Martin Temple CBE, chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive, outlines the future challenges for the OSH community and why preventative action is critical.
Q. How do you see the OSH professional’s role evolving?
The role is going to be much more health-oriented, whereas in the past few decades it’s been more focused on safety. Health will dominate the agenda more than it does today.
They will also have to work increasingly with other disciplines. We can’t survive purely as generalists except in relatively low-risk areas. OSH professionals will need that general knowledge but also the ability
to delve into different specialities.
We’ll still have the big corporates, the very structured organisations, but with a greater variety of work models and more working away from fixed locations, OSH professionals will need to speak to a much more disparate group of individuals to get the message across. Even with COVID-19, you can see how people are working away from a carefully structured business organisation.
Q. What will be the key challenges for OSH professionals?
There’s going to be increasing complexity, and keeping up with the pace of change will be a massive challenge. There will be all the emerging risks around looser company frameworks, which will raise the question ‘Who is the duty holder?’ Usually, the OSH professional will work with the duty holder in a structured context, but that’s changing rapidly.
There’s also a changing demographic to consider. It’s becoming an increasingly diverse workforce with different places and ways of working, in particular with home-working and the gig economy.
Technological changes offer both challenges and solutions. Take artificial intelligence: machines could be making some of the decisions, providing solutions but also adding complexity. It could be that machines unwittingly create risks even though they may have been programmed by a human being.
OSH professionals will also have to keep up with and manage other drivers, so a further challenge will be how their responsibilities for safety fit with the environment, productivity and social responsibility.
The biggest challenge will be the wider health issue – the public’s general health and wellbeing. That is more likely to lead to absence and lack of productivity. So to what extent will OSH professionals get drawn away to deal with non-regulatory issues. How will they remain focused?
Q. What essential skills will OSH professionals need to master?
They will have to be very good communicators. That’s not just talking to corporates. It’s how to help corporates communicate with an entirely different shape of workforce.
Right now, you can get health and safety messages across in factories or offices where everybody is sitting together in a controlled environment. But the messaging to employees in a very different work structure is going to be complex and will require all the modern skills that we have around social media.
They will also need to be a collaborative worker, especially in more complex, high-risk environments. They will have to work collaboratively with others with different sub-specialities, particularly internationally. They will have to work in teams to bring the right skills to bear where there is a wide range of risks that need to be managed.
The final key skill will be an ability to learn new things. The world is moving so quickly that they will need to keep up to date as the pace of change will only speed up.
'We have to ensure regulation and guidance are as simple as possible and are backed up by really good evidence'
Q. What’s the future of the global OSH community?
There’s going to be a massive increase in international cooperation and collaboration. More than ever, corporates will operate globally.
If you are in their supply chain, which most of the small- and medium-sized companies will be, they will have to conform to the standards these global corporates want. We know that they don’t want a whole different series of regimes.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is becoming increasingly important. Corporates used to be focused only on profits, but now it is CSR and protecting the brand. That brand is everything from their environmental footprint, the standards of their products and how they get them, and how they treat their workforce, right down to how much they pay them. This will be on a global scale. Health and safety is going to be right up there. Are you using suppliers who work safely, have a good track record, pay people and look after them properly and are you damaging the environment?
Because corporates will want a regime that fits most situations, there will be a rise in standards, not a race to the bottom.
There will be national interpretations of the standards but they will be more outcome-based. Corporates will also be looking for the standards to be evidentially and factually based so that it holds water across different regimes internationally. Some countries will want a lighter touch and will need to be convinced that the science behind it is properly evaluated. Science and evidence will be at the heart of greater international collaboration.
Q. What support can the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provide to the UK OSH profession?
The values and principles that we have developed since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 have been entirely appropriate. That’s why we’ve got some of the best outcomes in the world. Everything I’ve seen looking forward means we’ve got to uphold some of those key principles even more firmly – about fairness, being practical and being reasonable.
We have got to continue to make sure regulation and guidance are as simple as possible and are backed up by really good evidence. That’s why our science division is going to become more important. We need to keep one step ahead of new science and make sure that when we tell people what the regulations are, they understand why we’ve come to that conclusion and we can provide the evidence behind it. The HSE will need to be a good communicator as well.
We’ve got to keep the campaign alive on health, with the emphasis on prevention. But because health issues manifest themselves over the long term, it could so easily fall away in people’s minds. There’s still a massive amount of work to be done. We have got the possibility for people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Let’s not cut it short by letting things happen that we know are going to be bad for them.
Q. What key areas will the HSE focus on?
We are being charged with setting up the new building safety regulator, which is going to be a massive task in a relatively short period.
Health is where we must continue to focus attention. There are the obvious musculoskeletal and respiratory challenges. Asbestos is still as challenging as it ever was. Mental health and stress is still a big learning area for all organisations. We have got to focus on getting the right solutions.
It’s as much about helping companies to evaluate the context of work so we avoid stressful conditions as much as possible and enable people to come back into work after they’ve had a particularly difficult time.
One area we are focusing on is new innovations, the environment and productivity – and making sure they are done safely. We are already doing work on batteries and energy storage, and plans to introduce hydrogen into the grid system.
We can’t be involved early enough to ensure everyone understands the risks, so when the technology is installed at scale, safety is built in.
The other challenge is the speed at which new technology is introduced and around this, how we can use it along with new processes to reduce and eliminate risk wherever possible. An example is robotics replacing humans in risky environments. We’ve spent our time over the past few decades trying to change behaviour, but can we adopt an easier approach and use technology to change the way humans work and reduce their risk?
Finally, we must find new ways to work with duty holders to create a safe environment. Take the work on batteries and hydrogen. If we work together at the beginning, we can build-in safety, which means our regulatory approach with the duty holder will work entirely differently. The challenge is to keep our regulatory independence yet still collaborate to find solutions.
Martin became chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2016. Prior to this, he was director general of EEF in 1999 and chairman from 2008 until 2016.
With more than 30 years of experience in industry, Martin has served on the boards of a wide range of companies and public sector and charity organisations.
He led an independent triennial review of the HSE in 2014. He was also a board member of the Technology Catapult programme, and chaired a programme to clarify and streamline the nature of UK government support to small businesses.
Martin is also currently non-executive director at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.