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 hydrogen-powered, 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 has just launched its revised strategy for the next five years, and Dame Judith will call on business leaders to recognise their own role in taking responsibility for managing health and safety in their organisations.

Dame Judith says: “The HSE has had to fight hard to re-establish its reputation in the UK, partly because of exaggerated media stories blaming ‘elf n safety gone mad’ that actually have very little to do with our work in preventing death and serious injury to people at work.

“Health and safety should not be a bureaucratic exercise assigned to one individual or team – it is our shared responsibility to help Britain work well and should be an integral part of everyone’s role. Any successful organisation understands that sensible risk management is essential to running their business. It supports growth, enables innovation and protects the organisations most important asset – its people.”

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.

Notes for editors

1.    Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng was appointed as Chair of the HSE in October 2007 and reappointed in October 2012, having previously served as a Commissioner. She was made a Dame in the 2015/6 New Year Honours for services to health and safety and engineering in particular for being a role model for young women. She was awarded a CBE in 2006.

Dame Judith is a chemical engineer and graduated from Imperial College in 1975. She worked in the chemicals manufacturing industry for 23 years before joining the Chemical Industries Association (CIA) in 1998. She became Director General of the CIA (2002-2005) and then worked in Brussels for the European Chemical Industry Association (CEFIC).

Dame Judith is a Fellow and former President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2010. She is also a senior non-executive director and trustee of the Energy Saving Trust and a non-Exec director of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. She will take over as Chair of the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) in April 2016.

2.    Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

We have four strategic challenges:
- Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
- Address the engineering skills crisis
- Position engineering at the heart of society
- Lead the profession

For more information please contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering

T: 020 7766 0636

E:  Jane Sutton