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HSE chief Judith Hackitt comes out fighting on new strategy

Health and Safety Executive chairwoman Judith Hackitt has been forced to defend the watchdog’s five-year strategy, which many believe will need to be changed when the construction deaths inquiry reports later this month.

Ms Hackitt staunchly defended the strategy after it came in for fierce criticism from construction safety bodies last week.

Trade union Ucatt and safety groups Hazards Campaign and Families Against Corporate Killers expressed outrage over the strategy. They said they hoped will be altered or pushed aside following the conclusion of the Government-ordered deaths inquiry.

Ucatt described the industry consultation for the strategy as “a farce”, with a spokesman adding: “It was clearly evident at the time that the workshops were held in order to show a commitment to engaging interested parties, but that the HSE would stick to the draft presented.”

Hazards Campaign spokeswoman Hilda Palmer mirrored Ucatt’s anger, describing the strategy as a “damp squib” and “mostly empty words”.

Launched last week, it is understood the key nationwide strategy – which garnered hundreds of responses from companies over a three-month consultation period – could yet be altered by recommendations made in the deaths inquiry’s final report.

Ucatt general secretary Alan Ritchie said: “I hope that the construction inquiry will make the tough decisions to improve construction safety that the HSE is clearly not prepared to face.”

But Ms Hackitt backed the strategy and said she believed it would be in line with any recommendations made by inquiry chair Rita Donaghy.

She said: “I have certainly spoken to Rita during the course of her inquiry.

“I don’t know what is going to come out of it but we have certainly spoken and she has not made any adverse comments as what we were doing [with the strategy].”

Ms Hackitt has previously admitted that the strategy is “not revolutionary”, but when asked last week whether something more radical was needed, she replied: “No, because I think we know what needs to be done.”

“We know it works in so many places and when you have a good performance, you build on what is good. You don’t need to throw everything out and start all over again – even in construction there are massive areas of good practice.”

Ucatt described the HSE’s attitude as “highly complacent” and said the regulator would only “hinder any improvements in safety” – indicating a growing divide between the HSE and UK’s main safety groups.

The final report for the Government’s inquiry into construction fatalities was originally scheduled for April, but was pushed back until late June. Rita Donaghy will report to the work and pensions secretary on the underlying causes of construction-related deaths.

More than 2,800 people have died from injuries they received as a result of construction work in the past 25 years.

Criticism has been lumped on the HSE for making no significant changes from its proposed strategy to the final document – despite a lengthy consultation process. The body dealt with more than 700 stakeholders at a series of workshops, as well as receiving more than 200 responses.

Despite only a handful of minor alterations, Ms Hackitt said the consultation process had been worthwhile and had helped the regulator know “we were doing the right thing”.

She added: “The response we have had across the board has been very positive. [Stakeholders] have been very favourable in response to our consultation.”

Early indications show the number of fatalities for 2008/09 may have dropped off by more than 20 per cent – to about 55 – after a death toll of 72 workers the previous year.

But Ms Hackitt said: “[There are flaws in the] comparison of year-on-year figures and to somehow think we have cracked the problem if the numbers come down is wrong.”

The HSE’s strategy in brief

  • To take action to prevent harm and secure justice
  • To encourage strong leadership in championing safety at work
  • To motivate focus on the core aims of health and safety
  • To encourage an increase in competence
  • To reinforce the promotion of worker involvement in safety
  • To target key health issues and work with bodies best placed to reduce incidents
  • To set priorities and identify which activities deliver a significant reduction in incidents
  • To adapt and customise approaches to help small firms with safety
  • To reduce the likelihood of catastrophic incidents
  • To take account of wider issues that impact on health and safety

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