What does the HSE's new 10-year strategy mean for your business?
As recognised in the Foreword, “the organisation’s role and responsibilities are growing, particularly in the areas of building safety, chemicals regulation and supporting sustainable, healthy, workplace practices.” The Strategy reflects the HSE’s role at its broadest, and we consider the potential implications for businesses in England.
The Strategy - Overview
The core principle of the new strategy remains to ensure that those who create risk take responsibility for controlling risk; those who fail to do so will be held to account and bear the cost. The key strategic objectives are:
- Reduce work-related ill health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress.
- Increase and maintain trust to ensure people feel safe where they live, where they work and, in their environment.
- Enable industry to innovate safely to prevent major incidents, supporting the move towards net zero.
- Maintain Great Britain’s record as one of the safest countries to work in.
- Ensure HSE is a great place to work, and that it attracts and retains exceptional people.
These objectives succeed those in the 5-year strategy published in 2016, in which attention was given to promoting broader ownership of health and safety, supporting small employers, and sharing the success of Britain’s health and safety regime abroad. There was no mention of mental health, or efforts to reach net-zero, which clearly mark the new focus of the Strategy.
Addressing the Mental Health Crisis
Building on past guidance for dealing with stress in the workplace, the HSE has identified mental health and stress as a distinct type of work-related ill health and has committed to focus on this in the next ten years. The Strategy identifies that, in contrast to most other types of injury, work-related mental health issues are on the increase, with the most commonly reported causes of work-related ill health now being stress, depression, or anxiety. Every sector of society is impacted by this issue, and HSE analysis calculates that it may be costing the economy up to £11.4 bn per annum. The Strategy indicates the HSE’s commitment to support businesses to keep staff mentally healthy and focus its enforcement action on those who culpably fail to do so.
Physical health can be managed in ways that are far more tangible; mental ill health can be equally damaging but perhaps not so simple to manage. Businesses also need to recognise that employees working from home still need to be protected against work-related harm. The risk of injury in a work premises may be reduced, but isolated workers in less regulated home offices may suffer from other harms which are equally the employer’s responsibility.
Now might be the time for all, but particularly those recognised as high-stress, workplaces to review their policies and procedures in relation to managing stress. It might be necessary to start tracking working hours to help determine which employees are at risk, companies may consider employee support phone lines or mental health champions as a point of contact for those who need help, and mental health and stress policies can be implemented to document and evidence what the company does to help manage and support employee stress levels. It seems likely that at least one company in the next ten years will be handed down a substantial fine for failing to take these measures.
Supporting the Transition to Net-Zero
The HSE also identifies in the Strategy that it has an important role to play in the safe delivery of the government’s commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas by 2050. It is anticipated that new and potentially dangerous technologies will be crucial to making the transition.
The Strategy is keen to highlight that the HSE will not unnecessarily impede innovation through its enforcement of health and safety legislation, though clearly this needs to be balanced against making sure these technologies are developed, tested and implemented in a way that does not put people in danger. This objective is a clear sign that the HSE want to work with developers of these technologies and suggests that its involvement should not be feared as government red-tape, but seen as a collaborative approach to help build public assurance in the safety of these products as they begin to transform our society.
Becoming the Building Safety Regulator
Alongside its considerable existing duties, the HSE will soon have additional responsibilities as the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) in England. The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017, and the Public Inquiry into it, has put fire safety at the forefront of discussion, and the government’s response has been to introduce the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Act 2022. The latter piece of legislation will impact every stage of a higher-risk building’s life, and will be policed by the HSE as the designated BSR. The Building Safety Act heavily extends the scope of power to enforce compliance, and places much of that power in the hands of the HSE in its new role of BSR.
Without substantial additional funding, it is hard to see how the HSE will commit resource to this significant expansion of its remit without directing focus away from some of its usual health and safety inspection work. To fund this expansion of the HSE’s role, it will be requesting £201 million from the government, an increase of £28 million from the sum requested in 2020/21. This is alongside £100 million to be recovered through cost recovery and externally funded income which is up from £77 million in 2020/21. It is clear from the Strategy that launching the BSR and enforcing the new requirements in the Building Safety Act will be a substantial and long-term project for the HSE; which is why it requires the attention of being a key objective in the 10-year Strategy.
What to take away from the Strategy?
As a broad set of objectives, the HSE 10-year strategy does not uproot any health and safety principles, but it does show the regulator’s direction of travel has changed to keep up with the biggest risks to health and safety in our society today.
Physical health has long been the focus of the HSE, now mental health will be taking more of the regulator’s attention. This will require engagement from all businesses to understand how they can help protect workers from this different kind of harm. Duty holders under the Building Safety Act, will also need to review their working practices to ensure they are ready for the HSE’s new agenda.
Workplaces have changed significantly over the last 5 years, and will do so again in the next 10; businesses need to continue to be vigilant in how they protect the health of those affected by their operations.
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