What to expect from a health and safety visit
If you employ people, you may receive a routine or unannounced visit from a health and safety inspector. The inspector may be from either:
- the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI)
- the environmental health department of your local council
The inspector's job is to help you provide a safe working environment. They will also advise you on how to meet your legal duties.
A health and safety compliance officer from the HSENI may also visit you, instead of an inspector. Their role is very similar to that of an Inspector and they will also offer advice on how you can meet your legal duties.
A small business advisor may also visit you but this will be at a previously agreed date. They can help in the following ways:
- provide you with advice
- direct you to information sources
This guide outlines the health and safety inspector's rights and powers. It explains health and safety improvement notices and prohibition notices. It includes top tips to help you get ready for a health and safety inspection.
Preparing for the health and safety inspector's visit
Getting your records of risk assessments, safety inspections and training ready for inspection from a HSENI or local council environmental health inspector
A health and safety inspector may visit any workplace without giving notice. For a routine inspection, they will usually phone ahead to ensure the relevant staff are available.
When you know that an inspector is going to visit it is helpful to prepare. You can then show the inspector what you are doing to meet your legal duties. You may also want to ask the inspector's advice on any specific hazards or how you are managing health and safety.
The inspector's main function is to ensure compliance with the law and to help you meet your legal duties. They will only take action against you as a last resort. They will answer any technical questions you may have, or direct you to other information sources.
Areas for inspection
The inspector will try to judge whether you are taking account of employee welfare and whether you are aware of the main risks of injury and ill health. They will check if you are taking action to control those risks. They will usually want to check whether you are complying with the law regarding:
- the workplace
- work activities
- your management of health and safety
- the provision of adequate welfare facilities for eating, resting and sanitation
How to prepare
You may want to ensure that you have to hand:
- your health and safety policy - see write a health and safety policy for your business
- risk assessments - see health and safety risk assessment
- records of any inspections of work equipment which are required by law - this includes lifting equipment, pressurised systems or local exhaust ventilation to control exposure to substances used at work
- any written safe working methods
- any records of health and safety training carried out
- a valid employers' liability insurance certificate
The health and safety inspector's rights and powers
The health and safety inspector has specific rights to carry out investigations, take possessions and statements and to copy documents on your premises any time
The health and safety inspector may enter your work premises at any reasonable time. Remember that work premises can include the homes of your homeworkers.
Health and safety compliance officers are specially trained staff whose role is to support the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) regulatory work. Their work is similar to that of an Inspector and they will also give you advice, information and guidance.
Five powers health and safety inspectors have
Health and inspectors have the authority to take certain actions, including:
- carrying out examinations and investigations, including taking measurements, photographs and samples
- taking possession of an article and arranging for it to be dismantled or tested
- seizing and making safe any article or substance that could cause serious personal injury
- requesting information and taking statements from people they think can help an investigation
- inspecting and copying documents
Health and safety inspection after an accident
Usually the inspector will be visiting to carry out a routine health and safety inspection. However, they could also visit you after an accident that may have been caused by work activities. See first aid, accidents and ill-health in the workplace.
They will then be seeking to:
- investigate the causes of the accident
- advise you whether you need to take action to prevent a recurrence
- determine if there has been a breach of health and safety law
Actions the health and inspector may take
If the inspector considers that you are breaking health and safety law, or your activities give rise to a serious risk, they can:
- issue an informal warning, verbally or in writing
- issue an improvement notice or prohibition notice
- carrry out an investigation and make recommendations to the Public Prosecution Service concerning both the company or individuals
Advice and informal warnings from the health and safety inspector
The difference between best practice and legal duties, following verbal advice and improvement notices issued by the health and safety inspector after a visit
If you are breaking health and safety law, the inspector will:
- tell you what the problem is
- advise you what you need to do to comply with the law
- explain why you should do so
Inspectors may either:
- confirm their recommendations with a brief compliance report issued at the inspection
- follow up any verbal advice given to you during their visit in writing
You can ask the inspector to do this and to make clear the differences between legal requirements and best practice.
You are not obliged to follow the advice given by the inspector, but it is a good idea to do so. If you ignore an inspector's advice, they are likely to take tougher action against you in the future. this could invlove issuing an enforcement notice, forcing you to comply. There are two types of enforcement notice - improvement and prohibition. See health and safety improvement notices and health and safety prohibition notices.
If a breach of health and safety law that has already been noted by an inspector causes an accident, the inspector's letter to you may be taken into account by the courts if you are prosecuted.
Inspectors will also check that you carry out your legal duty of consulting and informing employees or their representatives, eg union or employee safety representative, about health and safety matters. It is likely that inspectors will want to meet with them in private during their visit.
Health and safety improvement notices
What an inspector will specify you will need to do, your right to appeal and who to contact for advice when you are issued an improvement notice after a visit
An inspector may issue an improvement notice if they believe you're breaking health and safety law. This will usually be where the law is being broken in a relatively serious way, or in a way that poses a risk to people.
What is an improvement notice?
Health and safety inspectors issue improvement notices are issued to help businesses rectify health and safety failings. An improvement notice gives you the chance to correct what you're doing wrong and will:
- specify what you're doing that breaks the law
- say what you need to do to correct the issue and why
- give you a period of time - at least 21 days - in which to comply
The inspector will discuss the improvement notice with you before serving it, and try to resolve any disagreements you have.
You will have at least 21 days to take any remedial action.
Businesses must always comply with an improvement notice. Failure to do so can result in prosecution. If inspectors find you, the duty holder - eg a director or manager - to be in breach of health and safety requirements, you may be held to account in a court of law.
If you don't understand what the notice is asking you to do, or you think you need more time to comply, you should get back in touch with the inspector who issued it for further advice. You should also discuss the notice with the person responsible for health and safety in your workplace.
Appealing against an improvement notice
If you think the notice is unfair, you have the right to appeal against it to an industrial tribunal. The inspectors will provide information on how to bring an appeal along with the notice.
Notices are not published until nine weeks after their date of issue to allow you the chance to appeal.
Health and safety prohibition notices
What a prohibition notice is and why they are issued by a health and safety inspector after a visit, what you will need to do and who to contact for advice
If inspectors believe that your work activities give rise to a risk of serious personal injury, they may issue you with a prohibition notice.
The prohibition notice normally requires you to stop that activity straight away. You must not resume the activity until you have taken action to remove or control the risk.
The prohibition notice will explain why the inspector thinks there is a risk of serious personal injury.
It will also state:
- which law is being breached
- what you need to do to reduce or control that risk
If you don't understand what the notice is asking you to do, you should get back in touch with the inspector who issued it for further advice. You should also discuss the notice with the person responsible for health and safety in your workplace.
You must always stop the prohibited activity until you have taken the required remedial action, as not doing so could result in your prosecution.
Notices are not published until nine weeks after their date of issue to allow you to appeal if you wish to.
When you have complied with a notice and the inspector is satisfied, then the notice is marked as complied with on the register.
Appeals against health and safety enforcement notices
When you might want to appeal a health and safety enforcement notice, what will happen if you do and the possible verdicts from a tribunal hearing
If the inspector serves you improvement notice or prohibition notice, they will tell you in writing about your right to appeal. They will provide you with information which tells you how to get the form to make and appeal, and where to send this.
You must make appeals to an industrial tribunal.
You can appeal if you either:
- disagree with the inspector's opinion that you are breaking the law
- disagree that your activities give rise to a risk of serious personal injury.
If you don't understand what the notice is requiring you to do, or you think you need more time, you should get in touch with the inspector for advice.
If you appeal against an improvement notice, the notice will be suspended until your appeal is heard.
If you appeal against a prohibition notice, the notice stays in force until after your appeal. This is the case unless you apply to the tribunal to have it lifted pending the appeal. If the secretary of the tribunal agrees with your application, they will lift the notice pending the court's decision.
The tribunal hearing your appeal can either:
- uphold the notice
- vary the terms of the notice
- quash the notice
If the tribunal upholds or varies the terms of an improvement notice, you must take the required remedial action within the time specified.
If the tribunal upholds a prohibition notice, you must not resume the prohibited activity without taking the required remedial action.
Businesses must comply with a notice or potentially face prosecution. This can result in a fine and in some cases the owners or directors - for incorporated businesses - could face a prison sentence.
How to complain about a health and safety inspector
The complaints procedure if you're unhappy about an inspector's recommendations after the health and safety visit or think they are unreasonable
If you believe that the inspector has acted unreasonably, you have the right to complain.
If your inspector is from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) you should contact the Services Divisions. They will investigate your complaint and tell you what they will do about it.
To make a complaint you should write to:
Head of Services Division
The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland
83 Ladas Drive
Alternatively, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are still not satisfied you can:
- write to the Chief Executive of the HSENI
- write to your MP to ask them to take up your case with the HSENI, government ministers or the Northern Ireland Ombudsman
Find out how to make a complaint about HSENI.
If your inspector is from your local authority you should speak or write to the inspector's manager. They will investigate your complaint and tell you what they will do about it. See local council contact details in Northern Ireland.
If you are still not satisfied you can:
- use your local authority's formal complaints procedure
- write to your MP
- contact the Northern Ireland Ombudsman
Health and safety prosecutions
Reasons to warrant a prosecution that is in the public interest such as a death or repeated poor compliance and possible penalties such as a fine or imprisonment
The health and safety inspector will help you meet your legal duties by offering advice. They would only decide to prosecute if there is enough evidence and if prosecution is in the public interest.
Prosecution is more likely and will normally follow in cases where:
- someone has been killed due to a breach of law
- the offence or injury is serious, or the general approach of the offender warrants it
- there has been repeated poor compliance
- work has been carried out without a licence where one is needed, or in breach of the terms of that licence
- work has been carried out without a safety case where one is needed, or fails to follow the processes set out in a safety case
- the standard of safety management falls far below that expected and causes significant risk
- there has been a failure to comply with an improvement notice or prohibition notice
- there has been an intent to deceive in relation to a matter which gives rise to significant risk
- inspectors have been intentionally obstructed in the course of their duties
The maximum penalty possible under health and safety law depends on the offence. You could be fined, imprisoned or both. The maximum penalties for failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice in a summary trial at Magistrates Court are:
- £20,000 fine
- up to six months' imprisonment
In an indictment trial at Crown Court, the maximum penalties are:
- or an unlimited fine
- two years' imprisonment
The police decide if a work-related incident is serious enough to warrant investigation of either gross negligence manslaughter or corporate manslaughter, and also possibly grievous bodily harm offences.
Be ready for a health and safety inspection: seven top tips
While you'll normally have notice for a routine inspection - a health and safety inspector could visit your business at any time without warning. It helps to stay organised so that your inspection goes smoothly. Follow these tips to be prepared for a health and safety visit:
1. Make sure that your workplace and work practices meet the necessary health and safety requirements - see what you need to do about health and safety.
2. Be sure you are providing your staff with adequate welfare facilities such as toilets and handwashing provisions - see what workplace facilities do you need to provide?
3. Ensure your health and safety policy is close to hand and up to date - see write a health and safety policy for your business.
4. Ensure you have completed a health and safety risk assessment and have a record you can show the inspector.
5. Keep an organised record of workplace equipment inspections, safe working methods, health and safety training.
6. Have a valid copy of your employers' liability insurance available.
7. Set up a health and safety management system to help you keep on top of things and ensure you're ready for an inspection at any time.