When it comes to unsafe building sites and premises, the Health and Safety Executive inspectors have formidable power, granted to help stop accidents before they happen by issuing improvement notices and in extreme cases closing sites down that are non-compliant until improvements are made.
Discovering inappropriate or incompetent conduct by workers, faulty or incorrect equipment or dangerous elements in the environment can lead to serious consequences for whoever is responsible for the site. According to the HSE, an inspector can:
- investigate (when accidents have happened or a complaint is made) whether people are at risk, to find out if something has gone wrong,
- require you to act to control risks properly if you are not already complying with the law,
- take appropriate enforcement action in relation to any non-compliance, ranging from advice on stopping dangerous work activities to potentially taking prosecutions where people are put at serious risk,
- provide advice and guidance to help you comply with the law and avoid injuries and ill health at work.
However, even with the impressive amount of power the HSE inspectors wield, many contractors, business owners and premises owners who have responsibility to ensure all goes smoothly are unaware of just how extensive these powers are.
Below, we’ve listed the main powers of the HSE’s inspectors, as well as some advice on what you can do to keep them happy.
Enter any premises which inspectors think it necessary to enter for the purposes of enforcing HSWA (Health and Safety at Work Act 1974) and the relevant statutory provisions.
HSE inspectors do have the power to enter your site or premises, and though the HSE states it should only be at ‘reasonable times’, this can be overlooked if the inspector deems a situation to be immediately dangerous.
Don’t be surprised if you’re presented with a badge. If the inspector has ‘reasonable cause to apprehend serious obstruction’, they can bring a police officer to site with them.
If an inspector arrives at your door at a reasonable time, you will not be able to prevent them from entering. However, if your equipment has been regularly and properly inspected and maintained, you should have nothing to worry about.
Order areas to be left undisturbed, take measurements, photographs and recordings, take samples and take possession of, and carry out tests on articles and substances that appear to have caused (or be likely to cause) danger.
The inspector can essentially close part of or your entire site for if they deem it necessary. The HSE guidelines say the inspector can request a site be left undisturbed ‘for so long as is reasonably necessary for their investigation.’
They might do this in situations where the configuration of the site or machine at the time is essential for determining physical evidence, when they decide that investigation by another expert is necessary, or when they might need to return with specialist measuring or testing equipment.
The rest is self-explanatory, the inspector can remove elements or items which might be dangerous, as well as document the entire site with measurements, photographs and recordings. If your site is not correct in any way, they will find it.
Require the production of, inspect and take copies of relevant documents.
If an inspector deems a document to be relevant to a case - such as a risk assessment or work at height policy document - they can and will take copies for their report. They cannot take original copies permanently, but can remove them for a short period if there are no copying facilities on site. If you do not have these documents for them to copy, then you could be in trouble.
Require anyone they think might give them relevant information to answer questions and sign a declaration of the truth of the answers.
If the inspector believes someone has information pertinent to their investigation, they may take that person aside and require them to give a statement which can be used as evidence. The person must sign a declaration of the truth to prevent misinformation or retraction later.
The person interviewed can nominate another person to be present, but only that person and no one else may be present unless the inspector allows it. Interestingly, any answers or statements given here can’t be used in evidence against that person or their spouse/civil partner.
Require facilities and assistance to be provided.
The inspector should be afforded all assistance possible by you and your staff, as well as access to any necessary facilities for printing/copying etc.
Seize and make harmless (by destruction if necessary) any article or substance which they have reasonable cause to believe is a cause of imminent danger of serious personal injury.
This one is very straightforward but one of the inspector’s most powerful tools. If, in their opinion, a substance or item on site could cause immediate harm, they have the power to seize it, or destroy it if this is not possible.
These powers may seem open to abuse, but inspectors are bound by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and abusing these powers can lead to a civil case against them. Inspectors should only ever go as far as their powers allow, and complaints can and should be made to the HSE if these are exceeded.
To ensure the safety of all workers on site, visitors and passersby, the inspectors of the HSE are granted extensive powers. The best way to ensure you do not find yourself on the wrong end of these powers is to simply ensure your site meets all HSE guidelines: with equipment regularly inspected and maintained, trained and competent staff on site and all required documents filled out.
Cooperating with the inspector should help ensure that any situation is resolved quickly and quietly.