Charles Oakley – Health and Safety Excecutive


16 JUNE 2023

When Charles Oakley was invited to speak to our Business Club he accepted with, “We are a relatively large employer in the area and yet many local residents and businesses don’t know that we are here, let alone what we do, so I value the opportunity to rectify that to some extent!”

That’s putting it mildly. On 550 acres of undulating land at Harpur Hill near Buxton with sheep looking on is a world-leading research facility owned by the British taxpayer and contributing to better safety at work in projects all over the world. If you hear bangs, you may think it’s the quarries nearby, but instead scientists are blowing things up on our verdant hills to investigate accidents, to test equipment, train rescue workers, educate managers and workforce, to publish data, to inform the future. It’s all on YouTube: Indeed our guest showed us enough bangs, fires, and explosions to keep everyone happy.

Charles is a Chartered Mechanical Engineer who trained in Bristol with sponsorship from the Ministry of Defence, leading to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough then British Aerospace at Kingston where he worked on early carbon fibre uses.  After some years in consultancy his next move was to the Transport Research Lab in Berkshire where he got involved in management; in 2007 he came to HSE in Buxton, first as Head of Personal Safety – that’s PPE (we all know what that means post-Covid), noise, vibration, slips and falls – and more recently in management roles across a wide range of fields.

The UK has had safety legislation for nearly 200 years since the first Factory Inspectorate was set up in 1833. The Mines Inspectorate followed in 1843, producing Annual Reports. By 1911 the need for research led to the setting up of HSE’s predecessor to improve safety especially in coalmines. But making bangs near collieries would bring hordes of locals rushing down fearing a disaster, so the intelligent decision was taken in the 1920s to resite it miles from pits, and that’s why it is in Buxton.

Here an artificial mine was constructed (basically a long concrete tube) where experiments are safely conducted and data collected; that established that it’s not only methane (firedamp) which causes explosions but coal dust itself. The approach is to ram home the message that safety is for everyone, by taking both miners and managers to witness an explosion: “When they feel that pressure wave thump into their chest, they get it.” It’s called “experiental learning” and is still done for company directors and managers of many high-risk operations.

“We have a lot of room to play with,” he smiled. The equipment lends itself to many other uses, as does the “Impact Incline” – two railway lines leading downhill into a crash point, where cameras and sensors track every detail of the collision. How does diesel ignite, for example? Put a match to it and it won’t (don’t try this). But if a high-speed impact ruptures a fuel tank, this otherwise safe fuel bursts out in a vapour cloud and a massive explosion can occur. Discoveries like that have led to redesigns of road vehicles and rail rolling stock worldwide.

The Centre expanded from 2004 onwards with new buildings as it took in Sheffield’s Engineering Test Hall, and now has 350 staff in a vast range of disciplines. And therein lies its success: “We have the widest science base of any equivalent lab,” said Charles modestly, which leads HSE at Buxton to be “Europe’s leading centre of knowledge.” When an accident happens they’re called in, so they even have a rocket scientist to advise on the UK Space Launch Programme. Not only engineers and scientists but psychologists too, for many disasters are caused by human failings. Sometimes the culture of a workplace may be safety-conscious yet deter action: if the sign says, “356 days since the last accident,” some employees may be unwilling to rock that boat by reporting a potential problem, so such signs are now discouraged.

Most of their work is done for the government with about 20% for commercial enterprises, such as helping certify safety equipment. Their remit is to help regulate all industry in the UK and they’re on permanent 24/7 standby. They regulate but they don’t set rules; the aim instead is to be collaborative and accessible, and so enable innovation. A recent Review of their work has got them all a bit giddy, as it recommended as a matter of some urgency establishing Buxton as a National Centre of Excellence in the push for Net Zero. So they’re looking at batteries, alternative fuels and especially doing a lot of work on hydrogen. It’s fine talking about the Hy economy, but as it is a light gas and can penetrate seals sufficient for much larger molecules, how will it behave in use? When it burns, it’s invisible and leaves only water. It could be transported as liquid Hy, an obvious solution, but that means very low temperatures creating further problems. We’re talking energy storage and delivery scaled up massively compared to today (“The energy landscape is changing fast” as our guest put it). At what point does a leak become dangerous – in a pipeline? In a tanker? In a house? It’s their responsibility to find out.

Charles ran through a list of other current projects, from the Covid 19 PROTECT work (which demonstrated that the virus was not spread on surfaces as was originally believed) through Global Health and Safety (helping to create international standards and norms) and as Building Safety Regulator. A discussion ensued about their important role as the Centre for Workplace Health. The UK has the best accident at work record in the world with 130 – 140 deaths a year; but over 13,000 people a year still die of occupational diseases. We’re familiar with asbestosis and silicosis in building workers and stonemasons, but bakers, working with fine airborne flour, are showing up in the statistics now. “Protecting individuals is a last resort,” Charles said. “We try every measure to remove the hazard in the first place, whether it’s noise, vibration or dust.” He pointed out that good Health and Safety is a business gain, making employees feel valued, reducing the cost of downtime (and litigation) and making that business a better place to work.

Charles laughs at the idea that this is some kind of “secret” test location. Public footpaths thread through much of the site, and even though a No-Fly zone is in place at explosion time when no drones are allowed, walkers present a hazard of their own. Rerouting the paths, and perhaps opening up part of the old Cromford & High Peak Railway route instead, has long been on the to-do list.

We could have listened to him all day. This really was a star turn and we were left full of admiration of the world-class work being carried out on our doorstep.