Being a critical friend to the authorities

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

In 2016 I had the opportunity to watch some health and safety prosecutions in the crown courts. It was an instructive and interesting experience, but one which left me wondering who acts as the enforcing authorities’ critical friend.

In recent years, UK governments have questioned the role of OSH legislation, the safety and health culture that has developed since the Health and Safety at Work Act and, of course, the work of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Although the rearguard action mounted by practitioners’ bodies to argue the value of improvements in safety performance has been largely successful, it has had an unintended consequence of uniting the whole health and safety “community” as HSE supporters, almost as flag wavers from the sidelines. This doesn’t apply in other areas of public life, where regulators such as the tax authorities or the police are both supported and challenged by professionals in the field, in these cases accountants and solicitors respectively.

If the only people who question, analyse and criticise the work of the HSE believe safety and health regulation is a burden on business, the organisation misses out on the creative tension that can arise between them and those who support its aims but also provide insight, reaction to strategy and, where appropriate, criticism. When the only critical voices are belligerently negative, an organisation can become a little deaf to the outside world and potentially complacent.

That is where my recent court observations proved so surprising, particularly in light of the research findings discussed in the January 2017 issue of IOSH Magazine about new methods to engage workers in developing their own safety procedures. The HSE says it opposes excessive bureaucracy and top-down management edicts based on risk aversion, but the process of taking a case to court for alleged breach of safety and health duties can often lead to an excessive, almost total, reliance on the paper records.

The HSE will be best served if we steer a path between supporting the regulator and a continuing, robust analysis of its performance.

In one case I saw great emphasis placed on the misspelling of someone’s name in an induction record, even though there was no dispute that the person concerned attended the induction. The mistake was used, over again, apparently to emphasise that safety and health wasn’t taken seriously and that the management team was sloppy in its approach to it. The subtext was that, if the paperwork was not right, the workplace risk management could not be satisfactory.

Court cases revolve around paperwork; even witnesses are questioned largely on their written statements. Those caught up in the proceedings often realise that the case is more about what the written records show than what happened in practice.

As a result of restrictions on HSE resources, greater reliance is now placed on extracting fees for notification of smaller breaches. Taken with evidence that there is dissonance between the arguments for a sensible, proportionate approach to workplace risk management and the reality of HSE enforcement strategies, surely it is time for OSH professionals to reiterate our support for strong regulations and a strong regulator but not to the exclusion of using our critical faculties. The HSE will be best served if we steer a path between supporting the regulator and a continuing, robust analysis of its performance. We need to become that critical friend.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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