Employers across the UK are subject to workplace health and safety inspections and visits from Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authority inspectors. These inspectors help enforce health and safety law by inspecting work activities, investigating accidents and responding to complaints in the workplace. They have the power to issue notices and prosecutions, which can lead to fines and even imprisonment.
The HSE also has a fee for intervention (FFI) scheme, implemented in late 2012. Employers who materially breach health and safety laws can be held liable for HSE-related costs at an hourly rate, including time spent on inspections, investigations and enforcement actions. If a material breach is identified on an inspection, costs for the entire visit are recoverable, from entry to point of leaving. Therefore, employers have additional incentive to comply with health and safety laws and be prepared for an inspection.
The following is a general overview of what to expect when a health and safety inspector visits and the possible consequences of a health and safety breach.
Reasons for Inspection
The main purpose of an inspection is to check the standards of health, safety and welfare in the business and to give advice on how to prevent workplace injury and ill health. Inspectors understand that eliminating all workplace risks is unrealistic, but they are looking to see that businesses have taken sensible actions to reduce health and safety risks.
Investigators decide to visit individual businesses based on their level of risk. The investigators concentrate inspections on businesses where risks tend to be the highest and where the inspection will have the greatest impact. This typically includes businesses that:
- Have poor health and safety performance. This can mean poor health and safety performance in the individual business or in the sector as a whole. Inspections may take place if your business involves work that shows a high rate of accidents or ill health. In this situation, inspectors will typically focus on risks identified as priorities for national health and safety improvements, such as falls from height, to improve national health and safety as a whole.
- Operate in a hazardous industry. Some examples include the nuclear, offshore, rail, chemical and explosives sectors. The majority of these industries require a safety case or licensing regime. Therefore, inspectors will assess a prepared safety case on how risks and hazards were identified and controlled. Inspectors are looking for assurance that both organisational and engineering controls are in place and being maintained.
- Have had a specific incident or complaint. Inspectors generally focus on the most severe incidents, ones that result in death or serious injury. They may also set up an inspection if the incident is related to a national health and safety priority. The main focus will be to examine what went wrong and to learn how to avoid future incidents for both the individual business and others like it.
A limited number of inspections are also carried out to do the following:
- Assess the risks in new businesses or premises.
- Target certain geographical areas or sectors for specific priorities.
- Perform random ‘spot checks’ on compliance.
- Stay on top of new developments or processes for training purposes.
Typical Health and Safety Inspection
Inspectors from the HSE and local authorities have the right to enter any workplace without giving the business any notice. However, notice may be given where deemed appropriate. Employers need to be prepared and ready for an inspection at all times.
A typical workplace health and safety inspection consists of examining the workplace, work activities, management of health and safety, and compliance with health and safety law. Inspectors will check that employers have arrangements in place for consulting and informing employees and representatives on health and safety matters, as required by law. Inspectors may also interview employees and representatives and take photographs and samples.
Enforcement of a Health and Safety Breach
Depending on the severity and nature of the breach, inspectors will have discretion to decide what actions to take. The action taken will be based on the principles set out in the HSE’s Enforcement Policy Statement, found here. In most cases, the following actions can be taken:
- Informal Actions. Informal action is recommended when the breach is relatively minor. The inspector will tell the employer what he or she must do to comply with health and safety law and why. Employers should ask the inspector to confirm the advice in writing and to distinguish legal requirements from best practices.
- Improvement Notices. In cases of more severe breaches, the inspector may issue an improvement notice to tell the employer to take certain actions to comply with health and safety law. The inspector should discuss the notice with the employer and resolve points of difference before issuing it. An improvement notice contains what actions need to be performed, why they should be performed and the time frame they must be performed in. The minimum time frame for compliance is 21 days to ensure employers have the time to appeal. Further legal actions may be taken if the improvement notice is not complied with.
- Prohibition Notices. If the breach involves an activity with a risk of serious injury, a prohibition notice will be served. This can prohibit the activity either immediately or after a specified period of time. The activity cannot be resumed until remedial action has been taken. The notice will explain to the employer why remedial action is necessary.
- In serious breaches or in cases with blatant disregard for the law, the inspector may deem it necessary to initiate a prosecution. Prosecution gives courts wide authority to punish offenders with fines and even imprisonment.
Employers have the right to appeal an inspector’s findings to an Industrial Tribunal when an improvement or prohibition notice is served. The employer will be told of the appeal process in writing, including how to appeal and the appeal timeframe. The employer will also be told that any required remedial actions are suspended while an appeal is pending. If an employer feels that the inspector did not properly follow procedure, he or she can also file a complaint with the inspector’s manager or by writing to the Chief Executive of the HSE.