Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Burning Our Money...No, Really

It was a miracle that nobody died in the Buncefield disaster. But apparently that was no thanks to the Health and Safety Executive.

According to Hemel Today, 'it was revealed this morning that the Health and Safety Executive had visited the oil depot in the autumn to examine fire safety and how prepared Buncefield would be to deal with a fire but reported 'no undue concerns' at that time'.

HSE deputy chief executive Justin McCracken told a press conference: "The last inspection was specifically focusing on issues of preparation for dealing with fire." He added that on the "specific" areas they had looked at, "nothing came out which caused us undue concern".

Which is obviously very concerning. So we've taken a closer look at the HSE itself.

The Executive describes its "mission" as being "to protect people’s health and safety by ensuring risks in the changing workplace are properly controlled". According to its Annual Report, it costs us over £200m pa, and employs 4,000 staff. But it turns out only a third of them are "frontline staff", the guys that actually go out and poke around in the muck behind oil tanks, say. The remainder are just more paper jockeys.

And they're needed to produce the vast number of reports the HSE generates. The Annual Report alone has 127 pages, and lists rafts of key achievements in all sorts of vital areas like gender and ethnic balance among staff, devolution, work around a vast range of issues with no end of stakeholders, and of course"Strategic Enabling Programmes".

Preventing explosions at oil storage facilities comes under the HSE's 'Major Hazards Strategic Delivery Programme'. And following accepted government practice, they've set up a target. Not for reducing massive explosions per se, you understand, but for 'achieving a sustained reduction in the level of precursor incidents occurring in these industries over the period 2004-06.'

Now this might have sounded OK when the Target Committee dreamed it up. But just like all those NHS targets, it will almost certainly have had unintended consequences. Because the target on which those few frontline staff now focus is not the actual elimination of massive oil depot explosions, but the reduction in "precursor incidents" (or "Relevant RIDDOR" as it's called in HSE bureaucratese).

All of which probably explains why the oil depot, the emergency services, and presumably the HSE themselves only had contingency plans for "one or two" of the tanks blowing up: not the catastrophic domino effect that obviously- and predictably- took place.

Now I don't know about you, but I think I'd sleep more easily in my bed if the HSE dropped their reports, their strategic enabling, and their precursive targets, and concentrated instead on using some common sense.

I'm going out first thing to buy a tin hat and a biological suit.

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