It is a busy day at work when a health and safety inspector arrives at reception and wishes to carry out an inspection. What should you do? And perhaps more importantly, what should you not do when a Health & Safety Enforcement Officer appears at your workplace?
Who Enforces Health & Safety Law?
Health and safety law is enforced by:
- HSE Inspectors
- Local Authority Health and Safety Inspectors
- Environmental Health Officers
Each of these official personnel have powers of enforcement in specific business sectors, although some have cross-warranted authority. This means they may visit and enforce in an industry sector that is not normally within their scope. Regardless of the legislation/business sector they enforce, each of these health and safety inspectors have the same power.
What Power Does a Health and Safety Enforcement Officer have?
Health and Safety Enforcement Officers have an extensive range of power under Section 20 of Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. This includes:
- Inspecting a workplace at any reasonable time. Unlike the police, they do not need to have an entry warrant to visit your premises. All they need to do is show you their identification – they can even bring a police officer with them to assist in gaining entry if they feel they may be obstructed or their safety compromised.
- Giving advice. The term “advice” is used loosely as they will advise you in what must be done but not how it should be done.
- Reviewing documents such as your risk assessments, COSHH assessments, safety procedures, safety policy, and health and safety training records.
- Taking samples (e.g. of dusts, chemicals). If they do this, it is advisable to take your own representative sample for reference purposes.
- Detaining items in situ for examination or taking them away (e.g. CCTV images).
- Speaking to employees or taking statements from them.
- Taking copies of documents.
- Investigating accidents and incidents as well as investigating complaints received from an employee, contractor, or even someone who lives in the neighbourhood.
How are Health and Safety Laws Enforced?
When an HSE inspector identifies a breach in legislation, they will issue you with any one of the following notices. These actions are not withstanding other action, including prosecution.
- Fee for Intervention: This is issued when the HSE inspector finds a material breach of legislation (EHOs currently don’t charge for Intervention although this may change in the future). A material breach is where you have not fully met a legal requirement (but is not too serious at this stage). The Inspector will charge an hourly rate (which generally increases every year) for their time to intervene, and when the matter is dealt with it is closed. It is a non-disclosable matter which means that you do not have to declare this during tender applications, insurance discussions or liaison with other stakeholders.
- Improvement Notice: This is a legal document and becomes a public record (i.e. it is posted on the HSE’s website after 21 days and can be seen by anyone). You may continue your activities whilst addressing the remedial action, but you must address it satisfactorily within the timeframe or risk facing further action (unless you appeal against it).
- Prohibition Notice: This is issued when the inspector believes there is risk of serious personal injury. These notices are serious, and the activity/area or equipment on which the notice is served cannot continue until remedial action is taken. Even if you disagree and appeal (to an Employment Tribunal), you cannot continue using the prohibited equipment or activity pending the appeal. A Prohibition Notice is also a public record and is posted on the HSE’s website after 21 days.
When Can a Health and Safety Inspector Visit?
The most common circumstances which are likely to trigger a health and safety inspection include:
- If there has been a RIDDOR notification made. In this instance, inspectors may contact you first to requesting information that will help them decide whether to investigate.
- When a concern has been raised by an individual (e.g. employee, visitor, or member of the public). Inspectors don’t have to tell you who has made the complaint, simply that there has been one.
- When the enforcement body is targeting a specific business sector or work activity (e.g. work at height, workplace transport, manual handling).
What Do Health and Safety Inspectors Look For?
Sometimes the Inspector will simply want a general inspection of your premises. Much will depend on the reason for their visit in the first place. If, for example, it is following a serious injury report they will concentrate on the area, process, and equipment where the incident occurred. Depending on what they find, they may then expand their inspection.
Likewise, if the enforcing authority is targeting a particular process or activity they will start in the location where this occurs.
Typical things a health and safety inspector look for includes:
- Standards of housekeeping.
- Clearly defined walkways (particularly where vehicles and pedestrians circulate).
- Correct and suitable machine guarding.
- Suitable use of personal protective equipment.
- Safe working behaviours.
- Suitable arrangements for workplace welfare and hygiene (rest rooms, locker, or other storage provision, washing and toilet facilities etc.
- Management of high-risk activities such as work at height, manual handling.
- Whether the organisation has access to competent health and safety advice.
How to Respond if an Inspector Calls
- Cooperate with the inspector at all times.
- Always be courteous and polite, offer them refreshment and reasonable facilities.
- Be honest and open with them. Inspectors will respect that. The more obstructive or unhelpful you are will only add more time to their enquiries; they won’t go away.
The inspector should explain what part of the business /activities they wish to see.
- Obstruct them. This is a criminal offence and will make matters worse.
- Make their life difficult. They are human beings just like you and will appreciate the process going as smoothly as possible, even if it is not particularly comfortable for you.
- Argue with them. Instead, take note of what they are saying and ask why they are stating what you do not agree with.
- Break your own rules/protocols – even if the inspector wants to visit an area where he/she may not be authorised/ trained (e.g. high risk). It is important you explain the reasons why it is not appropriate, refer to your own policies and protocols, and offer suggestions of alternative ways to enable the inspector to achieve their objective.
Most Health & Safety Enforcement Inspectors are approachable and realistic. Their workload is heavy like it is for many busy managers so it is helpful if you can ensure their visit is smooth, unobstructed, and proactive. Developing an open relationship of mutual respect is always a positive thing to do.
If you would like further advice and support or have received an enforcement notice and are not sure how to address it, please contact us for an impartial discussion.