The UK’s Health and Safety Executive launched its ‘backs to the wall’ delivery plan for 2011/12 this week. The approach it sets out is dominated by two themes; increased efficiency in the face of government cuts, and delivering the recommendations of the recent Young review.
The actions set out in the plan are structured around 4 areas; transformation, avoiding catastrophe, risk ownership and compliance, and securing justice. The first and third of these provide the focus on cost and efficiency, with a range of measures outlined to reduce HSE’s overheads and become more commercial in its approach. In this regard there are number of initiatives amidst the restructures and office closures that stand out. The review of the operation of the Health and Safety Laboratory, which has always had a strange quasi-independent existence, maybe hints at possible spin off in the mould of QinetiQ. Perhaps more intriguingly are proposals for recovering costs from high hazard areas. The recently introduced environmental liability regulations show a possible way forward for cost liability should HSE choose to go that way. I’ll be interested to see what the growth-conscious coalition government makes of that one. This new approach is best summed up by the proposal to ‘seek more value from providing HSE’s expertise and involvement for those who wish to use it’.
Much of the press coverage and commentary around the HSE cuts has focused on whether inspection levels will be maintained. However in the same way that putting more police on the streets doesn’t necessarily cut crime, the HSE seems to recognise that it needs to be smarter about what it does with fewer resources. Overall headcount reduction of around 300 posts (c10%) appears to have already been achieved with a few more to come by 2012. There are clear proposals regarding the targeting and prioritisation of inspection activity, together with promises to review the array of regulations and guidance.
In all it reads like a pragmatic way forward; the plan of an organisation with little choice but to cut its cloth, and make the best of bad situation. Given that workplace fatalities are at an all time low it couldn’t come at a worse time, given the apparent effectiveness of the current system. It might be that this progress can be maintained, only time will tell.
Footnote – One aspect I found particularly disappointing, as you might expect given one of my interests, is that the HSE’s stress programme appears to have been quietly parked, with no mention of it in the 2011/12 plan. HSE had previously signalled that stress was no longer a key priority, that there were other stakeholders that could and should pick up the baton. However there is no sign that anyone is going to fill the void left by this withdrawal, any other stakeholder that could step up has no reason to do so at a time of severe funding restrictions. It is tempting to see this as the UK sticking up the white flag on stress, which given its huge cost to UK business would be misguided and shortsighted. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean you should give up on it.