'I am proud of what we have done': HSE's Sarah Albon looks back on 2020

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HSE's chief executive Sarah Albon speaks to Safety Management about helping the country get through Covid, and other challenges.

 If 2020 has been a stressful year for many leaders of businesses and organisations, consider this April at Daventry airfield.

84 tonnes of medical gowns had just arrived in from Turkey, ordered by government which was facing intense pressure and criticism for failing to provide enough PPE to frontline workers. But HSE, which had a team on the ground to certify and check everything, had to reject most of the 40,000 gowns as being unsafe.

Imagine explaining that decision to ministers. Speaking to Safety Management many months later, Sarah Albon, HSE’s chief executive, says: “Our mantra is that protective equipment has to protect. You need to understand that your equipment is of the right quality, but also bringing a very pragmatic approach to understanding we were working in a highly pressured situation, right in the middle of a pandemic.” Remaining calm and rational is what HSE does and throughout the different stages of the crisis it has been the regulator’s strength.

Sarah Albon: "I am incredibly proud of what we have done as an organisation."

We speak to Sarah over Zoom one Friday in November. Arguably, the worst of the storm has passed, with the great news of the vaccine. It’s a good time to reflect on the year and HSE’s work during Covid, but also to look ahead to the future to challenges such as the new building safety regime and the changing world of work.

From Insolvency to Health and Safety

But first, this is Sarah’s first year at HSE. We want to find out more about her. A lifelong public servant, she joined the regulator in September from the Insolvency Service where she was also CEO. What drew her to the role? “In some ways HSE seems a long way from the Insolvency Service, but for me it wasn’t,” she says. “It was very directly about making a real, positive impact in people’s lives, ensuring that companies who want to do the right thing – which is most of them – are helped to do that. But where there are rogues and individuals who don’t care and don’t do the right thing that we hold them to account.

“When I joined HSE, I really felt passionate about doing something that would make a difference in people’s daily lives.”

Coronavirus – working together

How does she look back on HSE’s performance in the battle against coronavirus? “It’s for other people to assess ultimately, but I am incredibly proud of what we have done as an organisation.” She speaks confidently about the wide-ranging work that HSE has been involved with.

It includes helping to produce the 14 guides for safe re-opening of workplaces, from offices, to factories and gyms, after the first lockdown eased, with measures – new at the time – such as social distancing and separating screens. “I thought that was a really fantastic example of government and employers, regulator and trade unions working together to ask, what could we do in order that workplaces were safe, and so that workers would feel safe, and that employers were doing the right thing,” she says.

An HSE inspector at a construction site. HSE has completed 50,000 spot checks during the pandemic. Photograph: HSE

Remember when there was a run on hand gel? HSE carried out rapid licensing of hand santisers to allow manufacturers such as gin distilleries and breweries to use some of their alcohol supplies to help the national effort: “We were working really closely and quickly to enable that to work before they were released to the NHS or anywhere else.”

Early conclusions for Sarah arriving into the role were to “understand what was great – what do we want to preserve, treasure and build on” but also “how do we take some of the modern technologies and use them to our advantage in order to have a bigger impact?” Already HSE has been using data to better target inspection work such as on farms using data profiling, but the pandemic meant wading further into this territory – using remote inspections.

Changes to the inspection model?

It’s been a big responsibility, says Sarah: “There was a real concern that we got out and about and checked large numbers of businesses to see if they were Covid-secure, partly to check that that was true and partly as a confidence measure for the public. We realised that we wouldn’t be able to – with our limited number of inspectors – suddenly cover the entire country and so we developed a system of triage using a system with a telephone and physical spot checks.”

In the height of the first wave, between 9 March and 7 May, HSE fielded 4,800 phone calls about concerns and queries relating to Covid-19. Out of these, 1,400 cases were referred to inspectors who then advised on Covid-secure measures and asked for evidence that changes had taken place. “Because of modern technology it wasn’t just a phone conversation,” she explains. “You can ask people to send photos of what they’ve got, such as video clips.”

An inspection in Blackburn, where the highest infection rates have been reported in the UK. Photograph: HSE

In total, across all their channels, HSE conducted nearly 50,000 spot checks around the UK. It has visited hotspots like Leicester and is currently inspecting warehouses and distribution centres, and focusing on the transport and logistics sector, in the run up to Christmas.

On Covid as a risk that happens and is transmitted via work and at work, however, Sarah reverts to HSE’s early stance on the pandemic. When the board met on 18 March, two days after the UK went into lockdown, there was just one short paragraph in the briefing notes on coronavirus. It stated that Coronavirus is a 'public health issue': “HSE…stands ready to offer information and advice on workplace and workforce issues.”

The virus has challenged that neat demarcation of home and work, but she sticks to the argument: “What looks like a workplace outbreak often [is down to] other factors, connected with work. Often it is workers on their way home, if they share transport, if they socialise on the way, certain industries where high use of migrant labour, sharing accommodation as well.”

Working with government

Has HSE felt comfortable in challenging any policies relating to the workplace and Covid? HSE does not set policy but it can raise the risks in any policy decision and check concerns have been addressed. She says: “Government has a difficult task of weighing up the risk of transmission versus the risk to the economy – that’s been a difficult and perpetual juggling act.”

She says that because there has been a “clear objective from everyone to get the pandemic under control” it has been in some ways simpler to work to a common cause. “Covid is the like of which we haven’t lived through in this generation but I’ve never seen more co-operative and close working than we’ve seen in government.”

An HSE inspector at work. Photograph: HSE

Building back trust

From one crisis to another – Grenfell. The draft Building Safety Bill, which government says will be the biggest change to building safety for 40 years, was published in July.

There will be a new national regulator for building safety, the Building Safety Regulator (BSR), which will sit within HSE. How does Sarah feel about the project and how is the work going? “It’s an enormous thing to be trusted with because it’s so important. I think we are hugely conscious that we had people on the ground within a couple of days of Grenfell helping to ensure that the site was safe for the people dealing with the disaster, the fire crews. They saw themselves the aftermath of an appalling tragedy. So, we really feel passionately about getting it right, about making a real difference.”

The Bill will require there to be an ‘accountable person’ for a building’s safety, someone who is always responsible during the lifetime of the building for keeping residents safe.

That person will also have to respond to residents’ concerns and ensure their voices are heard. Setting that tone will be really important for HSE says Sarah: “We need to be engaging with residents, helping them to understand what we do, where they can come to if they have concerns, what we as a new regulator on that space can do for them.”

The Grenfell tragedy's aftermath was witnessed by HSE workers, who were on site to ensure the area was safe for fire and emergency workers. Photograph: iStock

She has herself lived in a high-rise council block – as a recent graduate from Leicester university where she studied law. “I don’t think that honestly I spent any time thinking about safety, but I’ve thought back since. How on earth would I have got out? And how would you have been safe and was it safe? I can appreciate to some extent the fears that will still be present for people and I think how we help residents see what we can do as a regulator and restore confidence is really important to us.

"But equally, I would acknowledge we’re not going to make them feel better overnight. The fact a new piece of legislation has been passed or a new regulator has turned up, they need to really see change in their built environment and the seriousness that things are taken in the home.”

Ill health – changing the record

The health and safety statistics for 2019/20 had just been published when we speak. They present a good picture on safety – the lowest year on record for fatalities – but cases of ill health across the board were up 15 per cent on last year. Deaths from respiratory diseases have also stayed at 12,000 deaths for the past five years.

Yet HSE's Health and Work Strategy was launched in December 2016, nearly four years ago, with three priorities: to bring down cases of occupational lung disease, musculoskeletal disorders and work-related stress. Any thoughts on that? She says that HSE has had a “degree of success” with “campaigns as various as dust in woodworking and extraction systems.”

She is more keen to discuss mental health. “It’s a human characteristic that we find it much easier to talk to our colleagues about physical things than if we see them under stress, but it’s really important that we get our managers comfortable doing that.”

HSE’s next strategy is likely to focus in on the changing world of work. Photograph: iStock

Also, to discuss HSE’s future strategy which will focus in much more on the changing world of work (HSE’s foresight centre’s 2016 report names AI, machine interfaces and wearables as areas to watch) and how it can direct risk management towards that. “As our five year plan comes to and end I think you’ll see us start to focus on different types of work environment, modern ways of working and the impact of that on people’s health and safety and wellbeing and putting that at the forefront of our research and science and innovation.”

The working from home phenomenon she thinks is also an opportunity to address issues we’ve long suffered from in the UK, such as burnout and prioritising work before health:  “People have worked in different ways during Covid and there are some real upsides to that. We can work with employers about [the advantages of that] kind of flexibility for some people, particularly when there’s ability to go into office, to really help them juggle life and reduce some stresses.”

A pandemic, a new building safety regime, the future of the world of work, this just leaves us to discuss the light issue of Brexit. The UK is still in trade talks with the EU – will health and safety rights be in the firing line if we can’t secure a deal that ensures a ‘level playing field’ on workers’ rights now or on the future? She thinks not: “We see ourselves in Europe as leading a good health and safety culture, so I don’t have any sense government is wanting to change the basis of our health and safety as part of a trade deal.”

“I think we will see continuity across health and safety and I don’t see that as a major ground government is wanting to play on, we may continue we would hope, to lead the world in having the safest workplaces that there are.”

With that, the interview comes to a close. Sarah did say she would welcome a follow-up, to which we readily agreed. That it will match another year like 2020 is highly unlikely and might be the only thing we can be certain of.

Health and safety at work - statistics 2020: bit.ly/3lVCKBh 



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