Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor Stephen Wood


  1.1  I assume the enquiry will treat the WSA fund as a case study to help gain further insight into the HSE's approach to strategy, partnership working, and implementation of key initiatives. I have angled my comments with this in mind. I have drawn mainly on minutes and letters written from the Board to HSE or HSC, and all members of the Board that I have been able to contact in preparing this have supported this response to your request. I have no reason to think those I have not heard from would not support it.

  1.2  The HSE's Workers' Safety Adviser Challenge Fund was set up by Rt Hon Andrew Smith MP, when Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as a grant scheme in 2003 with the explicit objective of stimulating workers and employers to work together in partnerships to enhance standards in health and safety. The aim of the fund was to secure lasting improvements in occupational health and safety through enhancing the involvement of workers in this process, using Workers' Safety Advisers (WSAs) as agents of change. The Fund provided the finance for these Advisers, whose role was to create genuine worker involvement in workplaces that is sustainable after the project finishes.


  2.1  I was selected for the role of chair with nothing but the broad terms of reference of the Fund established. I consequently had to develop, in an extremely short period of time, the framework of the Fund—the nature of the funded projects and what criteria they had to meet—and establish how the Management Board would operate and relate to its stakeholders. We had no Board meeting prior to the selection meeting for the first round of projects. This first meeting was dominated by the selection process, though I began by presenting and discussing our purpose and the approach we should adopt eg attempt to make all decisions on the basis of a consensus. The criteria for selecting projects had been only set in the broadest terms and part of the process of selecting projects involved clarify and embellishing these. We subsequently refined these and made them explicit for round two applicants.

  2.2  I do not think had we had more time at the outset or had had a meeting before we considered the first round of applicants we would have made any decisions that were much different from those we made. As a talented board with a variety of vantage points we were able to develop a clear understanding of the nature of the WSA scheme, the role of the WSA, and the criteria for selecting and assessing the performance of projects. The enthusiasm of the HSE officer initially in charge of the project provided us with any extra motivation we might have needed to get the scheme's framework right or to find the time to do this.

  2.3  The Management Board of the Fund, having worked with the HSE on devising and improving the scheme, were confident by the end of the second year that they had developed a robust framework for the kind of WSA approach that HSE was charged to deliver. It was firmly premised on the basis that harnessing the local, task-specific, often tacit, knowledge of workers is crucial to the continuous improvement of the nation's health and safety at work. We particularly ensured that the focus of the Adviser's work would be on worker involvement rather than directly advising on health and safety. All involved in devising the scheme were especially aware of the need to ensure that WSAs did not become substitutes for the worker involvement that they should be stimulating. The criteria for defining the role and qualifications of WSA—which was perhaps the issue the Board spent most time on in the design stage—reflected this as they were not dominated by technical knowledge but included the social skills associated with facilitation and change management.

  2.4  Given the experimental nature of the Fund, projects that used innovative methods for stimulating worker involvement were particularly encouraged. For example, in one project body mapping was used to enable workers to identify health and safety risks. Other initiatives included identifying and training worker involvement champions within the workforce; engaging with organizations on evenings and weekends to ensure that all workers benefit from the scheme; and centring the delivery of actions on key issues, such as smoking, violence and stress.


  3.1  While the design of the Fund was not, in my judgement, adversely affected by the short time between the funding being made available and its commencement, the evaluation procedure did suffer through being rushed or insufficient resources being given to designing it. I was on the panel for selecting the contractors for the evaluation. It appeared from the first meeting of the panel that insufficient thought had been given to the evaluation exercise or the selection process. The design of the evaluation model appeared to have been left to the candidates and the panel was drawn from a variety of parts of HSE, with little, and in some cases no, clear knowledge of the nature of the WSA scheme or the evaluation of the pilot that had preceded it.

  3.2  None of the candidates in fact articulated a clear and coherent evaluation model underlying their proposal. On my suggestion the panel was reconvened and two candidates were asked to present their model. This delayed the process of appointment as well as highlighted inadequacies in the candidates' proposals, some of which remained in the successful applicant's approach. We may have ended up with a better evaluation protocol and methodology or even different set of applicants had the initial specification been tighter and more developed by HSE personnel.

  3.3  The Board had several presentations from the Evaluators and in the course of the ensuing discussion it made suggestions for improving the research design. It was particularly keen to ensure that the evaluation focused on whether improvements in occupational health and safety were being achieved and covered the impact chain in order to test whether WSAs generate worker involvement and whether this in turn leads to better health and safety behaviours and outcomes. The testing of other key assumptions, such as that workers in the right context will be receptive to opportunities for worker involvement, or that WSAs can act as catalysts between employers and workers, was also built into the evaluation. We were also especially mindful that the evaluation of the sustainability of the changes that would be done through revisiting round 1 projects at the end of the third year would be a key element of the evaluation which would provide a paramount test of the fund.

  3.4  Given the fact that injury, accidents and absenteeism rates for workplaces are very low in any one year, and there possibly being inadequate records of these, the Board were also mindful that the use of such measures may be limited in evaluating improvements in occupational safety and health. There is also the problem that increased awareness can lead to improved reporting rates and also that benefits from reduced exposures to health hazards associated with `long-latency' diseases (eg occupational cancers and noise induced hearing loss) may not become apparent for many years.

  3.5  The Board did not, however, want the evaluation to over-concentrate on changes in health and safety arrangements and reporting the worker involvement initiatives and structures that have been put in place through the WSA scheme. We were thus pleased to see that the evaluators had provided information on the concrete changes in safety practice and behaviour eg reducing the loads that people have to carry or their exposure to noise and dust.

  3.6  We, however, encouraged more systematic collection and analysis of such data so comparisons across projects could be made. We also urged that the evaluation of rounds 2 and 3 should provide a clearer identification of different approaches to the WSA initiative and an assessment of whether they led to different outcomes. In order to make judgements on the future of the Fund we particularly suggested that we identify the relative costs and benefits of the different approaches that have been adopted, and if there are approaches that are more costly assess whether the extra costs are producing valuable outcomes and are what we want to spend public money on. For example if some of the extra costs are on building the relationships between the partnerships we would need to decide if this capacity building were what we wanted to allocate scarce resources to. Other examples might include costs related to the special needs of an employment sector or geographical region, such as translation or excessive travel costs.

  3.7  After year one, we noted that lead partners in the projects had stressed that the successful WSAs achieve greater worker involvement because they were able to get the trust of both managers and workers, and suggested that this needed more systematic testing and particularly what factors are important for getting the trust of employers. For example, has the WSA's independence from the HSE been crucial? Is their having the trust of workers a positive factor or is there a point when if it is too strong it creates problems? Is it the WSA's ability to empathise or their detailed knowledge of the issues in certain industries that is important?

  3.8  The evaluations were in the end scaled back and particularly that of round 3 and the return-to-round-1-projects element was abandoned. Throughout the project the Board had expressed some misgivings about the evaluation, and its lack of depth and particularly the analysis and presentation of the material. Some of our points from round 1 were taken on board but the HSE reported to us that they found the reports were adequate for its needs and implied that they were user-friendly, which was not the Board's view. The HSE began to make statements in Board meetings about the nature of the Fund often on the basis of what we took to be inadequate information or incautious inferences from the evaluators' reports or draft versions of these. One such statement was that the WSA scheme worked best where traditional institutional structures were in place eg employers' bodies existed, but this was never tested.


  4.1  There was nonetheless sufficient in the formal evaluation to make statements about the operational success or otherwise of the scheme. The initial evaluation, covering the first year's projects, showed that most projects had achieved their stated objectives and collectively had enhanced worker involvement in a range of organizations across the economy. It also revealed changes in attitudes towards health and safety in these organisations from the time the WSA first visited them to the end of the projects, so that, for example, the number of workers thinking that they could not have much of role in improving health and safety, or were not confident in their ability to fulfil it, reduced substantially to a figure of around 4% of the total sample of 1491 workers.

  4.2  The evaluation and our own visits to projects (Board members typically visited two projects twice in each year) revealed many examples of changes in health and safety practice in the 684 organizations that were engaged by the 28 WSAs. For example, Dewsbury and Batley Society for the Blind, helped by a WSA, introduced a health and safety policy and health and safety committee, and an employee committed himself to being a health and safety champion, and identified a voluntary worker with health and safety qualifications who would assist in risk assessments. Prior to the WSA's involvement, the Society, which has 23 full- or part-time workers and over 50 volunteer workers, did not have a health and safety policy, had never conducted any risk assessment, or had anybody responsible for health safety. Changes in safety behaviour were particularly focused on the transportation arrangements, but also included the office and car park.

  4.3  At the end of the project the Board concluded that the design of the WSA scheme that emerged was fit for purpose. The evaluation had showed that in broad terms the projects have successfully achieved their objectives. The scheme has been successful on a number of dimensions. The paper on the scheme that was submitted to the HSC at the end of its life recognised this. But the Board expressed the view to the Commission that insufficient recognition had been taken into account of the success of the projects in the eyes of those who participated. It was also concerned that the major judgement that the WSA scheme was a relative high cost approach was not based on comparing alternative ways of reaching SMEs or of generating worker involvement, which may be inherently costly.

  4.4  At the HSC's meeting where the final report on the scheme was discussed I also drew its attention to other points that I thought were neglected in the HSE's conclusions on the fund including:

    (a)  The learning that has gone on from one year to the next and that the quality of the cohort of projects improved from one year to the next.

    (b)  The fact that part of the WSA's appeal at least to employers is that he/she is independent of the HSE; and that independence from trade unions, where this is the case, is also valued.

  Finally, I noted that in interpreting the evaluation results one is faced in several places with the half-full-half empty problem. The Board felt that the HSE was inclining to take the half-empty view. This could be illustrated by two important examples.

    (a)  A generalization was made that WSA took a narrow mainly advisory view of their role. Some may have done this, particularly in the first year, but equally some did not and certainly from our observations, the practice was not widespread if at all in the second and third years.

    (b)  A conclusion was made that the scheme mainly reached those already well-disposed towards work involvement—but again some employers were pre-disposed but others were not. This is clearly shown by the fact that the correlation in the evaluation report between employer's predisposition to worker involvement and worker involvement outcomes is only 0.56. It is one thing to say that WSAs must win over employers to get sustainable worker involvement or even that employers must have some basic positive predisposition to improving health and safety, it is quite another thing to say they must be predisposed towards worker involvement. The level of enthusiasm towards worker involvement and willingness to sign up to the scheme in fact varied between the organizations that participated in the projects.


      5.1  The WSA scheme was intended to be built on partnership working, as there are partnerships at all levels: the fund itself was managed through a very successful partnership between HSE, the firm contracted to run the operations of the fund (PNE) and the Board (and hence representative of major stakeholder groups); the projects were initiated and run by partnerships involving a range of types of organizations; the WSAs were working in partnership with the partners to the project; and they were enhancing the partnership arrangements between employers and workers in organizations in a wide range of sectors. The Board were in fact content that it was providing a good example of partnership working, and thought that more attention could perhaps have been given to assessing this in the evaluation.

      5.2  Nonetheless, while the initial relationship between the Board was certainly a partnership with joint leadership and multiple foci of authority, as the Fund progressed the HSE changed the nature of the relationship. First after the first year, the HSE made it explicit that the role of the Board was to be advisory and in keeping with this the Board's recommendations for projects to be funded in round 2 were not accepted in their entirety and an extra project, which was quite low in the Board's rankings (to which representatives of the HSE were party), was subsequently funded without adequate consultation with the Board. In the final year the HSE went further and did not consult a great deal, for example on how it was directing and interpreting the evaluation or representing the fund in public, nor did it consult on the decision not to follow up the WSA Fund with a comparable initiative.

      5.3  The decision not to do the assessment of the sustainability of round 1 achievements was also made without consultation, and the Board were especially surprised to find that the cost of it, which seemed to be a major reason for its abandonment, was almost identical to the under-spent money that the HSE returned to the Dept. of Work and Pensions. We were told about this when it was too late for any decisions to be modified. The HSE representative at the Board meeting did however say that he felt that little extra would be learnt from going back to round 1 projects.

      5.4  The Board was a good example of partnership working and all decisions were based on a consensus, and I did not once have to use the default of calling a vote. Most of its recommendations were accepted by the HSE, and the inputs from the HSE representatives at the MB meetings were always considered very seriously and in most cases used positively. While the Board had championing the WSA Fund included in its role description, members had always approached it with an open mind and accepted that it was a three-year experiment. There emerged within the group a feeling that the HSE— or at least those most closely involved in the scheme—was not doing likewise. Members of the HSE closest to the Fund appeared to be approaching the results of the evaluation looking for supports for reasons for not extending the WSA initiative in some form or another. As one member of the Board expressed it, "It is my impression that over the last couple of years the WSA Fund had not been championed as it was in its first year. I also have some reservations regarding the last two reports on the fund that have been presented to the Board; I personally found them negative and almost dismissive of the Fund's achievements".

      5.5  The Board concluded its response to the HSE's initial draft of a document on its learning from the fund with the following: "the Board feel that all the positives from the Fund including the way it operated and was founded on partnership working are increasingly being swept into the background". It also noted that it felt that several of the points made were not so much learning points for this or similar projects but development issues for HSE staff eg the need for project management skills.

      5.6  The HSE document incorporated the results of a consultation process on alternative forms of worker involvement. Respondents were in the Board's view given a very limited range of choices in the consultation document, and felt that the HSE had possibly interpreted some stakeholders' views in a rather limited way. The Board also expressed in its last meeting that, while the trade unions may have said in this consultation that they prefer another option to WSAs, this is not to say that if they were given the choice of WSAs or nothing they would not opt for the WSAs. The HSE had not consulted with the many partners who have been involved in the projects (or failed applications). Since one of the roles of the WSA Fund was to be an exemplar for partnership working at all levels, which it has successfully achieved, it seems that the views of this group are especially important. More generally, the methodology underlying the HSE's document used a mixture of evidence-based policy making and democratic consultative processes—but these were not joined-up since those consulted had not seen the evaluation.

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