In an exclusive interview, Sarah Newton, new chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive, explains how she intends to drive safety forward.
In turbulent times, experience and calmness count for a lot. Add to that an inner knowledge of the machinations in Westminster, and the appointment of Sarah Newton as the new chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) looks like a masterstroke.
As an MP from 2010 to 2019 – she served for three years on the Science and Technology Select Committee before becoming a minister in the Home Office and then at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – Sarah has a first-hand understanding of how the wheels of national governance spin. And while she has no professional background in health and safety, her commitment and interest in the sector is by no means a recent development.
‘When I was a minister in the DWP, I had the honour of being responsible for the HSE,’ Sarah says.
‘Up until that point, like most people, I had a pretty sketchy understanding of what the HSE did. But as a minister, I worked very closely with the HSE and had enormous admiration for the work that it undertook.
‘When I stood down from parliament, I really wanted to find a job where I could put all my experience to help make a positive difference. So when this role became available, I seized the opportunity to show my deep commitment to the aims of the HSE. I think I have a lot to contribute to the organisation – particularly now, when there is a huge amount of interface with Whitehall and Westminster in setting up new regimes such as the Building Safety Regulator. I can bring all my experience of being able to get things done in parliament to the HSE board.’
Learning from Grenfell
The coming months and years will see a raft of new responsibilities adopted by the HSE. Exiting the European Union will see the HSE taking on regulatory functions in a range of sectors, such as establishing the Building Safety Regulator, a direct response to the Grenfell Tower fire.
‘We’ll be taking forward the findings of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review, one of which was to create the regulator. That legislation is just beginning its journey through parliament. It’s a complex piece of legislation that involves a partnership between a number of bodies and regulators.
‘But I’m confident that we have the skills and the desire to do an excellent job. We’ll be involved in making sure that the regulator has all the powers it needs to make sure that people can feel safe living or working in high-rise buildings.’
Gender Equality: Changing faces
While the health and safety sector might traditionally be seen as a male-dominated industry, Sarah says this is changing, and aspiring young female OSH professionals have an ever-growing range of female role models to look up to.
‘It’s wonderful that the HSE has Sarah Albon, who is an excellent chief executive, and in fact, a number of our senior inspectors are women as well,’ she says. ‘They were recruited into the HSE as trainee inspectors and have grown with the organisation.
‘Visible leadership is really important. All the research shows that you must have role models if you want to increase the diversity of your workforce. When young people or people of any age are thinking about developing a career or changing career, they look to see who is visible in organisations, and they look for people like themselves.’
Perhaps Sarah’s greatest contribution to the health and safety sector will be that ability to work collaboratively. With 30 years’ experience of strategic planning, leadership and change management, she has had considerable practice building partnerships. And she sees IOSH as one of the HSE’s most important allies.
‘We feel that IOSH is a very important organisation and a great collaborator,’ says Sarah. ‘Clearly IOSH has a very important role in developing the health and safety workforce, and it’s very important that we continue to support and work very closely with IOSH towards our shared goals, which is to make sure that people can go home safely from work.
‘Many people think of us in terms of our safety function with our yellow hats and our hi-vis jackets, but a hugely important part of our role is to prevent any harm at work, so there also has to be a focus on good health at work.’Musculoskeletal and mental health conditions have had a special focus as the two primary reasons for people leaving the workplace.
‘There’s still a huge amount for us to do to raise awareness of those issues and take action to support people – whether in a workplace or at home,’ Sarah says.
‘But this has been a consistent part of the HSE’s work now for the past few years and we have been working closely with a whole range of partners: from the Work and Health Unit at the DWP, to Public Health England, right the way through to individual practitioners and IOSH members. We’ve also collaborated and joint-published some really good advice available to all employers via our bulletins and social media.’
But talk of mental health brings us back to the viral elephant in the room – COVID-19. It’s no surprise that Sarah and the HSE’s immediate concerns centre around the pandemic.
‘Our focus right now is on making as many workplaces as COVID-secure as possible,’ Sarah says.
‘The HSE secured additional funding from the government to expand our ability to do spot checks and to work proactively with local authority partners, who often have a very close relationship with workplaces such as restaurants, distribution centres, hospitality and retail. We work with them to increase their capacity to make sure those workplaces are as safe as possible.
‘Of course, there’s a lot of focus on people being asked to work from home. But we shouldn’t forget that there are lots of people who can’t – those in manufacturing, care homes and hospitals – and we must be very mindful of their safety as they’re working through what I am sure will be a long and hard winter.’
Among all the novel requirements brought about by COVID, it’s vital that the day-to-day work of the HSE continues.
‘What the leadership team at HSE has been very clear on is that, while we have been increasing our work in other areas, we want to make sure that we do not lose focus on the high-risk, low-prevalence workplaces we’re responsible for, such as offshore oil and gas, power and manufacturing industries. So we are continuing with our inspection regimes and investigating where there are fatalities.’
AI and net zero
Despite the challenges ahead, Sarah sees an exciting horizon for both the HSE and the sector as a whole.
‘We won’t be in COVID crisis mode forever, and we want to make sure that we’re looking ahead to the new industries of the future,’ says Sarah. ‘For example, we are thinking about issues such as artificial intelligence, where humans work alongside robots, and really looking at the implications of that on safety in the workplace.’
'We must not lose focus on the high-risk, low-prevalence workplaces we’re responsible for'
‘Considering the government’s huge ambition to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we’ll also be playing an increasingly important role in, for example, the development of hydrogen alongside natural gas. Moving to net zero will mean some very significant transitions in the fuels that we use for everything from transport to how we heat our homes, so it’s very important that we make sure people working in those industries are safe and we’ve learnt all the lessons from the past.’
A sunny future?
Sarah says she believes the coming years will see ever more recognition for health and safety professionals and their work.
‘I can’t remember a period in my lifetime when there has been so much focus on safety,’ she says.
‘At the moment, with COVID, I think there is a really interesting conversation developing in the nation about risk, the nature of risk, and how you measure and balance risk when making a decision. I think this will make the whole sector more appealing to a range of people, and show there are clear opportunities for young professionals in our occupation.
‘The evidence of the sector’s success is all around us. One fatality at work is one too many, but we are not complacent and we are always looking at what more we can do to prevent death or serious injury at work. However, the long-term trends are encouraging. By having the right approach to how risk is measured in the workplace, and how collectively employers and employees can work together to assess and mitigate that risk, we can see that things are moving in the right direction.’
Sarah’s message to our Future Leaders
'First of all, be positive – you have a very bright future. This is a fast-moving industry, it’s very dynamic, there are lots of things happening, so always think about taking more courses and CPD, and look at how you can develop yourself. You will probably work in three or four different industries during your career in health and safety, and your work is important in every workplace – whether that’s private sector or public sector – so grasp every opportunity that is available.'