If you’ve never been visited by a health and safety inspector – and, depending on the nature and level of risk of your workplace, many of you won’t have been – there is perhaps a tendency to worry or be nervous about what might happen during a visit, but if you’ve been managing your health and safety in the right way, there’s no need to be concerned.
A health and inspectors’ primary aim being to ensure your workplace meets the required standards to keep you, your employees and the general public safe. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced a brief guide for businesses, employees and their representatives, explaining exactly what to expect from a health and safety inspection, the advice from which is summarised below:
Who enforces health and safety law?
Health and safety law is enforced by HSE inspectors or by inspectors from your local authority. Inspectors have the right to enter any workplace without giving notice, though notice may be given where the inspector thinks it is appropriate. On a normal inspection visit an inspector would expect to look at the workplace, the work activities, your management of health and safety, and to check that you are complying with health and safety law. The inspector may offer guidance or advice to help you, your employees and their representatives, take photographs and samples, serve improvement notices and take action if there is an immediate risk to health and safety.
Enforcing health and safety law
On finding a breach of health and safety law, the inspector will decide what action to take. The action will depend on the nature of the breach, and will be based on the principles set out in HSE’s Enforcement Policy Statement. These enforcement measures will consist of one of the following:
Where the breach of the law is relatively minor, the inspector may tell the dutyholder what to do to comply with the law, and explain why. The inspector will, if asked, write to confirm any advice, and to distinguish legal requirements from recommendations.
- Improvement notice
Where the breach of the law is more serious, the inspector may issue an improvement notice to tell the dutyholder to do something to comply with the law. The inspector will discuss the improvement notice and, if possible, resolve points of difference before serving it. The notice will say what needs to be done, why, and by when. The inspector can take further legal action if the notice is not complied with within the specified time period.
- Prohibition notice
Where an activity involves, or will involve, a risk of serious personal injury, the inspector may serve a prohibition notice prohibiting the activity immediately or after a specified time period, and not allowing it to be resumed until remedial action has been taken. The notice will explain why the action is necessary.
In some cases the inspector may consider that it is also necessary to initiate a prosecution. Decisions on whether to prosecute are informed by the principles in HSE’s Enforcement Policy Statement. Health and safety law gives the courts considerable scope for punishing offenders and deterring others. For example, a failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice, or a court remedy order, carries a fine of up to £20, 000, or six months’ imprisonment, or both. Unlimited fines and in some cases imprisonment may be imposed by higher courts.
As of 2012, if an inspector identifies one or more material breaches* of the law during a visit to their workplace, the duty holder will be required to pay a fee based on the amount of time that the inspector has spent identifying the breach (currently set at £124 an hour per hour!) They will help you to put it right, investigating and taking enforcement action where necessary. Dutyholders will be told in writing about the right of appeal to an Industrial Tribunal when an improvement or prohibition notice is served. The appeal mechanism is also explained on the reverse of the notice.
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* A material breach is when, in the opinion of the HSE inspector, there is or has been a contravention of health and safety law that requires them to issue notice in writing of that opinion to the dutyholder.