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Dame Judith Hackitt has chaired the UK's safety and health regulator through a time of unprecedented change. Since she was appointed in 2007, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has absorbed its former governing body the Health and Safety Commission, moved its head office from London to Merseyside, lost more than one third of its public funding and survived no fewer than four government reviews of Britain's safety and health infrastructure.
Working with HSE chief executives Geoffrey Podger and latterly Richard Judge, she has overseen an overhaul of approved codes to many regulations and controversial changes to injury reporting duties, construction safety law and a scheme to charge businesses for regulatory breaches that do not warrant prosecution.
We met in the HSE's space in the offices of its parent ministry, the Department for Work and Pensions, in the same London street that is home to the headquarters of manufacturers' body EEF, where she was due to take up her new post as chief executive a week later.
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Louis Wustemann: What has your time as HSE chair taught you?
Judith Hackitt: It's taught me patience. Sometimes things take a lot longer to achieve than my background in the private sector made me used to.
It's also taught me that you have to say the same thing lots and lots of times before people hear it, especially when you are trying to change public perception. There are things I've been saying for the past eight years, such as the need for children to experience risk, the fact that risk management belongs with those who create the risk and the fact that personal responsibility is still an issue. I'm still saying those things and the media is still reporting them as news but I've been saying them a long time.
So I have learned you just have to keep on saying things. You have to wait for people to take the message on board; that's when they get it, when they no longer listen to it as your opinion but they start to agree with it.
LW: What would you like to be remembered for having achieved in the job?
JH: For turning around perceptions about what health and safety is all about. When I applied for this job eight-and-a-half years ago it was because I was very concerned about the negative perceptions of what health and safety and HSE was all about and I wanted to change that. I think I have done that in a number of different ways. Not just in terms of cha llenging nonsense but also in redressing the balance as I saw it then where, when things went wrong, people seemed to be saying "why didn't the regulator stop this happening?"
I think we have moved things on in the past eight years and people now recognise that, as we have said in our strategy, that's not what our system is about. Our system makes it very clear that risk management rests with those who create risk, not with the regulator.
Dame Judith Hackitt
Dame Judith Hackitt trained as a chemical engineer at Imperial College, London. After working for Esso (now Exxon) Chemicals from 1975 until 1990 in process management at the Fawley refinery she became operations director and then group risk manager of pigments maker Elementis Specialties.
She moved to the Chemical Industries Association in 1998, becoming director general in 2002. She was director, chemistry for Europe at the European Chemical Industry Association in 2006/07.
She served as a health and safety commissioner between 2002 and 2005, was appointed as HSE chair in October 2007 and reappointed in 2012.
She is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Chemical Engineers and served as the latter's president in 2013/14.
LW: What have you enjoyed most about the job?
JH: The people in HSE. We have some fantastic people working in this organisation and I have not once been disappointed in any of them and have thoroughly enjoyed being their ambassador and their champion. Because they deserve to have a champion.
LW: Do you still see HSE's role as the same as when it was established: policy, education and enforcement?
JH: All those three strands continue to be very important. Yes, we are still here to enforce against those who don't do the right thing, but our major role is prevention of injury and death and that means you have to educate people and to ensure the policy measures are right. So yes, they are entirely relevant.
LW: Is it still effective in all three?
JH: I think so, yes, and I think the evidence clearly backs that up.
LW: In your time the government has cut HSE's budget severely, alongside other public bodies. How has that affected the executive's ability to do its work?
JH: It's caused us to look long and hard at what we do and how we do it. My own experience from the private sector has helped support that. It was not unusual to me that we were asked to look at how we could be more efficient because that's what I'm used to.
I think the many things we have looked at in terms of how we work internally, whether our regulation was fit for purpose or could be updated in such a way that it was more accessible, have been good for us. They've been good challenges and we are better for them.
LW: One of the responses to reduced funding was for the HSE to retrench from inspecting what it characterised as lower-hazard sectors and focusing effort on construction and engineering among others. That was seen as a gamble by some. Has it worked?
JH: Interesting that you use the word retrench. I see it as us focusing on the areas of greatest priority. I think in times of economic cutbacks it's absolutely right and proper that a body funded by public money should be doing the things that have the most impact. It was important to have a long hard look at where you can have most impact and effect and that's where you should focus your time and attention.
LW: Another consequence of the HSE's grant cut was the decision to introduce fee for intervention [charging employers for small regulatory breaches flagged up by inspectors]. Many inspectors and dutyholders say that has changed the relationship between them, not for the better. Does FFI make life more difficult for the inspectorate?
JH: I'd be first to agree FFI ha s been a big change for people both within HSE and for people on the receiving end of our inspections. Do I think the principle of charging people who have not done the right thing until we tell them to is right? Yes, I do. The principle is sound. But I am very conscious that people continue to tell me, as you say, that this has changed the relationship between HSE and the people out there who used to value our free advice.
The extent to which that is real and the extent to which it is perception we have to get to the bottom of. Is it that people are afraid to ask for advice now because they fear we might charge them or is it because they have real evidence that if we ask them to come in we charge them? I don't know and I think it's something that needs a lot more analysis to see where the real problem is.
What I do know is there are a lot of companies out there that used to value the advice they got from inspectors that they now don't get, so because we have cut back on the number of inspections there are a lot of people who sa y, in effect: "We miss you. We used to like having visits from HSE, when we got good advice and we would appreciate the opportunity to have that back."
What interests me is that when you say to people "but we no longer have the resources to do that as free advice, would you be willing to pay for it?", more often than not people say they would.
So there's a conundrum for me in that people tell me they would be willing to pay for advice but, when it comes to FFI, they are afraid it has got in the way of them asking for advice for free. So there is a dilemma to be addressed there, but the principle at its heart is sound.
There is more debate about health and safety now in boardrooms, but we are not yet where we need to be
LW: It seems to be the lack of discretion on the part of inspectors that causes problems. Where once they could choose to give a dutyholder some cautionary advice, they now have to charge whenever they see a breach whether they like it or not. So it's the context in which organisations are paying, when they may otherwise have high standards. Would you have any advice for your successor on how to resolve the issue?
Consultancy in crisis?
"Why didn't you ask me about health and safety consultants?" Judith Hackitt asks as I wrap up the interview. The issue had not come up because I had not seen her single out independent advisers for attention before, though she had complained on a BBC radio programme in 2015 about the OSH profession becoming "overpopulated with professionals or so-called professionals who make a living out of over-interpreting what the law says for their own ends."
What concerns her about consultants? "There is a role for experts in health and safety in this system of ours and it's an important role. The problem is we have too many and we aren't as good as we need to be about differentiating between the different types of consultants.
"There are the real high-end experts in subjects like engineering who really know their specialist subjects and they have an important role to play. But then you get those who are more general health and safety consultants. The good ones listen to what their customers want and provide proportionate solutions. The not-so-good ones impose and sell through fear. [They say] 'You must do this or you will be locked up', or whatever. Those are the ones that need to look long and hard at what they are doing and why. And if there was one thing I would have liked to have landed better in my time in this job it would have been OSHCR [the Occupational Safety and Health Register], because I don't think it has done what it set out to do at all."
OSHCR was set up with HSE's support in response to Lord Young's report in 2010 which noted that anyone could set themselves up as a health and safety consultant regardless of qualifications or experience. I ask if she thinks it needs reforming or scrapping altogether.
"I have my doubts as to whether OSHCR in its current form can deliver," she says. "We would probably be better off to have a much more radical rethink and look more closely at when expertise is needed and how that's defined. Rather than look at it as one big group of people."
She notes that at the Construction Health Summit in January, when almost 100 chief executives pledged to reduce industrial diseases, almost half admitted not knowing what occupational hygienists did.
"Am I going to say we don't need occupational hygienists? They will help you engineer out the health risks in your business but, if people don't even know they exist how is that going to happen? So we need to take a different approach to show people what the different pools of expertise are, rather than having this generalist occupational safety and health field and help people to be more discerning about what expertise they need to call on when."
I say I understand there is a case for segregating specialists such as fire consultants, ergonomists and hygienists, but what about small businesses who want a consultant to advise on the generality of risk in their operations?
"My first preference would be for the business to deal with the risks themselves," she says. "If it's a small business the first question is why do they need a consultant at all. Most of what they need to do is common sense and if they engage with their employees they can put it in place themselves. And wouldn't it be better embedded if they did that rather than getting someone in to do it for them?"
Overstretched small business owners may value the ability to contract advice on their duties, I suggest.
"Possibly," she says, "but one of the things I've learned from all the work I've done on mythbusters [the panel she chairs which adjudicates on claims of excessive curbs in the name of safety flagged up by the public] is that there are other forces at play here that cause people to believe there are rules when there are not, or not ones that we have imposed.
"So we have to look at those other actors who put bureaucratic requirements on business, whether it's insurers, third party accreditors or consultants. It's time we put some time and effort into asking why we are making businesses do this. It's a real drag on their productivity, so let's stop."
JH: I'd advise them that we need to look at the change in the nature of the relationship and whether that is in any measure large or small due to FFI and look at what we can do to address that, recognising that we will continue as an organisation to be in a position where some of the things we have done in the past when we had more public money we are no longer able to do. So we have to find a new way of doing that perhaps.
LW: Some time ago, after the HSE rejected the idea of recommending a director's duty to ensure workers' safety, you warned that not enough board directors were taking their responsibilities to heart. Do you think business leaders are better engaged now?
JH: I think it is improving all the time. Are we there yet? No, we are not. This is a journey that will never end, in many respects.
The fact that the new strategy we have just launched says we need to increase ownership of health and safety in all organisations is a clear statement, using other words, of the fact there are still too many organisations where it's one person somewhere in the middle who has been given responsibility for health and safety and it isn't owned and led at the top and isn't seen as integral to running a good business. And that's what the strategy says we have to get to.
So we are still not there everywhere, but it is better than it was and a number of things have moved us in that direction. Corporate manslaughter, which was a new offence around the time I was talking about directors' duties, the sentencing guideline changes; those things have raised people's awareness and got their attention. There is more debate about it now in boardrooms, but we are not yet where we need to be.
LW: Accident rates in the UK and some illness measures were on a very favourable downward trend until the beginning of this decade and the pattern since then is less clear. Is that a worry?
JH: Yes, it concerns me in so far as we are still reporting every year a number of people who are being killed and injured and are dying as a result of harm that's been done at work. So it will always be a concern; that's what this job is all about.
Am I concerned that the rate of improvement is slowing? It doesn't surprise me because we are getting to the point where these are the more difficult things to go after. That's why we have to focus our attention on those areas where it seems most difficult to make that move and make those improvements.
LW: But some areas, such as MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders], where there has been no improvement in rates since 2001, but which are among the highest contributors to days lost, are those where HSE has withdrawn from intervention.
JH: Yes, and I think if you look at what our new strategy says, it is getting back to some of those health issues.
Again it's about the approach. Rather than us dictating what the priorities should be, whether it is stress or MSDs, the message is clear; you are the business and it is your business you need to look at and decide what are the safety risks and the health risks and focus on them. Don't wait for us to tell you we are running a programme on stress or MSDs because it may or may not be the top priority for you.
LW: You said before people don't hear messages until they are ready. What if organisations don't respond to the strategy's call to action?
JH: I think we are already past that point. The level of enthusiasm and resonance at the strategy launch events suggests to me that we have got the issues right and we have a very willing and receptive audience out there who are ready to work with us. So if you had asked me that four months ago I would have said "you are right, I don't know" but, having been through the programme we have been through in the first three months of this year, I think we have landed it and people are supporting it. The challenge is not whether people want to work with us, but how well we engage those people and get everyone marching off in the same direction.
LW: What advice do you have for the next HSE chair?
JH: I think to recognise the value and the strengths of this organisation, which are many. It has an enormous capacity to deliver not just our regulatory system, but to deliver change in that system.
If you look at what we have achieved in the past eight years in changing our regulatory framework; not changing the principles, but modernising everything within, the way the rules and guidance are written, we have done that. In the case of [management systems guide] HSG 65 or changes to the mines regulations, we have done it against a backdrop of our stakeholders saying "you mustn't change this!" We've had to take them with us. And now we've done that, those same people are saying "this is really good, we really like it."
I still think the changes to the CDM [Construction (Design and Management) Regulations] are sound and I think they are bedding in now. They were absolutely the right thing to do and the industry is beginning to recognise that. And all of the changes to ACoPs [approved codes of practice] and guidance have made it so much more accessible to everyone and easy to read.
LW: You are about to move next door. What challenges do you expect in your new job?
JH: Many of the challenges will be very different because I am moving into an employer's organisation that not only represents the UK's manufacturing sector but is also an organisation that provides a whole range of services to its members. So it's different and it faces a lot of challenges in terms of competitiveness, innovation, all things that are about my engineering background.
Clearly there's a link with HSE in as far as the manufacturing sector like any other needs to embed safety in being as good as it can be. So I'll be taking some of my thinking from here into the new role. But it's very much more about working with the membership and representing the membership to government.
Engaging in the debate about European membership is bound to feature, because it's a big issue for the sector. It's not about what I think, it's about what the members think and what they want. So it will be really important for me to hear what the members' concerns and issues are about European membership.
But there are other things on the agenda like skills. How do we address the need for technicians and engineers? These are subjects close to my heart and close to my other interests outside HSE.
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