HomeHSEQHealth and Safety Laboratory - a national asset and hidden treasure

Health and Safety Laboratory – a national asset and hidden treasure

Listen to this article

The spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire is the highest market town in England and a gateway to the Peak District National Park. It is close to the county boundary with Cheshire to the west and Staffordshire to the south. There is a mixed economy of tourism, retail, quarrying, scientific research, light industry and mineral water bottling.

Several limestone quarries are located nearby, including the largest high-purity industrial limestone quarry in Europe. The quarries in the area are well connected by rail freight services via Peak Forest. Buxton railway station is served by the former L&NWR and LMS line via Whaley Bridge, with frequent trains to Stockport and Manchester.

One of the least known secrets of Buxton is that it is home to HSL, HSE’s Health and Safety Laboratory. For the UK regulator, HSL works on incident investigation and research. But, more importantly, this national asset is here to support industry to identify common health and safety issues, and support companies with training, research and consultancy to tackle often-complex health and safety related issues.

Founded by Winston Churchill’s government to conduct research into coalmine explosions, HSL was reportedly located in Buxton because, with quarrying already present in the area, there was a low risk of explosive noise being associated with any coal mining accident.

HSL has used the site for many years but, since 2005, it has consolidated its offices from Sheffield and London to these purpose-built facilities, laboratories and offices in Buxton.

The Harper Hill site

When a tour of the site was arranged for Rail Engineer, a pool car was booked as the site extends over 500 acres – it’s huge! The facilities here include a railway constructed to investigate explosions on trains. There are also facilities to assess collision impacts using smaller gauge tracks and drop tests.

The old track bed of the Cromford and High Peak Railway (C&HPR) runs through the site, although this part of the route has been shut for over 100 years and HSL is now accessible only by road.

HSL’s expertise has been used to investigate a number of railway incidents including Potters Bar, Ladbroke Grove and Grayrigg, as well as incidents in high hazard installations like Buncefield and in other industries, such as amusement parks.

However, investigative work is only a small part of what HSL does. Its specialist teams provide health and safety solutions to industry and government, and combine their significant scientific, medical and technical expertise to help all industries manage risk and protect their workforces from illness and injury.

What HSL does

HSL’s main focus is on helping companies and industries to manage risks well and therefore prevent future incidents. This is done by offering direct access to its world-class experts via training, commissioned research or hands-on consultancy. HSL is part of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and carrying out investigations for HSE gives it a unique insight into the causes of workplace accidents and ill-health.

Health and safety can’t be considered in isolation. Central to any business are its people and their interaction with plant (equipment, tools), process (how plant is used), product (what is produced) and place (the working environment). That’s why one of the UK’s largest dedicated Human Factors teams is based in Buxton.

A particular strength of HSL is bringing together different disciplines and teams to create practical, innovative and useful solutions, including standard and bespoke testing and modelling, as well as tools and research for health and safety. They take an evidence-based approach when evaluating workplace problems, drawing on their extensive wealth of scientific research and knowledge gained over 100 years.

HSL employs a wide range of specialists including medical doctors, psychologists, explosives engineers, toxicologists, ergonomists, fire engineers, occupational hygienists, process safety engineers, microbiologists, mathematicians, material scientists, personal protective equipment experts and many more. This wide range of skills ensures a holistic approach is taken with work or research undertaken by HSL.

Five centres

HSL has set up five new centres to drive innovation and support industry even further. These include:

The Centre for Large-Scale Testing and Evaluation: this offers an unrivalled range of impact, blast, and bespoke large-scale testing facilities. For drop tests involving high mass objects, there is a four-metre concrete cube faced with a 50mm steel plate for use as an ‘unyielding’ drop target. HSL’s indoor vertical drop tower has a 10-tonne capacity hoist and a variable drop height of up to four metres. The 10-metre rig can also be used for high strain rate tests on, for example, webbings used in fall arrest equipment.

For faster impact speeds, HSL possesses a drop tower which offers a drop height variability of up to 25 metres and the flexibility to accommodate a variety of instrumentation packages.

The 265-metre main impact track consists of a single railway with dual rails (outer and inner gauge) which run down profiled banks on either side of a valley into a flat impact area at the valley floor. The track can be used for impact testing, collision testing, shock testing, high strain rate testing, wire rope testing and other compressive or tensile tests.

The Centre for Human Performance: set up to help any organisation maximise the potential of people, processes, systems and working environment. This positively impacts business leadership, efficiency, productivity and health and safety performance.

The Centre for Health: HSL’s Complete Worker Health solution to protect workers today and for life. The achievable, stepwise approach to health risk management tackles the issues specific to each organisation the centre deals with. This is focused on knowing a company’s issues and prioritising actions, together with integrating good management and wellbeing. The HSL objective is to ensure managing health at work need be no more challenging than managing safety.

The Centre for Risk Management: here HSL helps organisations to get their risk management right, however complex the task is. This results in greater business productivity, reduced costs and a healthier, safer workforce.

The Centre for Energy innovation: HSL works with innovative companies and partners to mitigate the risks associated with the development of new energy technologies.

This contributes to safer, sustainable and environmentally friendly future energy sources for everyone.

HSL’s aim is to help any industry or organisation make better decisions. It has extensive data analytics skills and experience, which can offer new insights into data sets held by companies. This will have even greater importance in the future with systems and the internet of things, generating huge amounts of data. As HSL has access to the national population database and modelling systems, this comprehensive data analysis capability enables the modelling of most hazardous events in order to predict the potential impact.

Risk Management Maturity Model

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) Risk Management Maturity Model – RM3 – was published in 2010 as a tool for assessing duty holders’ safety management systems against the requirements for the Railways and other Guided System Regulations 2006. RM3 describes what excellent management capability looks like by means of a five-point maturity scale for key elements of an organisation’s safety management system.

HSL carried out a comprehensive review of RM3 for the ORR, which included a comparison of the elements of RM3 with the key characteristics of high reliability organisations – those which manage high, unpredictable risks to the extent that they have low accident rates.

The independent review concluded that RM3 provides clear descriptions of excellence and establishes the maturity of an organisation’s safety management system. It establishes a common language and framework between the regulator and duty holders, facilitating communication and clarity, and strengthening relationships between ORR and industry stakeholders. It also allows the identification of current strengths and weaknesses against each of the elements in the model and the making of comparisons across different areas of an organisation with consistency in health and safety risk management. The review concluded that RM3 provides goal-oriented indicators of performance to feed into the planning process and enables companies to focus resources on less mature areas of their organisation.

Since then, HSL and ORR have set up a partnership agreement under which HSL is delivering training on how to maximise the potential of the RM3 model. The training also gives a good understanding of how ORR inspectors use the model in practice.

This is just one area in which HSL’s expertise has benefited rail. With the rail industry’s already- good safety culture, and the need for innovation to deliver additional safe capacity for the future, HSL, with its vast experience and skills from other industry sectors could do much to help the rail industry meet its future challenges.

Written by Paul Darlington

Thanks to HSL’s Lorraine Gavin, Simone Pitzal and Paul McCann for their assistance with this article.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.