The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) new strategy for managing OSH risks over the next 10 years has been published, reflecting the changing nature of the world of work.
Protecting People and Places outlines five strategic objectives for Great Britain’s OSH regulator, which includes expanding its focus beyond worker protection to support the UK’s move towards net zero and taking on additional responsibilities – the provision of a Building Safety Regulator (BSR) and an expanded remit on chemical regulation.
The document’s priorities cover both new and traditional OSH risks, concentrating on ‘areas of greatest health and safety challenge’ and where the HSE can make the ‘biggest contribution to benefit society’.
The first objective is to reduce work-related ill-health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress.
Although Great Britain now has one of the lowest rates of fatal and non-fatal work-related injury across Europe, the strategy acknowledges that the same cannot be said for work-related ill-health, with current trends indicating that stress, depression and anxiety are increasing. The HSE says it plans to treat to mental health as importantly as physical health.
The strategy’s second objective is designed to increase and maintain trust so that the public feels ‘safe where they live, where they work, and in their environment’.
In response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the HSE established the BSR in England, as part of the government’s reforms of the building and fire safety system.
The strategy notes that the HSE will deliver ‘a regime for higher-risk buildings that improves standards, compliance and accountability’, which will be similar to its work in major hazard settings.
As Sarah Newton, HSE Board Chair, notes: ‘The passing of the Building Safety Act 2022 a few weeks ago means we can now formally set up a regulator in a similar way to how the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 led to the formation of the HSE. We will use our regulatory expertise and experience to provide a Building Safety Regulator, part of a new building safety regime, that will keep residents in England safe in their homes’.
The HSE’s responsibility for regulating chemicals, pesticides, biocides and detergents also falls under this objective and the strategy notes that following the UK’s departure from the EU, the regulator will ‘continue to operate effective regimes so businesses can trade and use products and chemicals in a way that does not put people or the environment at risk’.
Similarly, as the UK drives forward to meet its net zero greenhouse gas ambitions by 2050, the strategy identifies the HSE important role in supporting the transition to a carbon neutral economy by enabling industry to innovate safely to prevent major incidents.
The document recognises that the development of greener building and battery technologies will present new risks for both businesses and wider society. As part of its third objective, the HSE ‘will work to make sure that health and safety legislation doesn’t prevent innovation and progress.’
One of its early priorities in this area will be resolving any safety challenges that arise from using hydrogen for decarbonisation.
‘Nowhere is the pace of technological advancement more evident than in the UK’s move towards net zero and the development of sustainable, clean energy,’ says Newton.
‘Transitioning to a carbon neutral economy presents new risks where we will need to apply scientific expertise and continue to work alongside initiatives like the Gas Safe Register.’
Thanks to the HSW Act, Great Britain has one of the best safety records among industrialised nations. The strategy’s fourth objective is to maintain this track record by ‘learning from evidence and past events to protect people’.
As the strategy notes, the HSE’s ‘expectation and evidence suggests that most businesses have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to manage safety risks for themselves,’ underlining the fundamental principle of the HSW Act that ‘those who create risks are best placed to manage them’.
This means the HSE plans to refocus its regulatory attention to ‘focus on achieving similar improvements in workplace health’.
Newton says that implementing the strategy will require even greater collaboration across sectors and industries.
‘For example, we can build on the success of our Working Minds campaign where we realised early on that we couldn’t effectively tackle work-related stress and poor mental health alone,’ she said.
‘We worked with and listened to experts from MIND, ACAS and the Federation of Small Businesses and last month achieved the milestone of 500 champions for our campaign to increase awareness of the risks of work-related stress and encourage businesses to take action.’
The strategy’s final objective is designed to ensure that the HSE attracts and retains a highly- skilled and capable workforce so that it can deliver on its strategic priorities.
Sitting under its five objectives are six strategic themes, which will guide the HSE’s regulatory activities from 2022-2032: a relevant HSE; a fair and just HSE; a people-focused HSE; a collaborative HSE; a financially viable HSE; and an accessible HSE.
To ensure the HSE remains relevant, the strategy notes that the regulator will continue to review its regulatory framework so that it can respond effectively as new risks evolve and keep pace with social, political, environmental and technological developments.
As a fair and just regulator, the HSE says it will continue to target its enforcement work at higher-risk activities and at businesses with the poorest health and safety records.
On being a financially viable regulator, the strategy notes that the HSE will use a combination of cost recovery and government funding to ensure that it makes ‘the right level of investment required to deliver our prevention, assurance, and enforcement activities’.
Finally, to ensure the HSE remains accessible to those who rely on its advice and guidance, the strategy says the regulator will develop its digital capability and use new technologies. Its advice service will reflect its traditional role of managing workplace health and safety risks with its expanded role on chemicals and as the BSR.
Responding to the strategy’s publication, Stefan Desbordes, regulatory (safety, health and environment) solicitor at DAC Beachcroft, said that the strategy was both bold and ambitious.
‘It is reactive to the changing world of work, together with the introduction of new technologies in the workplace and the growth of the gig economy and hybrid landscape,’ he said.
Commenting on the HSE’s key strategic objective to ‘Maintain Great Britain’s record as one of the safest countries to work in’, he warned, however, that the government may need to reprioritise its budgets to take into consideration the growing cost of living crisis. This, he added, could impact on the regulator’s level of enforcement over the coming years.
‘The HSE acknowledges in its business plan for 2022/23 that there is uncertainty, but that it remains confident that it can respond with agility if resources are required to be redirected,’ he said. ‘This may impact some of its objectives and deliverables.’
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