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Health & Safety: Leading from the top

Bob Towse, head of technical and safety at the HVCA, is worried that the recent merger of the HSE and the HSC sends out the wrong message about the importance of health and safety.
FOR the past 30 years our industry, along with the rest of the UK, has looked to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) for leadership and guidance on all matters relating to health and safety at work.

On April 1, it was merged with the Health & Safety Commission - the government established organisation that had overseen and regulated its work. What signal does this send about the present government's attitude to health and safety?

We were told that 80% of respondents to the consultation that led to this move were in favour of the merger. We were also told by the health and safety minister Lord McKenzie that the decision was taken to establish 'a platform for further improvements to health and safety at work across Britain'.

The reality is that much of the system for regulating HSE activity has been swept away mainly to save cost. It, therefore, remains to be seen if the 'new' HSE will be able to deliver anything close to what its predecessor managed.

It is ironic that one of the first events organised by the new body was a 'leadership' conference where 200 senior business heads were brought together to debate the process of managing safety in hazardous industries.

In the wake of this 'Leading from the top - avoiding major incidents' conference, the HSE called on senior management to reform the way they manage health and safety and show greater leadership.

'Discussions...served as a stark reminder to senior managers that the absence of conventional safety accidents and injuries in the past few years should not be taken as a assurance of an overall improvement in process safety,' a statement said.

HSE chair Judith Hackitt added: 'If nothing changes as a result of the discussions today - it will be more than a pity, it could well be a tragedy. We in HSE will continue to give high priority in working with you in the major hazards industries but we are calling upon you to take the lead.'

HSE said senior managers should 'walk the talk and listen to their frontline staff' because safety cannot be managed from the boardroom. It added that many industries faced common challenges of skills shortages in key trades and professions; cost and production pressures; and the difficulty of balancing varied and often conflicting priorities.

'Leadership credibility takes a long time to build, but can be lost in an instant,' it said. Well quite.

I have no doubt the dedicated staff within both the new and old HSEs will continue to work hard to deliver challenging health and safety policy targets. However, overseeing workplace safety is not something that can be done on the cheap. We have seen far too many times in the past how employers cutting costs can lead to increased risk for workers.

For government to embark on a similar exercise is a real worry and puts its commitment to this important area in question.
1 June 2008

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