Health and safety inspections in the workplace: a handy guide

What you need to know about preparing for a health and safety inspection, and how you ensure compliance in your own business.

12 December 2019

Nobody wants to be targeted for a health and safety inspection. Even so, it always pays to be prepared. In this overview guide, we outline how you 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 commence 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 company has the correct attitude towards health and safety, and to see that ethos embedded into the culture of the company. In advance of an inspection, ask yourself: could I answer the following questions?

  • Has someone in the organisation taken on 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 the company machinery or equipment all 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 Safety Executive (HSE)’s perspective will be to work with dutyholders to promote compliance and to ensure that a dutyholder has sufficient resource to manage and assess risk in the workplace.

However, if a dutyholder has entirely failed in its 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 inspector of the HSE might decide that an improvement notice or prohibition notice requires 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 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 here. In addition, appearance 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.  Who has responsibility for health and safety matters, how are actions delegated, and how are policies and procedures effectively implemented?

Timely legal advice can be crucial. But equally crucial 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.