The UK leads the world in anticipating and tackling the new health and safety challenges posed by emerging technologies, the outgoing Chair of the Health and Safety Executive Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng told the Academy in a lecture on Tuesday 15 March.
Dame Judith’s own career as a chemical engineer began with a sharp reminder of the importance of safety in the industry. While she was a student at Imperial College London in 1974, a chemical plant at Flixborough in Lincolnshire suffered a catastrophic explosion. The accident killed 28 people, seriously injured 36 and badly damaged buildings up to a mile from the plant.
“That incident is still a vivid memory to me,” Dame Judith says. It was really quite a salutary lesson, not just for me, but probably for everyone who was studying to be a chemical engineer at that time.” Another key event was the Health and Safety at Work Act which finally became law in July of that year. “So, just at a point when I was at university, not only did Flixborough happen, but the regulation that the Health and Safety Executive now lives and breathes was first implemented,” she says.
The HSE’s ability to horizon scan, combined with the deep knowledge and unrivalled expertise that resides in its research capability, are now in use with partners around the world to improve health and safety and to ensure better business outcomes. However, Dame Judith will remind the audience that, in order to remain a world leader in risk management, the UK must continue to develop high-quality capability, anticipating tomorrow’s workplace challenges and using a goal setting approach to address them in ways that will still enable innovation to flourish.
Preparing for the hydrogen economy is one example of how the HSE has been working with industry and academia to develop new standards. These will enable hydrogenpowered, fuel-cell electric vehicles to be introduced safely, together with the refuelling infrastructure to support them.
As she leaves to become Chair of the Engineering Employers Federation, Dame Judith will reflect on her eight years as Chair of the HSE, which over the last 40 years has delivered enormous improvements in the UK’s health and safety culture.
The HSE’s new approach to health and safety education is typified by Safety Groups UK’s programme helping apprentices to learn about occupational health by experiencing risks, which was developed by students themselves. Given control over how they recorded their discoveries on the course, they designed posters and created films on their phones to document what they had learned, and they shared their films with other students via social media.