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May 27, 2014

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HSE Triennial review: Q&A with Martin Temple


In January, the Department for Work and Pensions published the triennial review of the Health and Safety Executive. Nearly six months on, review lead Martin Temple shares his thoughts with SHP.

One key recommendation that you made in your review was that HSE should become more commercial, albeit with some caveats. Government has seized on this and wants HSE to go further — presumably you’d advise caution against becoming ‘too commercial’ to avoid its core regulatory role being compromised?

“That’s absolutely true. There are real opportunities for commercialising some elements of what HSE does.

“There are two things that would come out of commercialisation. One is clearly an income. That’s obviously a driver. But actually often, the thinking and engagement, which comes from working outside of your normal span of activity also further informs the organisation.  I think they would gain even further expertise in delivery and communication as they engaged in some commercial activities.

“I do think it’s absolutely paramount though that you make sure that the core function of HSE is not compromised by commercialisation.

“There is work already going on in the background to look at this and there is an appreciation of the need to keep the right balance, and not compromise the core task, yet still looking to exploit the commercial opportunities available.

“This balance around the core task is well understood by those people who are close to it. However you’ve got to make sure that those people in the wider community don’t misinterpret the plan and put inappropriate pressures onto the organisation into taking the commercial side too far.”

“I don’t think HSE had such a clear view about this [before the triennial review]. I think what was happening was, in particular at HSL, they knew they had commercial potential but they didn’t have the wherewithal to get on and do it. If you don’t have a proper commercial model, then you could end up with contracts that do compromise the main agenda.

“Therefore, what it needed was a decision to say, ‘we are going to look at commercially exploiting some of our strengths’. By making that positive statement, you can then say, ‘in which case, we must set up a structure and a decision-making route that allows us to do it in a proper, professional way’.  This is what I think it’s enabled them to do.”

FFI has clearly struck a nerve. How do you think HSE can mitigate its perception as an unregulated penalty system designed to generate revenue?

“Whether it is right or wrong, the absolute perception, and I think it was because of the way it was portrayed initially over a period of time, was that FFI was there to fill a gap in the budget.

“I know fine well that the money from FFI goes through the Treasury but it is structured in a way that some of it comes back to fill that gap in the HSE budget. I just say that there should be a clear distance between the income generated by FFI and the funding of HSE. If you get rid of that, the perception that these fines are there to fund the organisation will change.

“It can be done in a whole host of ways. Interestingly, if the separation of funding of HSE in people’s minds from the fines is done, then FFI can probably be helpful in some areas, but as currently structured, by the very nature of the visits made by HSE inspectors to so-called higher risk sites, FFI will also be seen as concentrating on only a certain part of the community, and thus unfair.

“By and large, the integrity of HSE has never seriously been questioned by business. But FFI is changing this. Interestingly, the biggest apparent change has been in the business people themselves who are changing in anticipation of their perception of how HSE will start behaving. That’s the danger. This trust between the duty holders and HSE is so important in a risk-based system€ᆭ Why? Because when you are talking about risk, there is a very large grey area in between [the clear right and wrong] where there has inevitably got to be an understanding and a debate between the regulator and the duty holder as to what the degree of risk is.

“Without that dialogue, a risk-based approach would not work as well as it has done in the past. Once you get people cautious with each other about how interpretation might be taken, then it destroys the very strength of our risk-based approach.

“Everybody I spoke to, when comparing other H&S systems said a risk-based approach is the best way to do it. That’s why I’ve been worried that FFI, as currently interpreted, strikes at the heart of that very important dialogue around risk and at the fundamentals of our system.”

Since the move to Bootle and changes in governance and approach, HSE’s lost experienced and specialist staff and inspectors. Do you feel this has impacted on its delivery and ability to develop the competence of new staff?

“That did not come across as a major concern from the people I spoke to. There were observations around it€ᆭthey weren’t criticising the quality and standard of staff and the quality of expertise in certain key areas.

“There are certainly areas that are under strain. Let’s just take some of the big technical areas, say like offshore. You are talking about real expertise and the very big companies that operate in those areas offer very big packages. In a way, it was forever thus that. You often look at other parts of business; you see that one part tends to train the people and then the commercial world takes them out with the bigger salaries and perhaps the more challenging roles. It’s not a new dynamic.

“I don’t think people are saying ‘and it’s destroyed the quality of service’. It didn’t come out strongly in the review but I do know it’s something that might be a concern.”

Some commentators point to the demise of the Employment Medical Advisory Service (EMAS) and the reduction in health specialists. Is this an issue given the increasing focus on work-related health issues?

“If one started analysing, at another level, the debate around what HSE did, it was generally felt that the safety side was still very well covered but the health side was one that had less attention in recent times.

“That message had already got through to HSE and they had started to look at that. But as you know, the health side tends to be a slow burner. The person working today may not manifest the problem until 30 years’ time. There are probably 10 areas where we know there are health issues, and those are clear€ᆭyou can have absolute strategies around them.

“This is where communication comes in — getting the message across in a modern way, in the way that young people talk to each other and communicate. After that, you’ve got to be careful not to waste resources on things that are not yet assured as to what they are.

“We must also not confuse duty holders with what I can only say is the wellbeing agenda and responsibilities under health and safety regulations. First of all, the regulations are clear. They may need correcting or putting in a different way as per Löfstedt, depending on what you are looking at, but that is absolutely clear.

“After that, the duty holder then has to distinguish what they would like to do as an employer to look at the general wellbeing of the workforce. There is a danger that HSE gets pulled into wholesale wellbeing work when that is not what they are funded for and that’s not what they are there for. That’s not say that HSE should be in conflict with it. They should very much run with the grain on it.

“But likewise, those people promoting the wellbeing agenda shouldn’t put it under the cloak of health and safety and confuse people about what their real duties are. To my mind, where there are real dangers, it should be absolutely clear as to what the duty holder has to do so that they do it properly and well and not take their eye off the ball.”

“However, we’ve got to make sure that the message is constantly there in a way that the new entrants to the workforce understand and appreciate.”

Nearly six months on, do you feel that HSE is doing enough to promote proportionate and effective management of health and safety as an enabler to business?

“They are very active, they are very well respected and people want to engage with them. One of the biggest things that came through in the report was a general view of wanting greater engagement rather than less. It’s a very unusual thing to be saying about a regulator. As a general rule, by and large, HSE inspectors are informative and they are helpful and I think that’s why people want more dialogue.

“But they’ll never be able to do enough because that’s the nature of the problem. There’s a point where you’ve got to say, ‘we only have so much resource and there are going to be limits’. This is about using all of the modern communication tools that we have today to broaden the reach in the way that we can afford.”

Do you feel that HSE should do more to evaluate the effectiveness of the research that it undertakes or commissions?

“I would hesitate to say exactly how they should evaluate it. I think they should always keep playing it back to what is their core role? What is their key reason to exist and therefore it can be anything from, was it truly there to support a prosecution, right the way through to informing good regulation about those areas that are coming into our society, such as the nanotechnology-type questions. How do we look at the regime and the way that we regulate these developing areas and so to inform that? But it’s always got to be played back to their role as a regulator. After that, you’ll have all sorts of ways of measuring the outcomes of what you’ve done.”

In your review, you said HSE should develop performance indicators. Do you feel it has sufficient project management expertise to develop and monitor meaningful ones?

“First of all, HSE do measure performance within the business. Let’s be very clear about that.  Certainly, when you look at guidance, for instance, there is a very large amount of work going on and to get it through in a timely manner requires good project management. They will need to do more of it. Whether they have all of the resources is up to them to establish. Project management is a special skill and they’ve got big tasks ahead of them, right across the business. I am not saying they are devoid of these skills and they are certainly not devoid of any measurement measures, it’s just that good project control is going to be an important part of getting through what is a very big agenda.”

Reflecting on the review you delivered, how do you feel HSE has responded to it?

“We have not yet had the formal ministerial response but I think what has been gratifying is that the general response from the marketplace, be it unions, business, special health and safety institutions, has been positive, which is encouraging. All my discussions with HSE have been around the positive approach to this.

“Clearly, the discussion around FFI is going to be a challenging one for them and government, just to make sure that that has an outcome or a solution that satisfies all parties. I think that it is possible but it is not going to be simple. It’s going to require everybody to get together and think it through.

“Additionally, the interface between DECC and HSE is one that will need careful discussion but I would say if it improves the engagement with HSE as a result of my proposal it will have generally been positive.

“If there is an area that I have reflected on after the review, there is no doubt in my mind that the way in which HSE goes about its role as a regulator, an advisor and as a European representative is very good and provides a reliable trustworthy body, so the bringing together of more of the regulatory bodies in this area into one organisation must be a good thing. I should have emphasised that more strongly. There has also got to be, at some stage, a greater look at the way in which local authorities carry out some of these duties.”

Do you have any closing thoughts?

“If you reflect on the last few years, HSE and health and safety generally have been subject to three pretty big reviews. There was an overwhelming view that HSE, in particular, was doing a reasonable job and probably some of the biggest problems were around the regulations themselves, and means that we must ensure that they are more fit for purpose.

“My general view after this review is to hold off on any more reviews and let the organisation now concentrate on delivering those key priorities that came out from what were three very useful reports. HSE seems to be trying to take most of the findings on board. Let’s give them space to do this.

“That said, there will be in a point, perhaps in three years’ time in the context of another triennial review, that you need to say — ‘what progress has been made?’ But we should do that by looking at all of the reviews at the same time in three years’ time.”

Martin Temple is chair of EEF and headed up the first triennial review of HSE.


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Dominic cooper
Dominic cooper
9 years ago

Hse is a regulator not a business. The potential for huge conflicts of interest should not be overlooked.