HSE's chief executive Sarah Albon speaks to Safety Management about helping the country get through Covid, and other challenges.
If 2020 was a stressful and challenging year for most of us, consider the scene in April at Daventry airfield.
Four tonnes of medical gowns had just arrived in from Turkey, ordered by the government which was facing intense pressure for failing to provide enough PPE to frontline workers. But HSE, which had a team on the ground to certify and check everything, had to reject all but a few of the 40,000 gowns as being unsafe.
Imagine explaining that decision to ministers. Speaking to Safety Management many months later, Sarah Albon, HSE’s chief executive, reflects: “Our mantra is that protective equipment has to protect. You need to understand that your equipment is of the right quality, but also bringing a
very pragmatic approach to understanding we were working in a highly pressured situation, right in the middle of a pandemic.”
Remaining calm and rational is what HSE does and throughout the different stages of the crisis it has been the regulator’s strength.
We speak to Sarah over Zoom in November 2020. It was the calm before the storm, and she speaks fluently and at length on HSE’s work during Covid-19, and other big issues.
There is perhaps a question on whether the fluidity of her responses are a true reflection of the meaning of what must have been a traumatic year for her and her colleagues. But that is another story.
Checking workplaces are safe and investigating concerns has been one of HSE’s biggest responsibilities, says Sarah: “There was a real concern that we got out and about and checked large numbers of businesses to see if they were Covid-secure, partly to check that that was true and partly as a confidence measure for the public.
We realised that we wouldn’t be able to – with our limited number of inspectors – suddenly cover the entire country and so we developed a system of triage using a system with a telephone and physical spot checks.”
In the height of the first wave, between 9 March and 7 May, HSE fielded 4,800 phone calls about concerns and queries relating to Covid-19. Out of these, 1,400 cases were referred to inspectors who then advised on Covid-secure measures and asked for evidence that changes had taken place. “Because of modern technology it wasn’t just a phone conversation,” she explains. “You can ask people to send photos of what they’ve got, such as video clips.”
On workplaces outbreaks
On Covid-19 as a disease that is transmitted via work and at work, however, Sarah reverts to HSE’s very first stance on the pandemic. When the board met on 18 March 2020, two days after the UK went into lockdown, there was just one short paragraph in the briefing notes on coronavirus. It stated that coronavirus is a ‘public health issue’: “HSE… stands ready to offer information and advice on workplace and workforce issues.”
The virus has challenged that neat demarcation of home and work, because we know that according to HSE’s own statistics there were 17,895 notifications of occupational Covid-19 reported to under RIDDOR last year, but she sticks to the argument: “What looks like a workplace outbreak often [is down to] other factors, connected with work. Often it is workers on their way home, if they share transport, if they socialise on the way. Certain industries with high use of migrant labour, sharing accommodation as well.”
A ‘juggling act’
Has HSE felt comfortable in challenging any policies relating to decisions about the workplace and Covid-19? HSE does not set policy but it can raise risks in any policy decision and check concerns have been addressed. She says: “Government has a difficult task of weighing up the risk of transmission versus the risk to the economy – that’s been a difficult and perpetual juggling act.”
She says that because there has been a ‘clear objective from everyone to get the pandemic under control’ it has been in some ways simpler to work to a common cause. “Covid is the like of which we haven’t lived through in this generation but I’ve never seen more co-operative and close working than we’ve seen in government.”
From insolvency to health and safety
2020 was Sarah’s first year at HSE. A lifelong public servant, she joined the regulator in September 2019 from the Insolvency Service where she was also CEO. “In some ways HSE seems a long way from the Insolvency Service, but for me it wasn’t,” she says.
“It was very directly about making a real, positive impact in people’s lives, ensuring that companies who want to do the right thing – which is most of them – are helped to do that. But where there are rogues and individuals who don’t care and don’t do the right thing then we hold them to account.”
How does she look back on HSE’s performance in the pandemic so far? “It’s for other people to assess ultimately, but I am incredibly proud of what we have done as an organisation.” She speaks about the spectrum of work that HSE has been involved with.
It includes helping to produce the 14 guides for safe reopening of workplaces; from offices, to factories and gyms, after the first lockdown eased in early May 2020, with measures – new at the time – such as social distancing and separating screens. “I thought that was a really fantastic example of government and employers, the regulator and trade unions working together to ask, what could we do in order that workplaces were safe, and that employers were doing the right thing?” she says.
Headlines move so rapidly. Remember when there was a run on hand gel? HSE carried out speedy licensing of hand sanitisers to allow manufacturers such as gin distilleries and breweries to use some of their alcohol supplies to help the national effort: “We were working really closely and quickly to enable that to work before they were released to the NHS or anywhere else.”
Building back trust
From one crisis to another – Grenfell. The draft Building Safety Bill, which government says will be the biggest change to building safety for 40 years, was published in July.
There will be a new national regulator for building safety, the Building Safety Regulator (BSR), which will sit within HSE. How does Sarah feel about the project and how is the work going? “It’s an enormous thing to be trusted with because it’s so important. I think we are hugely conscious that we had people on the ground within a couple of days of Grenfell helping to ensure that the site was safe for the people dealing with the disaster, the fire crews. They saw themselves the aftermath of an appalling tragedy. So, we really feel passionately about getting it right, about making a real difference.”
The Bill will require there to be an ‘accountable person’ for a building’s safety, someone who is always responsible during the lifetime of the building for keeping residents safe.
That person will also have to respond to residents’ concerns and ensure their voices are heard. Setting that tone will be really important for HSE says Sarah: “We need to be engaging with residents, helping them to understand what we do, where they can come to if they have concerns, what we as a new regulator on that space can do for them.”
She has herself lived in a high-rise block – as a young graduate from Leicester University where she studied law. “I don’t think, that honestly, I spent any time thinking about safety but I’ve thought back since. How on earth would I have got out? And how would you have been safe and was it safe? I can appreciate to some extent the fears people will still have. I think how we help residents see what we can do as a regulator and restore confidence is really important to us.”
“But equally, I would acknowledge we’re not going to make them feel better overnight. The fact a new piece of legislation has been passed or a new regulator has turned up, they need to see change in their built environment and the seriousness with which things are taken in the home.”
Ill health – changing the record
The health and safety statistics for 2019/20 had just been published when we speak. They present a good picture on safety – the lowest year on record for fatalities – but cases of ill health across the board were up 15 per cent on last year. Deaths from respiratory diseases have also stayed at 12,000 deaths for the past five years.
Yet HSE's Health and Work Strategy was launched in December 2016, nearly four years ago, with three priorities: to bring down cases of occupational lung disease, musculoskeletal disorders and work-related stress.
Would she comment on progress? She says that HSE has had a “degree of success” with “campaigns as various as dust in woodworking and extraction systems.”
She is more keen to discuss mental health. “It’s a human characteristic that we find it much easier to talk to our colleagues about physical things than if we see them under stress, but it’s really important that we get our managers comfortable doing that.”
HSE’s future strategy will focus in more on the changing world of work (HSE’s foresight centre’s 2016 report names AI, machine interfaces and wearables as areas to watch) and how it can direct risk management towards that. “As our five year plan comes to an end I think you’ll see us start to focus on different types of work environment, modern ways of working and the impact of that on people’s health and safety and wellbeing and putting that at the forefront of our research and science and innovation,” she says.
The working from home phenomenon Sarah thinks is an opportunity to address issues we’ve long suffered from in the UK, like burnout. “People have worked in different ways during Covid and there are some real upsides to that,” she says. “We can work with employers about [the advantages of that] kind of flexibility for some people, particularly when there’s ability to go into the office, to really help them juggle life and reduce some stresses.”
A pandemic, a new building safety regime and technology. Just Brexit is left. The UK has secured a deal with the EU which includes a new process for safeguarding a ‘level playing field’ between UK and EU firms on health and safety and workers’ rights.
Some, however, believe it will be hard to ensure we keep our end of the bargain. We speak before the deal was struck, but she thinks it’s unlikely our standards will slip: “I think we will see continuity across health and safety and I don’t see that as a major ground government is wanting to play on, we may continue we would hope, to lead the world in having the safest workplaces that there are.”
Hope – it’s a word that an awful lot hinges on right now. If 2020 and 2021 are teaching us anything, it is that we can’t take anything for granted.
Health and safety at work - statistics 2020: bit.ly/3lVCKBh
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