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Leader interview

Kevin Myers, IALI

The former HSE deputy chief executive now represents labour inspectors around the world and has robust views on OSH overprovision. 

Kevin Myers, International Association of Labour Inspection, IALI
Image credits: Andrew Firth

Kevin Myers has a unique perspective on the UK’s safety and health regulator. He served in increasingly central roles in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) from soon after its foundation in 1975, culminating in a year as acting chief executive in 2013.

The intervening decades fuel much of my discussion with Myers but we start with his reflections on a wider stage. Two years ago he left the British national regulator to concentrate on his elected role as president of the International Association of Labour Inspection (IALI), the global umbrella body for labour standards regulators (see "In the scheme of things" below).

Given the breadth of IALI’s membership, representing regulators from Albania and Australia to the UK and Zimbabwe, countries with widely differing settlements between governments and their citizenry, I ask whether he believes there is a single, ideal model for labour inspectorates.

“The regulatory model for any country doesn’t operate in isolation from the cultures, the norms, the modus vivendi of that country,” he says. “So you need to develop a model that fits into the particular culture. That creates lots of interesting challenges in trying to advise countries that can’t necessarily see that they may not be able to do what they say they want to do because it goes against the grain of how the country operates.”

He gives the example of Singapore, which adopted the UK’s principles of OSH regulation in which the duty to manage the risk lies with the enterprise that creates it.

“They’ve driven significant improvements on the back of that,” he says. “But the culture in Singapore is very different from the culture in the UK.” The city state is renowned for its paternalistic ethos and Myers says that poses challenges to a government trying to deliver a goal-setting and risk-based OSH system that relies on dutyholders for a degree of self-regulation.

Means and ways

Kevin Myers career file 

2013-present: President, International Association of Labour Inspection

2015-2016: Director general regulation, HSE

2013-2014: Acting chief executive, HSE

2008-2015: Deputy chief executive, HSE

2011-2014: Non-executive board member, Office for Nuclear Regulation

2005-2008: Director, Hazardous Installations Directorate, HSE

2000-2005: Chief inspector of construction, HSE

1998-2002: Regional director, field operations director, HSE, Chelmsford

1995-1998: Unit head, Chemical and Hazardous Industries Division

1993-1995: Detached national expert, European Commission, DG XI, Brussels

1991-1993: Management board secretary, planning and finance officer, Offshore Safety Division, HSE

1989-1991: Private secretary to deputy director general, HSE

1987-1989: Principal inspector, HSE, Bristol

1976-1987: Trainee factory inspector, London, then main grade inspector, Norwich, Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

On the IALI website, Myers’ presidential statement refers to the fact that many labour inspectorates are coping with reduced resources. I ask whether he sees that as something a representative body should try to discourage. Not necessarily, he says. “I know of no labour inspectorate in any country, at any time, that is adequately resourced. I’m not saying resources aren’t important, but a much more constructive question is to ask are we using the resources at our disposal as efficiently and effectively as we can?

“The ILO [International Labour Organization] has prescriptive norms of ratios of inspectors to workplaces or numbers of employees but I don’t think they are particularly helpful.”

Myers argues that the approach of cutting your coat according to your cloth creates a strong argument for more funding rather than less: “If you can show you are effective and can add value to society because you are good at what you do it does help make the case for extra resources.”

He endorses the approach set out by previous leader interviewee Nancy Leppink (bit.ly/2reWWHm) – whose job includes running the labour administration section of the ILO – that labour inspectors can influence good practice only to a limited degree through sanctions for individual infringements alone.

Myers uses a diagram with concentric rings of “influence network domains” to explain his approach. At the centre is human and technical systems, surrounded by organisation and management systems, then corporate policy and finally social and market context. Hazardous activities such as people climbing unfooted ladders to remove asbestos with inadequate precautions are naturally located in the central area of human and technical systems, he says. “But they do not do this in some vacuum; it happens as a consequence of the management system. That system isn’t in a vacuum either, because it is influenced by corporate policy [the next ring], which is then also influenced by wider considerations of the market, reputation, the regulatory system and so on.”

Traditional activity by labour inspectors tries to influence from the centre outwards to society, “whereas the reality is the influence in society flows inwards. So it is self-evident to me that the more you can operate in the outer circles the wider influence you have.”

Kevin-Myers-IALI-career-fileHe offers the hypothetical example of a country called Ruritania, which has a young manufacturing sector: “Ruritania has started to develop a small labour inspectorate that is trying to get its manufacturers to take OSH seriously and have higher standards. So that’s one way of trying to exercise influence. Another way is to say that most of those companies are part of global supply chains. The people in those supply chains have checks and balances to ensure the quality of their products. Why can’t they also be pressurised to have the same approach to OSH standards in the factories that supply them?

“The labour inspectorate in Ruritania can’t drive that. The ILO, the G20, consumer and corporate social responsibility pressure can do it. Think of the response of consumers to the Rana Plaza [Bangladesh garment factory] incident. Why can’t we be mobilising that sort of commitment at a global level proactively as opposed to reactively?”

He says this sort of supranational pressure from the groupings of the biggest economies such as the G7 or the G20 to assure OSH standards in remote suppliers would create a standard among exporters that would in turn give the labour inspectorates in countries such as Ruritania models against which to hold manufacturers for their domestic markets.

“That’s a more effective way of improving the inspectors’ competence and standards than just trying from first principles to go over there and train Ruritanian inspectors how to carry out investigations.”

This is the sort of message he is delivering on IALI’s behalf in the nascent discussions on how to implement the G20 labour and employment ministers’ 2017 statement on decent work in supply chains (see "In the scheme of things" box below)

Here be monsters

In the scheme of things

Kevin Myers CBE is president of the International Association of Labour Inspection (IALI). He has served in elected posts in the association since 2005, initially – while working for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – as vice-president, then secretary general and since 2013 as president. He was recently elected to a second three-year term.

IALI has around 100 member organisations and represents inspectorates that, in many countries, regulate not just occupational safety and health but matters such as working hours and wages as well.

His role is “providing leadership for an organisation that is dispersed across the world, representational functions on behalf of labour inspectors, and trying to deliver what the members ask its executive to do”.

He is asked to participate in and speak at gatherings of regional alliances of labour inspectorates and at OSH conferences worldwide about the role of labour inspectors. In recent years IALI has drawn up a code of integrity for inspectors, common principles for establishing an inspectorate, a handbook for measuring performance and, most recently, an assessment tool for inspectors to evaluate their effectiveness.

“It’s not a large, well-funded organisation,” says Myers. With no full-time, permanent secretariat, he says he sometimes feels a bit like the Wizard of Oz where, for all the activity, “when you pull the curtain aside there’s a little man standing on a soapbox trying to do it all. And that’s me – and a handful of colleagues on the executive committee.”

In the years after its formation in 1972, Myers says IALI was mostly Eurocentric, “but if you think what’s happened to the global economy since then, there are many countries with a range of industries they never had before”. That is also reflected in the membership of the executive committee currently comprising people from China, Germany, Spain, France, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, ARLAC (African Regional Labour Administration Centre – an umbrella organisation which supports English-speaking African countries) as well as the UK.

Myers says economic development in such countries follows a predictable path where the first flush of industrialisation is accompanied by little regulation and then pressure builds to set and enforce minimum labour standards.

“The seed of the HSE was in 1833 and we have quite a sophisticated, well-developed system but it has taken nearly 200 years,” he says. “Part of the role of IALI is to share experience and learning so we can support developing economies to establish effective labour inspectorates – but quicker than 150 years.”

In a previous leader interview Nancy Leppink of the International Labour Organization (ILO) talked about a global OSH coalition of labour ministries and institutes to raise standards. Myers has attended early meetings of G20 country representatives but says it is early days and the countries and the ILO have yet to set out a path to “operationalise” the good intentions. “We stand ready to help them deliver it,” he says.

The conversation moves on to Myers’ career with one of IALI’s founding members, the HSE, spanning most of the organisation’s first 48 years from just after its genesis in the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act which itself stemmed directly from Lord Alfred Robens’ committee’s report on safety and health regulation. How would he summarise the HSE’s development?

“I think HSE has been a very successful organisation in that time,” he says. “It inherited an excellent design philosophy for OSH matters. The principles in the Health and Safety at Work Act are eternal truths: that the primary responsibility for managing risks lies with the people that create the risks, and they should manage the risks in consultation with the people who are exposed to them. What you should be aiming for is what Robens characterised as self-regulation – which is an articulation of people owning their risks and managing them effectively. In this approach the role of the regulator is to encourage and stimulate that self-regulation and to hold people to account when it isn’t working.”

He believes that one reason for its success is that the organisation has historically understood its primary role is as a regulator. It has innovated in approaches to regulation and developed a varied toolkit, and responded to pressures for economy, efficiency and effectiveness while keeping its eye on that ball.

The fitness of the regime was proven in the fire of multiple regulatory reviews under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, the Blair Labour administration and again under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

The latter saw public attacks from politicians right up to prime minister David Cameron, who characterised safety and health requirements as an “albatross” hanging from the neck of UK business.

“Working under the coalition was interesting,” Myers says diplomatically. “The rhetoric was much noisier than what actually happened.”

What was it like managing the HSE through that period? “Challenging. But we live in a democracy and the role of the civil service, including senior managers in the HSE, is to advise the elected government on how to deliver its policy objectives. In doing so it can sometimes be necessary to tease out what the policy actually is and provide evidence to support or question its wisdom or necessity.

“We wanted to understand what the government wanted and what the problem was as they saw it.”

Though it put the HSE on the back foot in having to justify its work to some sceptical ministers, he says he was not personally confounded by the government’s “monstering” of OSH provision “because I believed there was a health and safety monster, or dragon or whatever it was. The challenge was to get the government to understand where some of the problems came from.”

Kevin-Myers-International-Association-of-Labour-Inspection-IALI-international-benchmarkingWhere did they come from? “Over the past 40 years a health and safety system has developed in our country in a way that I haven’t seen in any other country,” he says.

The growth of an OSH profession “has undoubtedly helped to make self-regulation work, but there is a downside to it. There is an economic theory that says if you put more and more resources into dealing with something, there comes a point where you don’t get any more return on investment. In the late 1990s I think we went over that peak in respect of OSH in some parts of the economy.”

Other people have pinned the blame for unnecessary restrictions in the name of safety and health at the door of the insurance industry or even over-zealous local authority officials but, like his former colleague ex-HSE chair Dame Judith Hackitt, Myers lays some responsibility at the door of OSH practitioners, particularly consultants.

“Consultants advising a company [can make] the company dependent on them instead of teaching the company how to manage risk. There is undoubtedly an element of that.”

Part of the problem also comes from over-prescriptive prequalification of suppliers in the UK, he suggests, the other side of the coin of his earlier point about the need for global businesses to set higher OSH standards for their procurement overseas: “There are quite a lot of prescriptive (back-covering) rules set out in contracts through supply chains, so it’s business-on-business stuff that goes over the top sometimes.”

He believes the HSE could and should have reacted earlier to the “myths” reported widely in some sections of the press about everyday activities being banned on safety grounds: “We did eventually start to tackle this head on. I can’t re-live history so I don’t know if we could have nipped it in the bud, but it’s one of my regrets that we didn’t try to do so sooner.”

Overall, he says, though it was a “difficult and tricky time”, the three reviews of the HSE and OSH regulation between 2010 and 2015 did not weaken the UK’s safety and health system significantly.

Fee earning

Another significant development during Myers’ last years in the HSE’s senior management was the introduction of the fee for intervention (FFI) scheme, under which inspectors are obliged to recoup the costs of visiting businesses whenever they find material breaches of regulations.

Kevin-Myers-IALI-hand-gesturesThe HSE has always defended the programme as the OSH equivalent of the “polluter pays” principle in environmental regulation; under which the enforcing agency should be able to recoup the costs of its efforts from those that are in breach. But some ex-inspectors have complained about the erosion of their discretion over enforcement action and about the alteration in their relationship with dutyholders. Does he see any damage to the relationship between inspectors and inspected?

All of a sudden it looked like the construction industry was getting out of control

“I think that the introduction of FFI inevitably had the potential to cause some damage because it changed the dynamic,” he says. “It does constrain inspectors and change the nature of the relationship. But I think it’s overplayed. As HSE’s resources are contracting, it needs to get better at ensuring it goes to the places that are not self-regulating, that are not managing their risks effectively.

“The job of the inspector is not to inspect every nook and cranny and check they are complying with every regulation that is relevant to the business but is to make an assessment as to whether they are managing risks effectively. Rather like an auditor, you follow that through on one or two key risks. What we say to the inspectors is if you get so far and they seem to be doing [things well], dip out and go somewhere else where they need you.

“Is the change to the system worth it for the money that it saved the public purse? No. Is it better that HSE has got that money than not having it? Yes.”

I ask his view of former HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger’s characterisation of a cycle of tighter regulation after a disaster to be followed by gradual erosion of controls until the next major event. “People tend to get complacent, that’s human nature and they forget why things are done, sometimes quicker than others. The best example I have is [former national rail infrastructure company] Railtrack, which was privatised and within a few years there was no one on the board who had experience of the rail industry and they didn’t understand why they needed to spend all that money inspecting the points.” (Railtrack was dissolved for reasons that included poor safety management after the Southall and Ladbroke Grove rail crashes in the late 1990s.)

Building consensus

The first third of Myers’ time at the HSE was spent in the field inspectorate. Once he moved to the centre, subsequent posts included a three-year secondment to the European Commission working on the 1996 Seveso directive on major accident hazards, then helping to establish the HSE’s chemicals and hazardous installations directorate to help implement the directive.

From 2000 to 2005 he served as chief inspector of construction, one of the agency’s most publicly visible posts. His start coincided with a spike in the sector’s annual fatal accident rate by more than 25% from 4.7 to 6 per 100,000 workers – actual fatalities rose from 81 to 105, partly the result of a new government having invested in major infrastructure projects that fuelled rapid expansion of the industry after a recession, with an influx of less experienced and less risk-conscious labour. But whatever the reason for the leap it was an unhappy inheritance for Myers.

From the front

Many of the senior figures interviewed for IOSH Magazine have to pause and reflect when they are asked about leadership qualities in the abstract. Myers has previously been asked to speak on the subject, so his thoughts are well defined.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned about leadership is it’s not management,” he says, quoting in support the pioneer of leadership studies, Warren Bennis: “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing”.

“Leadership is about setting the culture, about values, behaviours,” Myers continues. “It’s about being able to be a visionary telling the story of the organisation, where it’s come from, where it is and where it needs to go and driving through and delivering that change.

“It was Eisenhower who said leadership is getting someone to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. I think that’s true for managing upwards as well as managing down.”

Leaders require humility, he says, and to recognise their own strengths and development needs. They should build teams that have a full set of complementary skills, particularly the ones they themselves lack or are weaker in.

Integrity is also important. “What you do is as important as what you say,” he adds, because to do otherwise the leader’s behaviour creates cognitive dissonance or mixed messages.

“Leadership is also about ownership and stepping up to the plate when things go wrong,” he adds, “rather than blaming the person that was responsible for delivering something. It’s also about hard decisions and – as [US general] Colin Powell puts it – it sometimes means having to piss people off.”

As a kicker he offers the quip by US baseball player and manager Casey Stengel: “The key to being a good leader is keeping the people who hate me away from those who are still undecided.”

“All of a sudden it looked like the industry was getting out of control,” he recalls. “That was one of the busiest and most challenging times in my career.”

Of all the buttons the HSE pressed to try to bring the rate back to a virtuous trend he believes one of the most significant was persuading deputy prime minister John Prescott to convene a summit involving the trade unions and chief executives of the representative bodies and major contractors.

“[We said] you are the deputy prime minister of this country. Your department actually sponsors the construction industry and 60% of construction spend is procured through government. You have all the levers you need. If you call a summit of the movers and shakers we can get the industry to agree its targets under your Revitalising Health and Safety strategy and come forward with plans to deliver them.”

After his appointment he also questioned why the HSE had no dedicated division for the sector that was responsible for most fatalities and serious injuries.

“[I said] ‘I’m chief inspector of construction but I don’t manage the construction inspectors. We are getting the industry to change, we ought to ask ourselves whether we should also be changing’.”

His then boss, Adrian Ellis, the chief inspector of the field operations directorate, took him at his word and the construction inspectorate was established with around 100 frontline staff.

He also persuaded the director general to move away from the annual target of 100,000 inspections as a performance indicator since it encouraged inspectors to focus on the quantity of visits – “every contractor spoken to during a site visit counted as an inspection” – rather than the quality.

“From memory, over five years we reduced the number of inspections of construction sites by 50% and the fatal accident rate went down 50%,” he says. (The rate dropped immediately back to 4.3 after the initial spike and was at 3 by the time he handed over the reins of the construction division in 2005.)

“All the problems of the construction industry aren’t solved,” he reflects, “but the problems at the top of the construction industry are incomparably fewer. That change in culture fed into the success the sector delivered in the [2012 London] Olympic build.”

I say that the level of attention they received from the regulator played a powerful part in the major contractors upping their game. He agrees “up to a point”. He believes the senior managers in many contractors began to see the business benefits of better controls on processes, knowing who was on their sites and that they were competent for the tasks they were given.

The removal of inspection targets gave inspectors more time to start looking for the underlying causes of patterns of infractions by the same companies, and issue improvement notices to try to fix those causes. This switched the focus from just trying to fix the human and technical system failures in his model but also the managerial systems and even corporate policy. In the same spirit he encouraged senior inspectors to arrange meetings with the chief executives of the major contractors and arranged training to support them. That higher-level engagement led to improved integration of safety into projects earlier.

Soon after he took over as construction head he met the chief executive of a major company which had recently had two fatalities on its sites. “He made a pitch about how they were taking safety very seriously and told me what they were going to do to ensure they were in compliance. I said I’m glad you are taking it seriously but can we forget about health and safety for a minute? When you go and pitch for contracts do you say to prospective clients: ‘Give us the job, we will do just about enough’? Or do you say: ‘Give us the job; we are into innovation, continuous improvement, driving quality and delighting the customer’?”

When the chief executive agreed he would pitch all those aspirational values Myers says he asked, “‘Well why are you coming in to me and telling me that in health and safety you are going to do just enough to ensure compliance?’ To be fair to him he conceded it was a valid point and he drove forward improvements.

“That’s what I think is at the heart of the Health and Safety at Work Act,” he adds. “Managing health and safety risks is an enabler of business. I’ve seen many people who have sought to raise their game for altruistic reasons, then realise it pays – and then they are completely converted.”

Floating boats

I ask what prompted him to join the HSE in the first place. He recalls a long coach journey with his then girlfriend’s brother in the early 1970s, just before he finished his biochemistry degree, in which the conversation turned to what he wanted to do when he graduated. After Myers set out his preferences for a job that allowed him to broaden his knowledge rather than deepening it in a single area, was not office-bound and had a social purpose, his future brother in law suggested he investigate what was then known as the factory inspectorate.

“I looked into it and it seemed to tick all those boxes, so I applied and joined.”

In his first years as an inspector in east London he recalls visiting a couple of, then, household name manufacturers and talked to them about safety provisions. “And I was thinking ‘they are never going to get this right because their whole business model is wrong and I can’t imagine how they can manage the health and safety risks if they are not managing the productivity risks, the cost risks and so on’. Very early on I identified the connection between those factors and that stayed with me though my whole career. I always tried to get people to manage health and safety as they would manage other business risks.”

He recalls another encounter with two partners in an engineering firm who were milling, grinding and machining parts with “awful standards, there was no guarding on the machines, but it was only themselves who would have been injured”. He says he told them the correct levels of protection and steered them towards the relevant guidance but did not press the point as they had no employees. Some years later he visited another works in a different part of London with the same name over the door. “It was a much bigger factory and it was one of the best factories I had ever inspected. They said that because they had expanded they had taken the advice previously given. I really got a buzz from the fact that they had stored [the advice] up for when they grew.”

He says that one of the reasons he stayed with the regulator was that the subsequent decades continued to provide that sort of sense of achievement.

“Forty years later it continued to tick all those boxes for me it had at the beginning. I continued to learn and grow throughout my career. I think I thrive on change.”

Louis Wustemann is editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

Comments

One of the best articles on OSH management I've read in a long time. Well done.

Excellent interview, informative and thought probvoking

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