Ian Talks To Dr David Snowball, CB
David joined the Health and Safety Executive, HSE, in 1984 as a factory inspector. He spent 35 years with the organisation until he retired in December 2019. His senior posts included Director of Hazardous Installations, Director of Field Operations and Director, Regulation. He was Acting Chief Executive for 15 months before his retirement. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath for his services to Occupational Health and Safety in the 2020 Birthday Honours.
David, thank you very much for agreeing to have this chat with me. I’m looking forward to your views and reflections as the former head of HSE, on the health and safety system, a kind of state of the nation perspective. To set the scene, what was your route into health and safety and the HSE?David
It was pure chance. I finished my PhD at Leeds University during which I’d been looking at risk assessment for the location of hazardous installations, just when HSE was coming out of an inspector recruitment freeze. I was keen to have a job that wouldn't be office based, I knew a bit about HSE and the job appealed to me.
I started in Cardiff. I was the only trainee inspector in the office and was able to sponge up huge amounts of knowledge, learning and experience from all the inspectors. South Wales was dominated by steel manufacturing and fairly early, I was inspecting steel works. It was a real eye opener because it was an industry red in tooth and claw and unforgiving if things went wrong.
I struck up a helpful and long-lasting influential relationship with one of the British Steel Accident Prevention managers who saw that I needed a bit of careful nudging and coaxing. So that was a hugely beneficial relationship in that formative part of my career. We would always have a proper brief and de-brief at every visit so I learned a huge amount from him.
What was the attitude towards health and safety in the early 80s from British Steel, the workers and the public, you were serving?David
In spite of the fact they had regular, serious accidents (one year we were dealing with 12 separate fatal accidents) they were partly victims of the way the industry was changing. Many of the accidents involved contractors, and in spite of their and the contractors’ best efforts, they never quite nailed contractor safety. There are parallels with process safety in the sense that the dog isn't allowed one bite. In the steel industry, you don't get brushed gently by a torpedo ladle full of molten steel. A 350-tonne crane dropping a load does not give you a glancing blow, it just kills you. So the difference between a near miss and a fatal was much, much smaller.
Was there a point when you realised this is the right career for you and you could make a difference?David
Yes, though it wasn’t a Damascene conversion, but I do remember driving to one works one day and thinking this is going to be an interesting day. I've done my homework and there are some things I really want to nail. And you have to step back and consider, what does this mean for the business as a whole? How will I make a difference?
During that time through the 80s and 90s there was a shift in focus in health and safety from technical issues to the importance of management systems, what's your recollection of that journey?David
There was comfort and security in focusing on technical issues. You could discuss dangerous machinery guarding with somebody on a purely technical level. But it's interesting, in one of your previous interviews with Ken Rivers he said, ‘The only thing that matters in health and safety is people’. Although you can be a technical wizard you've got to make it work for people. Simply going back to the same organisations covering the same things over and over again is a pointless exercise. Something big has to change. Otherwise, you get to the situation that Lord Robens discovered in reforming the UK health and safety system in the 1970s when he talked about apathy, and the need for industry as a whole not to rely on the big finger-wagging regulator to put things right.
I don't think we should underestimate the extent to which ideas about systematic risk management were around but it all needed to be brought together into a coherent structure in order to make sense to people, business, and to inspectors. The HSE publication ‘Successful health and safety management’ was a big step forward. It encouraged people to think much more carefully about risk control systems as part of a bigger picture and I don't think that has ever been bettered.
The skill of an investigator and a regulator is always to draw back and say, OK, what general picture is that helping me paint on whether or not this business and this organisation really do ‘get’ health and safety?
You were involved in overseeing and delivering some challenging issues on health and safety in the public sector that pushed the boundary of traditional health and safety beyond factories into the Armed Forces and healthcare. What is your reflection of the benefits and challenges you encountered?David
In the fire service, the police, the military, NHS trusts etc, people are still employees. So they have every right to benefit from health and safety the legal protections. There were quite challenging and high-profile accidents involving firefighters, police officers, and skilful military recruits. What that really showed me was that the HSE enforcement principles of targeting, consistency, transparency and proportionality were well founded. I recall a meeting with the chief of the army in relation to high hazard activity and what he really wanted to talk about was proportionality. He knew his people did inherently dangerous things. And that sits for me at the very core of being a good regulator, what does proportionality look like when determining the degree of regulatory intervention required?
Let's look to the future of occupational health and safety in a very rapidly changing employment scene? How do you think systems and the arrangements need to flex?David
The regulator needs to know what the exam question is. If it is ‘what harms people at work?’ then you have to make sure you are on top of the science and evidence and are able to evolve in line with changing risks and new hazards to keep the regulatory system effective.
COVID is a good example because it spans public health and the workplace creating some challenging dividing lines for regulators to negotiate. I think that COVID has shown the importance of risk control based on a well-established hierarchy of control measures, but it has also shown how vulnerable people are in social or economic terms too. I've been alarmed at how quickly and how unpleasantly it's exposed the very tenuous relationship some people have with their work, whether that's because they have to go and work in horrible circumstances because they can't afford not to, or because the government safety net isn't good enough to protect them.
So COVID has raised much bigger questions that go beyond the traditional role of health and safety inspection.
What was the highlight of your career?David
One theme, which has been quite consistent in my later years was finding better ways of working smarter in terms of targeting. Intervention effort whether at the level of an individual business or across the whole landscape where we had to make choices about where to go and what to do. It was really about emphasising the skill of good regulatory work rather than just turning the handle and doing what we had always done.
But you asked me earlier when did I realise I was doing the right thing. It wasn’t a highlight but it stayed with me. It was a horrible situation where I went to see a bereaved family where the father had been killed in an accident. His widow was so grief-stricken she couldn't speak and so her mother was doing all the talking and a little girl walked into the room and just pointed her finger at me and said, "Granny, does this man know why daddy died?"
Can you tell me something unusual about yourself that we wouldn’t necessary know?David
Well, when I was at university I was a very keen country dancer.
And do you still do a bit?David
No. I’ve forgotten all of them. But it was great fun and I got to go on a lot of overseas tours.
And what advice would you give to your 18 year old self?David
Don't wear flared trousers.
What was your unwind strategy?David
I've always been a big reader. Although I have to say when I was working, sometimes it was quite hard to read for pleasure having read for seriousness all day long. I did a lot of travelling crisscrossing the country so I used to listen to a lot of music and to a lot of podcasts. If I was at home, I'd go out on my bike.
So what didn’t I ask you? What did I miss out?David
I worked in HSE for 35 of its 50 years existence, so 70% of HSE’s lifespan. Looking back there's been a massive improvement in competence in industry. But I don't think we've necessarily discovered great new insights about why people have accidents. It's about people. I know the systems change, technical knowledge changes, processes change, but they are all still people-related. And we ignore that at our peril.
As we veer into a world with more artificial intelligence, I'm reminded of somebody who said they would much prefer natural stupidity over artificial intelligence. The other day, my car texted me to say, I'm unlocked. I got rebuked for not locking it. There's a couple of things struck me about that. One was that the car had created the classic human factor situation, where I had assumed a task had been completed because the car is so sophisticated. It was a breakdown in knowledge not skills but then the car closed the circle by reminding me. But when I got home, the scary thing was I half-expected my wife’s car to invite me to join a WhatsApp group!
David, brilliant thank you so much for sharing your insights and enjoy your retirement to the fullest possible extent.