them acceptable.

Secondly, on the question of appointments, I should like to say that two of the three members of the Executive are professionals, and so are all but two of the members of the Management Board, and the IPCS never suggested that this representation was unreasonable.

Yes, I understand that they are very satisfied from that point of view. There is another question here, though. The coal mining industry is not represented at Director level on the Executive. Will it get a fair hearing, do you think

John: The Chief Mining Inspector is a member of the Management Board, and any matters affecting mining will be his to deal with while, as far as general matters are concerned, he will be in on the discussions anyway. I must stress that the Executive is a legal entity, created in order to take legal decisions where necessary. All matters of any significance will go to the Management Board.

Mining inspectors are highly qualified as mining engineers, but under the new combined inspectorate, they will be joining with other inspectors whose training is less thorough. Do you think that this will be a disadvantage to them

John: Mining engineers who are qualified to inspect mines will continue to do so, and no one without these qualifications will be used to inspect mines. It is already the case that some of the back-up services consist of less qualified people, and this may continue. All the prestige and traditions of the Mines Inspectorate will remain, but there will be more movement to and fro. For example, we have already appointed a senior mining inspector, Mr Harley, to a Head of Branch post concerned with general mechanical and electrical safety. I think that many mining inspectors greatly welcome the prospect of these new opportunities.

You have a difficult task in that you are the man responsible for welding the different inspectorates into one cohesive whole. In view of their different qualifications and approaches, would you tell us how you intend to do this

John: Yes. Firstly, I think it would be a mistake to imagine that there ever could – or should – be a single, undifferentiated thing called the Inspectorate. It will always be an organisation that deals with a great many different problems and, although it is called the Factory Inspectorate, it should really be called the General Inspectorate, because it deals with far more than simply factories.

A fundamental theme of the trial reorganisation is to have groups of inspectors concerned with different industries. We already have a special group concerned with construction, and there have always been individual groups for radiation, mines, air pollution and so on. Now we are hoping to extend this idea to other fields, such as steel, shipbuilding or textiles, with men who specialise in
the problems of these industries.

At a Press Conference the other week Bill Simpson said that the guidance issued to inspectors on enforcing the new Act was ‘a confidential document’. Is this compatible with his avowed intention to run the Commission more openly

John: Well, I certainly do not propose to publish my internal communications to my staff. I don’t think it would be a very good way of going on and I should be surprised if people really expected us to do it.

The Commission will be making its own views on enforcement perfectly clear, but not by publishing internal documents. I have also made my own approach clear, and there will be no secrecy about the way we propose to enforce the Act.

The guidance to inspectors has been about how to handle situations, with particular regard to the use of Notices, and prosecutions. But inspectors are already familiar with our basic policy, which I am happy to outline to you.

The object of the Commission and the Executive is to see that people comply with the requirements of the Act. Now, I feel sure that most employers will be anxious to co-operate, and therefore our first way of ensuring compliance will be simply to point out what is necessary and ask people to do it. In most cases that will be enough.

However, there are always a minority of cases in which our request is either refused (though this is very rare) or else promises are made which are not kept. So we have Improvement and Prohibition Notices to get what is wrong put right.

Now, if ever a Notice is issued, it is our absolute determination that there shall be no circumstances where it is not complied with, and we shall go as far as prosecution if necessary to ensure this.

However, this means only issuing those Notices that we can process through the legal machinery, and we don’t intend to scatter them like confetti, because we are only going to issue those that will stick. For instance, we don’t yet know how many appeals there will be, and we’ve got to be sure that we have the staff and machinery to deal with them.

We shall prosecute under the following conditions. Where there has been the flouting of a Notice. Where there has been a serious breach of the Act, particularly where this resulted in serious injury or death, and where there is a long history of repeated breaches, such that it is clear that the employer (or other person) is simply not attempting to comply with the law.

Do you yourself look forward to the prospect of greater openness, particularly between inspectors and workers. If so, do you have any specific policy on this

John: Oh yes, we have indeed. Certainly I look forward to a greater openness in all areas. There is nothing more unsatisfactory in this work than to attempt to proceed as if we were a police force, though naturally there are questions of enforcement to be borne in mind.

By far the biggest part of our effort is directed towards getting a working partnership between employers, workers and the Executive in solving problems. For some time now we have been moving towards a more open relationship with management, in which they understand that we are just as concerned with how things are done as we are to detect breaches of the regulations.

In the past we haven’t sufficiently brought the workers in on this — often because there was no organisation of workers to deal with, except of course in the mines, where conditions were so hazardous that the workers combined. We have always been able to talk with the workers in the mines, but not so much in other industries. I am very much hoping that the new provisions for safety representatives and committees will solve this problem.

Last summer, an ex-factory inspector alleged in a radio interview that there was almost a gentlemen’s agreement between some inspectors and employers not to give information to the workers. Is this true

John: I think it is fair comment on the attitude of some inspectors. In the past, we haven’t laid down rules from the centre about this, and I must say that in general I am all in favour of people developing their own techniques for handling problems. Not everyone works in the same way, and I hate the idea of laying down a uniform pattern for all inspectors to follow.

But we are now taking a policy line on this principle, and it probably will involve a considerable change of attitude for some people. But I would emphasise that in the past it was difficult to find workers’ representatives to talk to, and the best you could do was to speak to the shop stewards and supervisors as you walked around. We have told inspectors now that when they visit places they should always see the workers’ representatives as well as management. When they make formal recommendations to the management, these must also be sent to the workers’ representatives. There must be no secrecy about what an inspector thinks ought to be done, and the content of any Improvement Notice must be discussed with the workers’ representatives as well as with management. For instance, if work is delayed and special precautions are necessary, it is very important that the workers are informed, otherwise industrial troubles may arise.

We hope that this will help to create a situation in which we can all work in partnership.

Mr Locke, you have never been an inspector, but you are now heading the Executive. Do you foresee any trouble on this account

John: As you know, I was head of the organisation here before my appointment as head of the Executive. I think I’m on very good terms with the factory inspectors, and I’ve been about the country a great deal learning about their work. I don’t pretend to be an expert on inspection – it’s not my job, but I do think I am aware of their problems.

One of the consequences of reorganisation should be to put an end to the distinction between administrators and inspectors, and remove the ceiling that was previously put on an inspector’s ambitions. For instance, the Under-Secretary grade, which was never open to inspectors before, now is.

We are training people on the assumption that they will reach the highest levels, and I should be horrified if one of the inspectors were not to be Director of the Executive in due course.

If you see yourself primarily as an administrator, does this mean that the public voice of the Executive will consist of Mr Harvey and Mr Williams

John: I never know what an administrator is supposed to be! At this level, in one sense all jobs are administrative, but in my case, there are really two kinds of job involved.

Firstly, I am responsible for the effective organisation of the field inspectors. Secondly I’m in charge of the formulation of general policy and the allocation of resources for enforcement. One of these jobs is often described as professional, and the other as administrative, but I don’t accept this distinction. In the last resort I am responsible for both.

In practice, the Chief Inspectors are responsible for their own staff, and Bryan Harvey is responsible for the organisation of the work that is basically policy, but all of them report to me, and I carry the can. Other questions will go direct to the Commission. But I’m sure that a great many decisions will be taken that I shall know nothing about at the time.

One of the biggest jobs for the head of an organisation like this is making sure that the right people are appointed, especially at middle management levels. I regard effective career planning as one of my biggest responsibilities, and probably my only permanent legacy from this post – far more important than anything else. Very many senior people will be retiring over the next five years.

Much of the factory inspectorate’s work to date has been concerned with what happens after an accident, but the British Safety Council has been teaching people to measure the possibilities before an accident. What are your views on this

John: I think it is wrong to say that most of our work is after-the-event. Inevitably, we are called in after an accident, and often more time is spent then than is really justified for the results gained, but the majority of our work is concerned with trying to see what is likely to lead to accidents.

One thing I am quite clear about is that the only effective way of reducing accident rates is by getting the equipment right, the system right, and the attitude and training right. There are always going to be accidents. They result from momentary carelessness – from a combination of things – just as the word Itself suggests. But the numbers can be reduced.

We are going to be increasingly concerned with the way in which management and workers approach their problems, what kind of systems and organisation they have. We are going to spend much more time at factories on each visit, and, at the end inspectors will stop to discuss the general lessons that can be learnt from the inspection.

The pattern that will be increasingly followed will be of much more in-depth visiting, and we hope that in time, accidents and ill-health will be reduced. We shall also pay more attention to the training of management and workers’ representatives as well as our own people. I think that this is the way forward, and the bigger organisations become, the more true this is.

So, rather than simply attempt to force people to comply with particular things, we want to encourage them to look at problems in an orderly and coherent way and analyse them.

We, too, must do more analysis, for instance of the situations in which accidents and damage to health are likely to occur. We have already embarked on this in the health field, and the EMAS is doing elaborate analyses of long-term health risks in different industries, with the results computerised.

Accidents are more difficult to analyse, but it is possible to do it. The mines inspectors did a very useful analysis which showed that the interest in coalface accidents had obscured the higher incidence of accidents away from the face.

Another subject we should look at is what it is about managerial systems and attitudes that means that in two exactly similar plants, you can get vastly different accident levels. We know that management attitudes matter, but how exactly is less clear. We need more research on this.

We estimate that 10,000 of the British Safety Council’s 17,000 members are small companies who do not have a safety officer. It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect a firm employing two or three hundred people to be familiar with all the latest publications. Do you have any proposals to give information to them in a form they can assimilate

John: Well, a small company has probably only got a relatively small number of problems compared with a large one. We have always tried to produce this kind of information, and now, of course, we have an obligation to do so under the Act.

I think some of our recent stuff is OK – the publication on asbestos, for instance. But we have been making a big effort to make changes in our material, and we are still thinking about how to do more, as we shall have to do. We are very aware of this question, although in some ways it is only a development of what we’ve been doing in the past.

Some people feel that inspectors are still too much ‘advisers’ and too little ‘policemen’. Would it be possible to introduce a two-tier system, with one level functioning like ‘courtesy cops’ and the other concentrating on strict enforcement

John: If you ask me, I still think that the attempt to combine these two functions is right. We thought about the possibility of separating it, but it is very wasteful of resources, because you have to duplicate the expertise, and I am not convinced that the advantages are sufficient to warrant this.

I know that the two things are difficult to combine, and perhaps we haven’t paid sufficient attention to training inspectors to do it. But in so far as some inspectors may have had an over-cosy relationship with management, I think the new obligation to consult with the workers will help, because obviously this will not be tolerated by them.

I also think that we must give more attention to helping inspectors to combine their functions, and in general, develop their ability to influence people.

As a matter of fact, we are extending the dual concept into areas previously thought too awkward for it, such as the National Radiological Protection Board, which previously concentrated on giving advice, while the factory inspectors dealt with compliance. I believe we can make it work.

Would it be possible to introduce the idea of cost-effectiveness into the work of the inspectorate

John: We would love to. In one sense, of course, we are always doing it, every time a factory inspector decides that he will do this today rather than that, and I certainly hope that whatever they decide their priority is the reduction of accidents.

I do preach the view that the only test of our work is fewer accidents and less ill-health – nothing else matters, not salaries, number of visits or anything. I should dearly like to know whether one sort of action is better than another, for instance, whether a visit from a factory inspector has any effect over the next five years. Maybe it has no effect at all! In particular I should like a comparative analysis.

We have great difficulty in establishing any way that this could be measured. But I haven’t given up hope. I feel that there must be a way to know whether employing 100 more inspectors, for instance, would be of any use, and if so, whether 100 more than that would help, or whether diminishing returns sets in.

We will go on working on this, though we’ve had people researching all the obvious ways and no one’s come up with anything yet.

‘The new Act gives us effective power to deal with new situations that arise quickly. This means that we’ve got no alibis! Never again can we say that we haven’t got the powers, that it’s not our business or that it’s not possible to do anything about it’

On December 12, Harold Walker told the House of Commons that it was ‘not on’ to invest enough money to ensure an annual visit to all premises, which is the international standard. This would seem to necessitate making inspectors more efficient. How can you do this

John: We are trying to cut down the amount of paperwork that inspectors have to do, and the new Area staff will have bigger clerical and executive backing.

But I must say that I think the idea of an annual inspection at every small premises is ludicrous – I don’t care what the international standard is. It’s a waste of resources.

If you’re talking about an annual inspection of large firms, that’s done already. Of the population we deal with, 90 per cent work for large companies that have had a visit in the past year. Nothing would be gained from an annual inspection of the smaller firms.

Do you foresee any new problems from enforcing the Health and Safety at Work Act that did not arise under the Factory Acts

John: I should like to say three things about the new Act. Firstly, it gives us effective powers to deal with new situations that arise quickly. This means that we’ve got no ablibis! Never again can we say that we haven’t got the powers, that it’s not our business or that it’s not possible to do anything about it. The Act gives us a great new opportunity but also, of course, a new responsibility.

Secondly, the general obligations imposed by the Act also present us with a tremendous responsibility. We must say to employers “you have an obligation”, but it puts a heavy strain on the executive. Every inspector has to start from that point – to ensure that each place he visits is, as far as possible, a safe place of work.

Thirdly, in my view, the emphasis on the workers’ place and role in ensuring safety is a big new opportunity for a fresh approach. The responsibility is on the executive to make it work, because unless we make an effort the whole idea could die away into a mere formality, and I think it is very important that it actually works.