Judith Hackitt Chairwoman of the HSE agrees that whilst topple testing gravestones is deemed a mistake, it doesn’t regret working at height legislation. Ladders, it reckons, are dangerous kit. Its website has a whole microsite devoted to them.
On Panorama aired on BBC in April, presenter Quentin Letts took a one-day ladder course. He is now a certified ladder-climber. “For people who are using them all day, every day,” shrugs Hackitt, “it’s probably not a bad thing. A one or two-day training course.”
Really? Just for a ladder?
“Yes,” says Hackitt. “And the best ladder courses will not just go through the basics but will show the consequences of bad practice. This guy fell off a ladder – that’s what happens if you don’t do it properly. People need to get past the ‘I’m fireproof’ argument. ‘It won’t happen to me’.”
Every year, she points out, some 15 people die from falling off ladders. Another 1,200 are seriously injured. “The chances of those 1,200 working again,” she says, “or at least of doing the same work, are pretty slim.”
Some of the public, she agrees, will think it absurd that the HSE feels that people need to be told how to use ladders. “I’m with them,” she says. “I don’t understand why we have to tell people, either. Yet a significant proportion of the population don’t yet seem to be capable of making commonsense decisions.”
This looks nannyish written down, but that is not quite how it sounds. Hackitt is a chemical engineer by trade, and engineers tend not to speak in emotive terms. Health and Safety, to her, is about seeing problems and finding solutions. Problem: people still fall off ladders. Solution: teach them not to.
A 54-year-old mother of two, Hackitt was born in Warwickshire and was about to start her first job, in 1974, when the Flixborough chemical plant near Scunthorpe exploded, killing 28 people and injuring 36. Had it not been a weekend, the toll could have been far higher.
“You think, ooof,” she says. “This is awful.” She went on to work for Exxon, the oil company, and says that H&S was imbued in the culture. “It was part of the way you were taught to work. What really bugs me is the notion that H&S gets in the way of doing business. It should make you more efficient, not less.”
There is a strong sense of personal mission here, too. She was appointed CBE in 2006 for services to Health and Safety. “I have seen people injured at work,” she says. “And when you know the feeling that you go home with at night as the supervisor or the manager, and you see the effect it has on colleagues, you would never want it to happen again. And yes, you do get passionate about it.”
As with gravestones, if not with ladders, “Health and Safety gone Mad” stories are usually the result of local councils or businesses being afraid of civil litigation. The HSE, insists Hackitt, is a victim of this as much as anyone. “This is what we are up against,” she says. “It’s not the rules and the guidance that we put out that brings about this silly behaviour. It is fear of civil litigation. It’s a growing problem in our society. ‘When I trip over a paving stone in the street, I’ll look for somebody else to blame.’ It’s frustrating. It detracts from what we are trying to do.”
The HSE has 28 offices around the country and employs 3,531 staff, of whom 1,383 are inspectors. Britain, says Hackitt, has the best Health and Safety performance in the world – the only other country to come close is Sweden. The best way, she concedes, to stop the public from sneering at all of this would be for the HSE to change its name. Ask around and most people don’t realise that its remit is, exclusively, the workplace. “It has occurred to me more than once,” she says, “but I’ve dismissed the idea. We face the dilemma that people who know us, and know what we really do, have a high opinion of this organisation.”
Last year, 229 people were killed in workplace accidents. “But actually, that is a gross underestimate,” says Hackitt. “Add to that the 2,000 people who died prematurely last year because they had been exposed to asbestos at work, the several thousand who had been exposed to other harmful substances. There are 100,000 people in Britain who have been injured at work, 28,000 with amputations. Two million off work, half of whom will never work again …” The fuss about health and safety, she says, makes it so much harder to promote Health and Safety. Forget about conkers and gravestones,” she says, “and let’s focus on the real problems. If I find all of this rubbish demoralising, imagine what it’s like for our inspectors. They’re the ones who visit families after someone has died. And to be called the Health and Safety Taleban? It’s horrible.”