Leaders gather to help Britain work well at HSE’s inaugural conference

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Ignoring instructions with gleeful abandon is not the first type of behaviour you’d expect from a room full of health and safety professionals. But at the lively round table discussion session held for Helping Great Britain Work Well at HSE’s annual conference – the first of its kind – on Monday, those in the room at London’s QEII conference centre were in the mood to challenge received wisdom.

The session was called ‘helping each other work well’. What that collaboration looks like in practice was an interesting process to witness – on the tables I joined, the mood was pensive, almost like a surgery with people seeking answers to questions that visibly troubled them. Elsewhere it was more combative but the mood was humorous – one table was christened the Anarchists for their jaunty observations.

The format was as follows: a question would pop up on the screen at the front of the room. All delegates seated on the 50 or so tables would then discuss the said question before sharing thoughts with the floor. In keeping with its iconoclastic approach placards called ‘Idea’ and ‘Help’ were sometimes ignored in favour of free-flowing conversation, illustrating the energy in the room to discuss the most pressing concerns.

Discussion was led using prompts on stage for the HGBWW aspect of HSE's conference

The theme that cropped up a lot was, unsurprisingly, stress. One representative of a construction firm was convinced that stress is a man’s problem, with men less likely to report concerns to HR or his boss for fear of coming across as incompetent at work. Not true, countered a Hazards campaign leader – ‘everyone is afraid of losing their jobs’.

What delegates on this particular table wanted to know was, will workers suffer as a result of their honesty over stress at work and how can we prevent this from happening? One or two suggestions were offered.

But the chasm between how prevalent stress is as a problem after workers have left the site or office – behind one in three fit notes issued by GPs for long term absences – and how unacceptable poor mental health still is at work struck me. In those drop down forms workplaces have for recording absences, how many encourage you to click ‘mental ill health’?

More straightforward were the best health and safety initiatives seen in recent years. This was one of our ‘set questions’ and prompted interesting sharing of new, known and company specific work that could be adapted for use elsewhere.

'Help' and 'Idea' placards helped move the debate along

For example, a nuclear power station explained how they had integrated leadership into performance management. Their proven theory being that bad leadership can be linked to an accident, injury or error in stages all the way back down the line. Other ideas included a pain simulating glove – made of prickly Velcro on the inside, it shows the wearer what occupational dermatitis would feel like.

Illuminatingly, for me at least, campaigns that show the awful results of a poor action or decision are not particularly effective for some sectors. An agriculture sector rep spoke of ‘fatalistic farmers’ who think they’re going to die anyway – messages about death and disaster are not going to cut it with this group.

Indeed the LOcHER project for Colleges gets students to communicate risks to their peers. But in their new approaches ‘none of them are about how you might die’ said the representative present. They are framed positively.

What of the broader purpose of the event? It follows the Helping Great Britain Work Well roadshows held in UK regions over the past 12 months, attracting a similar broad mix of health and safety professionals. These meetings have helped inform the 19 sector plans HSE launched at the conference, with reducing ill health, stress, MSDs and leadership the goals for HSE to achieve in each.

HGBWW is about getting the safety system to work together to support HSE's aims for the next 5 years

HGBWW is the ‘system strategy’ for Great Britain, which sets out the priority areas for everyone (those in the room and beyond) to work on. The thinking is that the priorities cannot be achieved alone – 12,000 deaths due to occupational lung disease, the shrinking budget HSE is working under and new risks and challenges from modern work. It will be a team effort with HSE the ‘prime mover’ as the language says in its annual report.

But with that relationship comes expectation, on both sides – HSE in what it expects and wants from stakeholders to deliver and from HGBWW in turn from HSE as regulator. In the room that dynamic was palpable.

At the end, HSE chair Martin Temple joined to hear delegates give their ‘elevator pitch’ on what they wanted from HSE. Sat behind the tables; not on the stage, brows knitted, the ponderous Temple was evocative of Shakespeare’s Henry V – the part where he goes undercover to hear what his troops have to say about leadership and what he can learn from that. The result: honesty, candidness and co-operation, a firm but challenging basis for HSE and others to work in the next five years for HGBWW and the strategy.

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Follow the conversation: #HelpGBWorkWell


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