What does HSE’s new five year strategy mean for UK business?

With the Brexit vote on the horizon and recent regulatory changes starting to take effect, we analyse HSE’s ‘Helping Great Britain work well’ strategy, its objectives and what it could mean for UK business.

HSE has recently published its new five year strategy entitled "Helping Great Britain work well". We analyse its objectives and what this means for business.

The strategy recognises that whilst Britain has a very strong health and safety record, improvements can always be made. It focuses on six strategic themes:

1. Acting together: Promoting broader ownership of health and safety in Great Britain.

The strategy is predicated on the need to engage with individuals, stating that "Health and safety should not be a responsibility assigned to a particular individual or part of an organisation, but an integral part of everyone’s role". 

There is recognition that HSE should not be seen as the only repository of good practice and "collective ownership that best reflects local circumstances" would better serve the nation. The example used is the Energy Networks Association, which aims to promote safety (among other key issues) at an industry level for electricity network stakeholders.

This theme is supported by Judith Hackett, Chair of HSE, who, in an interview with SHP Online, states that "The strategy belongs to everyone and not just the HSE" who "are custodians of the system and are so much more than a regulator".

2. Tackling ill health: Highlighting and tackling the costs of work-related ill health.

Similarly, in relation to this topic HSE are placing a greater emphasis on making employees aware of health risks whilst simultaneously encouraging employers to address risks of (particularly long-term) ill health at source. It appears to be hoped that this two-pronged strategy will see pressure on employers to improve their performance as, in Judith Hackett's words, "If we want to attract people to work in this industry we have to make it an attractive industry to work in".

3. Managing risk well: Simplifying risk management and helping business to grow.

This theme appears to be, in part, an explicit recognition of the duty imposed by the Deregulation Act 2015 that regulators must "have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth". The example given relates to embedding a deeper understanding of health risks amongst apprentices, but there is also a recognition that there are benefits to business from promoting safety, including "reduced sickness absence, lower costs and a good reputation". There is an explicit recognition that "Health and safety professionals have an important role to play".

Judith Hackett also emphasises how important it is that larger employers promote safety with smaller companies with whom they trade, citing the construction industry as a successful example, she states "It becomes part of the ethos of working for the bigger contractors, and part of successfully bidding for jobs, which is why it’s so important to get the bigger companies to lead the way"

4. Supporting small employers: Giving SMEs simple advice so they know what they have to do.

Again, we see an explicit HSE recognition that "Many organisations also provide free help and support to SMEs outside their supply chains through cross-sector initiatives". There is also a welcome recognition that, for SMEs "managing workplace risks shouldn’t be complicated or costly".

5. Keeping pace with change: Anticipating and tackling new health and safety challenges.

There is an understanding that employing new technologies in a timely fashion will improve safety, but also "horizon scanning" and an appreciation that recognising risks before issues emerge has its benefits.

6. Sharing our success: Promoting the benefits of Great Britain’s world-class health and safety system.

This is the first explicitly international element to HSE's strategy. HSE state that "we should also look to share best practice and the latest thinking and innovation around the world". The logic appears to be that not only does this improve safety for all but that it helps "influence health and safety systems overseas" and makes "it easier for British businesses to expand into new markets and territories."

What does this mean for business?

A key challenge for the five year strategy will be that HSE's vision states that it will "support those efforts by capturing and promoting successful approaches and developing measures to track progress towards the delivery of the themes. The leadership from HSE will give others in the system the confidence to take more ownership". For the strategy to be a success it must achieve buy in from business. However, the effects of both FFI and the new Sentencing Guidelines, which have the potential effect of undermining the willingness of business to engage frankly with HSE about safety for fear of exposing themselves to cripplingly expensive interventions, could present as a significant challenge to the strategy.

It remains to be seen how HSE will manage these risks, but an explicit recognition of the usefulness of industry setting standards, producing guidance on good practice and of the importance of regulating to encourage economic growth is sure to be welcomed.

Red tape and Brexit

A further £10 billion of cuts to red tape for businesses are envisaged by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills with a "one in three out" policy on new regulations.  On that basis, it is difficult to envisage that significant new regulations will take effect in relation to safety in the foreseeable future. Whilst that is good news for business, the implications of any potential Brexit vote create a significant degree of uncertainty. On the one hand, much of our regulation originates in Brussels so the government's proposals to reduce regulation cannot prevent further EU regulation being implemented if the public vote "in". On the other hand, leaving the EU would create a period of uncertainty as the UK government is forced to revise and rationalise the basis on which much of our regulation has been created given its pan-European dimensions.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Paul Matthews

Partner - Head of Regulatory (Yorkshire and North East)

I am a Partner in the Regulatory team and a corporate defence specialist who provides up-front regulatory compliance advice and representation to businesses and senior managers in relation to investigations and prosecutions by regulatory bodies.