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The British department trying to reset workers’ attitudes toward health and safety

The Health and Safety Executive, charged with safety research and regulation, hopes COVID-19 will bring needed change

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
October 25, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 41


Photo of a building with a sign saying "Health & Safety Laboratory."
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
The UK Health and Safety Executive's research facility, the Health and Safety Laboratory, is located in Buxton, England.

Bring up health and safety in many workplaces, and you get rolled eyes paired with comments about masses of red tape and wasted time. But the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused minds, especially as universities and industry laboratories reopen after shutdowns meant to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, says Ed Corbett, head of human and organizational performance at the British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Science Division.Employers worldwide have been charged with making their work environments as safe from the virus as possible. In Great Britain, part of the HSE’s role is to support such efforts with advice and guidelines while also conducting spot checks to make sure workplaces are compliant with COVID-19-related rules.

The HSE isn’t just a regulatory body, however. It conducts its own research and works with collaborators from industry and academia across a wide range of topics, all under the umbrella of health and safety research. This somewhat unique twinning of responsibilities—collaborator and regulator—is one of the organization’s strengths, according to Neil Bourne, a professor in the department of mechanical, aerospace, and civil engineering at the University of Manchester who codirects a research institute created by the university and HSE. “The regulatory and science divisions work together in a way that coordinates and enhances them both,” he says. “HSE works with the industry rather than being a prescriptive and distant entity.”

The HSE employs more than 850 scientists and engineers. They work across several key areas of interest for the agency: data analysis, engineering, economics, health, human factors, major hazards, risk, and social and psychological sciences.

The British Health and Safety Executive at a glance

Headquarters: Near Liverpool in the northwest of England; the Science Division is located 100 km to the east at the Science and Research Centre in Buxton

Employees: 850 scientists and engineers

Established: The HSE was created in 1975; Science and Research Centre activities go back to 1911

Research areas: Fire and explosions, process safety, risk modeling, engineering, medical and health research, and social and psychological sciences

Research partnerships:Centre for Workplace Health with the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals; International Association of Hydrogen Energy; Partnership for European Research in Occupational Safety and Health; Sheffield Group, an international network of occupational safety and health research institutions; Thomas Ashton Institute with the University of Manchester

The social and psychological sciences groups conduct their own independent research, and they are also critical to the rest of the agency’s work. “You always have to be thinking about how to persuade people, industry, to adopt the changes that your research ends up recommending,” says Gareth Evans, principal scientist and professional lead for health at the HSE Science Division. “That’s where our multidisciplinary approach comes in.”

The organization is essentially a one-stop shop from idea to execution, he says. “We go all the way from identifying a problem and its causes, quantifying it, coming up with solutions, and then working out how to convince industry to adopt it,” Evans says. “This ability to see something all the way from concept to implementation is rare, and it’s why I joined HSE.”

The HSE’s research projects often start with consulting industry leaders because the HSE’s goal is to come up with data and findings that workplaces will actually use, says Corbett, who is on the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal ACS Chemical Health & Safety (ACS also publishes C&EN). “There’s clearly an interest for those types of research projects, and so we’ll work together on it, sharing the burden of funding and resources,” he says.

You always have to be thinking about how to persuade people, industry, to adopt the changes that your research ends up recommending.
Gareth Evans, principal scientist and professional lead for health, Health and Safety Executive Science Division

For example, before the pandemic, HSE had conducted a workshop to ask about some of the chemical industry’s safety concerns and what industry workers felt they needed to know more about. One of the workshop findings was a need for data on the longevity of composite wrap materials intended for temporary pipe repair.

“If you have a corroded pipe in the energy sector or chemical industry, you can often just apply a composite wrap until you have a full facility shutdown, when you’d intend to replace the pipe,” Corbett explains. “But we’ve found that these temporary fixes can actually end up becoming more long term, and so we want to know how long they can really last and what can be done to ensure they stay as safe as possible until a solution can be found.”

HSE research revealed that the way the wraps are applied to the pipe, rather than the composition of wrap material, has a large impact. “Proper surface preparation and application are really important,” Corbett says. “It’s a good example of practical information that can be used to ensure workers are kept safe.”

The HSE also carries out longer-term projects, often in partnership with scientists from the University of Manchester, through the Thomas Ashton Institute, which was jointly founded by both institutions to streamline their collaborative research efforts.

“The breadth of what HSE has to cover is so vast that they need to maintain expertise and capability across wide-ranging areas, and that naturally means they can’t quite have the same level of depth in some areas like a university has,” institute codirector Bourne says. “The breadth of HSE and the depth of knowledge at the university means we can provide transformative support and advice to government and industry.”

Some of that work is relevant across many different industries. For example, Clara Cheung—a lecturer in project management in the University of Manchester’s department of mechanical, aerospace, and civil engineering—is on a mission to change the fundamental methodology of health and safety research by moving away from retrospective studies. “We often focus on how many people died or were injured,” she says. “But those measurements are lagging indicators.” In other words, by the time they can be quantified, it’s too late; the problem has already happened.

“We want to be proactive rather than reactive,” she says. Switching from lagging to leading indicators can instead create an early-warning system that allows people to prevent problems.

Cheung’s research seeks to make leading indicators more widely used by those studying health and safety. “The problem is that different organizations have different practices and different definitions, so there is no single way of doing this,” she says. That makes it hard for one organization to learn from another.

Cheung is working on developing a common list with definitions of best practices. She is currently focusing on the construction industry because it’s a traditionally high-risk and high-consequence industry, but she expects that her work will also benefit chemists and other scientists. “Each industry and field will have its own specific indicators, but there will also be leading indicators that are generic and could be applied across industries,” she says. “We’re working on a model that could be copied and replicated beyond the construction world.”

The first step was to define what a leading indicator actually is. “We went back and forth with industry leaders to come up with a firm meaning,” Cheung says. “The conclusion was that such an indicator shouldn’t just identify the weaknesses in a system but also offer the chance to do something with that information,” she says. “The point is to save lives, not just see in advance when something bad is likely to happen.” An example of a leading indicator could be the results of a workforce-wide survey on how fatigued employees are; a company could then adjust staffing to reduce fatigue as needed.

It’s hard to prove the success of work like Cheung’s—it’s difficult to prove an accident didn’t happen because of change made proactively. But ultimately, it should mean those at the HSE who investigate major disasters and accidents will have more time to spend on other preventive activities.

“If there’s a chemical accident, then we’ll send inspectors to find out what happened, but with serious investigations it can take years from start to finish,” says Stephen Graham, technical team leader of hazardous materials.

In fact, reducing the number of incidents to investigate is the wider aim of the HSE across all its departments, Bourne says. A national reset of attitudes toward health and safety could be a silver lining to COVID-19. “When we all come out of this, hopefully the public’s understanding of risk is improved,” Bourne says. “This pandemic has turned risk from something that people largely ignored into the most important thing we consider before leaving the house. Obviously, we don’t want people to be scared all the time, but hopefully some of this translates to the workplace.”

Benjamin Plackett is a freelance writer based in the UK. A version of this story first appeared in ACS Chemical Health & Safety:


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