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Interview with Sarah Newton, Chair, Health and Safety Executive

This month, I was delighted to speak to Sarah Newton, the former MP for Truro and Falmouth and Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health, about her new role as Chair of HSE. Sarah joined HSE about nine months ago and I asked her what had impressed her most about the organisation.

I have been immensely impressed by the organisation’s response to Covid. The whole organisation came together, and it is phenomenal what it has achieved. While the response to the pandemic has been led by public health officials, HSE has provided vital assistance with the national effort to tackle Covid.

Not everybody has been able to work from home – lots of people have needed to go to work so that they can provide essential products and services. Initially, like every employer following government advice, we had to make sure our own staff could be safe, rapidly enabling people to work from home. Key helplines were up and running within a week – a whole call centre of people who would normally work in our headquarters, and the same was true for our information and advice, our science and research. This enabled our inspectors to go to workplaces safely and agility such as this continues to be a key feature of HSE’s response.

A year ago, the government provided HSE with an additional £14m so that we could really step up our support to enable employers to make their workplaces as Covid secure as possible. Rather than just doing more of the same, with terrific leadership from our CEO Sarah Albon, careful consideration was given to how HSE could achieve the greatest impact. This started off with more ways to reach employers quickly, effectively and in large numbers; such as advice and information over the phone and digitally. HSE also needed to be physically present in many more workplaces than we usually would be, with the risk of Covid present in workplaces we didn’t traditionally regulate. Working with local authorities, who also have health and safety enforcement powers, we came up with a spot check scheme and brought on board a whole new workforce that is under the direction and supervision of our fully licenced regulators. We have carried out more than 220,000 spot checks – far more than we would ever have been able to do if we just carried on as usual.

Working very closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and industry itself, HSE produced guidance, responding to industry sector-by-sector about their individual workplace concerns. If you’re trying to keep an offshore oil and gas platform safe, that is quite different from providing safety guidance to refuse collection or recycling centres. These workplaces and many more were kept open and needed to have tailor-made guidance.

Since the pandemic began, more than 4.4 million users have visited over 11 million pages across HSE’s website for free advice and information on coronavirus, and with our regular social media outreach we are reaching many more. If you look at the satisfaction ratings, 85% of people say that the information is really useful, this is a reflection of the engagement that we have with industry to make sure the information we provide is relevant, simple and easily accessible.

Our web teams have made sure that our dedicated web pages on Covid-secure workplaces are regularly updated. We have been listening, learning and updating. As the scientific evidence has come forward, we now know ventilation has become increasingly relevant. So, our guidance has been updated as we go along, and it will continue to be updated.

I then asked her about remote working, and how HSE is looking to adapt guidance for these evolving circumstances?

We do understand this is what businesses want. In terms of our regulatory function, we approach people working from home in the same way that we do in the workplace. On our website, we provide advice about home working and it clearly sets out what the expectation is for employers. We have produced some really good, practical toolkits with industry partners, such as Talking to Your Workers. We will continue to provide free, good quality information.

The heart of health and safety at work legislation is a conversation between the employer and the employee, that is the guiding principle that holds true wherever people are working. Leadership is critical in developing the culture of an organisations that puts the health and safety of their employees first.

Our advice is practical with information such as how to set up a workstation and guard against musculoskeletal impacts; or how to manage stress. Some people are thriving working from home, while others are really struggling, and others at all points in between.

The IoD and its members have played a really important role in helping us develop and improve our communication and we would like to maintain an ongoing dialogue. For example, following conversations, we are piloting an app – a really, simple easy tool that links back to our website where businesses can get more detailed information.

I then raised the issue of SMEs often not having the bandwidth to absorb large amounts of guidance.  I asked her how the HSE helps with clarifying and streamlining the message.

We have accepted that challenge very much. We aim to provide information in an easily accessible way that meets the needs of the dutyholders, so that they understand their responsibilities. We know that most businesses want to do the right thing and we want to make it as easy as possible for them. I think that we have made a lot of progress on our social media channels, but we are always open to further suggestions.

We’ve also made a lot of improvements to our website in response to SME insight and research in recent years. We worked with SMEs to create simpler, clearer navigation to basic content to engage users in the most important tasks. This work included a cleaner homepage design, new mobile-friendly webpages, a popular task section based on user needs and analytics; and simpler content on a range of topics from welding fumes to Covid and Brexit.

We created our Work Right brand to specifically target smaller SMEs and their workers as our research identified that there are some people who are often not aware or engaged with HSE. This has enabled us to introduce SMEs to the wealth of information and guidance that we can supply to businesses. A good example of this is our pages on Covid and the Talking to Your Workers pages, which provide information for employers and employees, in simpler language and include multiple language versions to help share these vital messages with workers, who are often the most vulnerable.

I would encourage businesses to follow us on social media and sign up to our free e-bulletins, so they can have an ongoing relationship with us. We have general news bulletins and also industry sector and Covid specific newsletters – businesses can sign up to what is most relevant to them.

I then asked her about the benefits of investing in health and safety for a business.

First and foremost – it’s the right thing to do, in my view this pandemic has focused all our minds on health, safety and wellbeing and how important it is. Organisations that prioritise the health and safety of their staff tell me that it has improved their productivity. If you look at stress for example, across the UK in 2019/20 there were 17.9m working days lost to work-related stress. That is a huge cost to individual businesses and the economy as a whole. So, by actually embracing health and safety and enabling conversations with their employees, companies will become more efficient. This is especially true for small businesses, who are so dependent on a small team of employees.

We then discussed the government’s pledge to make the UK the first major economy to achieve ‘Net Zero’ carbon emissions and the role that the HSE can play in helping us to reach that target safely.

I think that it is a fantastic opportunity for the whole country. We very much see ourselves as an enabling regulator and we want to make sure the country can make a safe Net Zero transition. We are already doing quite a bit of work with BEIS, around the transition from North Sea oil. We are involved in a lot of work around hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, lithium mining, offshore wind and battery technology. We have got a very important role to play here to make sure our regulatory frameworks are up to date while supporting new and growing industries to be safe workplaces producing safe products for consumers.

Prior to becoming an MP and minister, Sarah was a marketing director for Citibank and American Express, before becoming Director of Age Concern England. She is also Founder and Initial Director of the International Longevity Centre UK. I asked Sarah what this range of experience brought to her role at HSE.

I am passionate about the mission of HSE and I believe having experience of working in business and being involved in policy making is useful for HSE. I can understand our role from the dutyholders point of view, and I can also help the organisation navigate itself around Westminster and Whitehall. This is particularly important for HSE at the moment as we are taking on very substantial new regulatory functions. We have been asked to set up the new Building Safety Regulator, and we have taken on new regulatory responsibilities following the UKs departure from the European Union including chemicals, bioscience and plant protection; and civil explosives.

Finally, Sarah told me about what she most enjoys and values about the role.

I like to make a positive difference and believe that I am contributing to people going home safely from work as well as enabling our country to transition to net zero. Leaving the environment in better condition for the next generation is very important to me. When the legislation has passed through the Houses of Parliament, I am looking forward to HSE having new powers as the Building Safety Regulator, working with others in enabling people who live in high-rise buildings to be safe and feel safe in their homes. Having listened to the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire I want to do what I can to prevent a similar incident ever happening again. I feel very fortunate to have these opportunities and work with such passionate and dedicated public servants.

Further HSE guidance:

Making your workplace COVID-secure during the coronavirus pandemic

Risk assessment during the coronavirus pandemic

Ventilation and air conditioning during the pandemic

HSE’s coronavirus microsite

HSE e-bulletins

Talking to Your Workers’ guidance

Sarah was talking to Hugo Legh of the Institute of Directors in May 2021.

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