Here's to health, Ms Bacon

The first female head of the HSE will bring an evangelical touch to her job, says Tom Wilkie
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The Independent Online
At about 7.30 last Monday morning, a cyclist pedalled up to the offices of the Health and Safety Executive in London. A woman dismounted and walked inside to take charge of health and safety at all Britain's factories, railways, nuclear power stations and offshore oil rigs. She has now just finished her first week at work in what has traditionally been very much a man's world.

As the bicycle indicates, ostentation is not one of Jenny Bacon's character traits; boundless energy is. A career civil servant, this short, vigorous woman has become only the third Director-General of the HSE in its 20- year history. She commands a budget of more than pounds 200m and the talents of more than 4,000 staff, ranging from factory inspectors through mathematical physicists to specialist lawyers. Her inspectors "have got the powers to regulate the hell out of the country. We could bring industry to a halt," she says. But, she continued: "We are in the game of prevention, not picking the pieces up afterwards."

The organisation she has inherited was set up when concern over industrial safety was rising. The early postwar years saw a steep decline in the numbers of people killed at work, but by the late 1960s this number seemed to be rising again, to between 500 and 1,000 each year. Last year, after 20 years of the HSE's work, there were fewer than 300 fatal accidents at work.

But this is not because the HSE is draconian and operating a punitive regime. Ms Bacon concedes that her inspectors could never get to visit all 3.3 million companies in Britain so, in addition to its role as an enforcement agency, Ms Bacon sees it almost as an evangelist for the message that improving health and safety at work is good not only for employees but also for employers. "We have to operate by raising awareness, expectations, and giving expert advice," she said.

The HSE and its supervisory Health and Safety Commission, set up by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, are survivors from the "tripartite" days of the 1960s and 1970s. Trade unionists and employers' representatives as well as independent appointees sit on the Commission to decide policy and appoint staff. The arrangement keeps the technical business of regulation, conducted by the Executive, insulated from political or civil service interference.

Although regulation has become a dirty word in modern politics, at the end of her initial term of five years, Ms Bacon wants to ensure that "health and safety regulation is seen as a good, rather than as a necessary evil driven by Europe", and for the HSE to be "regarded by ministers, industry and the public as a fair and professional regulator".

Much of the organisation's time has been spent on safety at work and in the control of major hazards such as nuclear power and petrochemical plant. She would like to see an increasing emphasis on avoiding ill health - "a lot of days are lost through minor injuries, not things like asbestosis, which are all controllable by better management" - and on ensuring that "small firms and the people working for them have a much higher awareness of health and safety and of what the HSE can offer." There is, she points out, no necessary correlation between the size of a company and the hazards of its operations to its workforce: "Some of the smallest firms do the nastiest things."

The HSE plays in the biggest arenas also: "I would look for the approaches we have tried being more widely applied in Europe, because I think we have a lot to offer." In negotiations with other nations and the European Commission: "we can take to the table more expertise in good science than other member states. On the whole, they do not bring as well-considered science to the negotiations as we do. The arguments we have taken to Europe are founded on good science, an assessment of risk, along with cost-benefit analysis and a goal-setting approach when it's sensible. That allows for subsidiarity to health and safety regulation."

Other European countries have a more disaggregated approach to regulating health and safety, often "privatising" it by requiring employers to take out third party insurance and leaving it up to the insurers to inspect and control risks in factories in their own commercial interest.

But, according to Ms Bacon, "our approach is more effective in reducing accidents and it costs a helluva sight less. Our best estimates are that we cost considerably less than an insurance-based approach. We have compared across six countries and we are convinced our approach is not only more effective but more cost-effective."

Ms Bacon has a full agenda and there is a tradition of long service for HSE directors-general, so will she be staying in post after her five years are up, or will she be eyeing up Whitehall again? Her answer is blunt, but then all her answers are blunt: this is a woman who knows her own mind. "Going on for a second five-year term would not be a good idea."

Her appointment, as the equivalent of second permanent secretary, puts Ms Bacon as one of the very few women at senior levels of the civil service. She remarks on this only when pressed: "I hope it gives women some hope of getting to senior positions in the civil service, but I don't regard it as a campaigning matter." It is helpful, though, she conceded, that she does "not have to run a husband and children" at the same time as the HSE. Within the organisation, however, she insists:"I am a person dealing with people. It's a gender-free zone."