Judith Hackitt gets stuck into her first ever site visit, -identifying (albeit accidentally) a couple of uneven concrete floors. Fitting, as the new chair of the Health and Safety Commission is there in part to mark the HSE’s falls and trips campaign.
Construction News exclusively visited two sites with Ms Hackitt, who took up her post last October, but they were not inspections per se, more an exercise in showing off best practice.
Sir Robert McAlpine is building the Ł350 million mixed-use extension to The Shires and Wates Retail is the fit-out contractor for the new, 22,000 sq m glass-clad John Lewis, the centre’s anchor.
Both site visits are relatively stage-managed, and Ms Hackitt seems impressed by the scale of the project and how the timing works. The project managers watch out for any poor safety practices with the odd worker asked to put on a dust mask.
But even the rigorous safety practices at the shopping centre extension do not stop Ms Hackitt tripping up.
She says: “I thought the sites were very impressive. It has simply reinforced my view that if you do safety properly it actually enhances the job and the -motivation of the workforce and everything,” she says.
Good health and safety practices do not need to be ridden with red tape or get in the way of doing the job properly she feels.
Time to modernise
Her vision for what will be solely the HSE, once it merges with the HSC, is similar.
“I think it’s time to modernise. It will make quite a lot of difference, roles and responsibilities in terms of policy-making, direction setting will be much clearer and accountabilities will be much easier for people to understand.
“Ultimately, that will lead to HSE being a more effective organisation,” she says.
What does this modernisation mean for the industry? “Our role is to influence the duty-holders and we need to think about new ways that we can make interventions to improve them,” she says.
For smaller contractors she admits the task is harder. “The difficulty we have is that when you get to this large number of SMEs in any sector, there’s more of a cry from them that says ‘please can we have more guidance?’.
“And that makes it difficult for us because we are the regulator, it is not our job to manage health and safety for those SMEs, the duty clearly rests with them,” she says.
Ownership of safety is the only way forward Ms Hackitt feels. “If people are given too much prescription they’re doing it because they’ve been told to, not because they believe it’s the right thing to do,” she says.
Ms Hackitt is keen on CSCS cards and would like to see them universally adopted. “When you hear the way in which the guys here use it as a positive means of assuring themselves you’d have to ask yourself why any employer who wanted to run a safe workplace would not be doing the same,” she says.
For Wates Retail, CSCS cards are mandatory for everyone on site. Safety manager Sean Dillow explains that a letter mentioning CSCS from a subcontractor’s managing director is simply not enough.
Ms Hackitt has previously said that behaviour is her focus, but how do you change the ways of workers which can be blasŽ about safety? She talks about how there is a spectrum of attitudes from employees from those who accept risks as part of the job to those who take it very seriously.
She remains frustrated by the misrepresentation of the HSE in the media and by those who are over-zealous about it.
“Over-cautious people out there are saying ‘we can’t do that because we might be sued, because our insurance companies are demanding a massive premium and we don’t want to pay it’, whatever the reason is, people are hiding behind this thing that they call health and safety, and it’s not the same health and safety that we talk about,” she says.
She feels this applies to the construction industry only marginally but finds it hugely frustrating because the “noise going on in the press about this ridiculous nanny state” detracts from what really needs to be done to improve safety in the work place: getting people to realise that they need to buy into it for their own benefit.
When asked what concerns her most about construction safety she is careful not to pick out any particular statistic, focusing on the fact that there is more construction going on.
“Whilst I wouldn’t by any means say we should expect a higher level of accidents I would worry even more if the frequency rate of accidents was going up. But I think we have to look beyond figures and I think what’s clear in construction is that you can’t approach this with a one-size-fits-all -mentality,” she says.
Tough on subcontractors
Ms Hackitt encourages big contractors to be ruthless with subcontractors where they need to be. The original lift contractor at the Wates job was asked to leave for a variety of issues including removing handrail protection on the scaffolding, being untidy and not complying with PPE regulations.
“You don’t just take [safety practices] for granted, you monitor that performance, and if their practices are not up to scratch then you say I’m sorry you can’t stay here,” she says.
She praises the Leicester sites for their exemplary performance. “You’ve seen some of these guys here today, they’re totally committed to safety, they don’t need us to come and monitor it, they care about it.”
From London to brussels and back
October 2007: takes over HSC chair
2006: CBE for services to health and safety at work
2005-2007: Director for the Chemistry for Europe project at the European Chemical Industry in Brussels
2002-2005: HSC commissioner
1998: Joined the Chemical Industry Association as director of business and environment and became director general in 2002
Worked at Elementis as European pigments operations director and group risk manager
Three years as non-executive director of Oxfordshire Health Authority
Trained as a chemical engineer at Imperial College, London, then worked for Exxon when she graduated in the 70s