HSE enforcement: how it works and how to avoid it

Tuesday June 21, 2022

The HSE has a number of powers for enforcing Health and Safety legislation. These range from warnings, all the way to prosecution. In this blog we’ll take a closer look at HSE enforcement, and offer some tips for staying on the right side of the law.

Is my workplace covered by the HSE ?

Yes, the HSE is responsible for health and safety in workplaces and so this could include:

  • Building sites
  • Factories
  • Farms
  • Offices
  • Schools or colleges
  • Hospitals or nursing homes
  • Government premises
  • Mines
  • Offshore installations

But other enforcing agencies may be relevant to you too, depending on the nature of your activities. Local authority environmental health departments will be important for many businesses. They will have a remit in a range of premises including:

  • Offices
  • Pubs and clubs
  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Museums
  • Places of worship

Some specialised activities have their own enforcement authorities. If you are already established in your sector you will already know what applies to you, but examples include:

  • The Food Standards Agency for the preparation and serving of food
  • The Environment Agency for waste disposal
  • The Care Quality Commission for health and social care

A full list of enforcement authorities can be found here.

What actions can the HSE take?

Back to the HSE though, and what actions can it take if it discovers a health and safety breach? Well, it has a range at its disposal which start off mild, but will escalate in the event of persistent non-compliance. Common enforcement actions include:

  • Giving advice, either in writing or in person.
  • Issuing an improvement notice. This is a written summary of a health and safety breach, along with a timeframe for putting it right. You can appeal this notice, and it will be suspended during the appeal.
  • Issuing a prohibition notice. This notice is only issued when there is a serious risk of injury. It forces you to stop all work until the problem is solved. You can also appeal this notice, but it remains in place during the appeal.
  • Withdrawing licences or approvals until regulations are met.
  • Prosecution

How common is prosecution?

The HSE will make every attempt to resolve safety issues without resorting to prosecution. In 2020/21 it issued almost 3,000 notices, but only prosecuted 185 cases. It should be noted that these were down significantly on previous years due to the effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

Because prosecution is reserved for persistent breaches, the penalties are often severe. The HSE collected £26.9 million in fines last year, with an average fine of £145,000 per prosecution.

In extreme cases, breaches of H&S law may be punished with prison time. Earlier this year, an asbestos management company was prosecuted for ignoring safety regulations and forging asbestos clearance certificates. The company was fined £100,000 and its director was sentenced to ten months in prison.

How can I avoid prosecution?

As with most aspects of health and safety, prevention is better than cure. The best way to avoid a warning from the HSE is to be mindful of the law at all times. Try to keep on top of the latest news from your industry, and respond to any changes in legislation as soon as you can.

It is also important to listen to your employees. They may be able to spot dangers that you have missed. Make it clear to your staff that they will never be blamed for raising health and safety concerns.

If you are inspected by the HSE, you should be as cooperative as possible. Remember that their job is to help you, not to catch you out. Follow any advice that you are given, and keep the HSE updated along the way. If you are issued a notice, you should do everything you can to comply. This will make a prosecution far less likely.

Interacting with the HSE can be time consuming and cause anxiety, but we’re here to help. If you’re worried about an upcoming inspection, or need advice on responding to a notice, don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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