Health and safety inspections: what you need to know and how you can ensure compliance

As the UK Government continues to lift COVID-19 restrictions, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is reminding businesses that it is continuing to carry out inspections to ensure compliance with the latest guidance.

7 March 2022

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been reminding businesses that it is continuing to carry out spot checks and inspections to ensure their people are working safely. Those visits also ensure any measures that have been put in place remain in line with UK and devolved government guidance. There is an ongoing requirement to continue to review and update risk assessments, while employers will also want to have regard to controls such as adequate ventilation and policies regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.

Nobody wants to be targeted for a health and safety inspection. Even so, it always pays to be prepared. In this guide, we outline how to prepare for a health and safety inspection (or investigation) in the workplace, what it might mean for you and, crucially, how you ensure compliance in your own business.

How should I prepare for an inspection?

Ideally, a company’s preparations should begin long before the threat of an announced or unannounced inspection. This means completing and fully documenting all the relevant risk assessments, and addressing any remedial actions (or, at the very minimum, setting them in train) proportionate to the level of risk faced by the company. An inspector will want to see that a business has the correct attitude towards health and safety, and to see that ethos embedded in its culture. In advance of an inspection, ask yourself: could I answer the following questions?

  • Has someone in the organisation taken ownership and responsibility for health and safety matters, and is that person easily identifiable?
  • Are all of my health and safety policies and procedures properly documented and reviewed, with up-to-date risk assessments in place?
  • When were my employees last trained, has this been documented, and is there need for refresher training?
  • Do I have any outstanding remedial actions following previous HSE interventions that should already have been completed? Did the last internal or external audit highlight areas that needed to be remedied as a priority?
  • Is all the company’s machinery or equipment in good working order?
  • How are my health and safety arrangements supervised (and escalated to senior management, as appropriate)?

I’ve been inspected: Are there consequences?

In carrying out inspections or investigations, the main objective from the Health and HSE’s perspective will be to work with dutyholders to promote compliance and to ensure they have sufficient resource to manage and assess risk in the workplace.

However, if a dutyholder has entirely failed in their health and safety obligations, it should go without saying that there will be consequences. Depending on the nature of the breach, those consequences could have significant and serious implications for a dutyholder:

  • Upon identifying a breach, an HSE inspector might decide that an improvement notice or prohibition notice needs to be issued. This is no mere administrative process, but will require remedial action to be undertaken by the dutyholder. For information on issues concerning the appeal of a notice, please see our article.
  • Contraventions of health and safety law as identified by an inspector will also involve financial consequences, in what is known as a Fee For Intervention, further described on HSE’s website.
  • If a serious contravention of health and safety law is identified, then a dutyholder is at risk of being reported to the Health and Safety Investigations Unit at The Crown Office and thereafter being prosecuted in the criminal courts.
  • The likely outcome of a successful prosecution is a financial penalty (fine) imposed against the company, but employees and directors should not be under the false assumption that individuals cannot or will not be prosecuted, as we discussed in detail in a previous article. In addition, appearing in the criminal courts brings with it the threat of reputational harm.

Ensuring compliance during health and safety inspections

When an inspector visits, it is therefore imperative that ‘cool heads’ prevail and all staff, from Managing Director to frontline operatives, are aware of what is expected of them and of the company’s contingency planning for such visits.  All employees should be aware of who is responsible for health and safety matters, how actions are delegated, and how policies and procedures are effectively implemented.

Timely legal advice can be crucial. But equally important is for all employees to be aware of the powers and duties of an inspector, and carefully evaluate whether their own conduct during an inspection or investigation could be viewed as being obstructive.

Shepherd and Wedderburn's regulatory crime team has extensive experience dealing with investigations, and provides clients with advice on how to be prepared for, or react, to an investigation by regulatory bodies. Please contact Kevin Clancy in our regulatory investigations team for further information and advice.