The HSE inspector's job description meant he or she was never going to be your best friend. But Max Gosney asks if new Fee For Intervention powers are unnecessarily setting the inspectors up as your worst enemy.
As surprise visitors go, they rank somewhere between Jehovah's witnesses and the mother-in-law in the popularity stakes. The HSE inspector, armed with encyclopaedic knowledge of safety law and the powers to punish breaches, has always been a bête noir for manufacturing managers.
The fear factor has heightened under new Fee For Intervention (FFI) powers, allowing inspectors to charge for any faults they might uncover. An already-strained relationship threatens to splinter amid accusations of inspectors acting like overzealous parking wardens in a bid to boost the HSE's coffers.
Has money changed you?
"No," responds David Norton, Bootle-based HSE inspector, when asked if he has been incentivised to issue notices since FFI launched last October. "My manager has said, 'do the same job as you were doing before. If you find something that needs rectifying then it needs doing so – write the letter or serve the notice.'"
Merseyside manufacturers will be hoping Norton's credentials include a proficiency in touch typing. Businesses found to have committed material safety breaches will be charged £124 an hour to rectify the shortfall, including the time taken for admin tasks such as typing up notices. A former paper industry worker, Norton has been an inspector since 2005. He describes his style as easy going and it's easy to believe this Liverpool FC-supporting, father of two would quickly strike a rapport with frontline factory managers.
That task can't have been helped by the angst surrounding FFI powers. But Norton plays down the impact of the fee-charging model. "I think in most cases it hasn't [made relationships tougher]. There have been one or two cases where they're unhappy and don't agree with how FFI's framed. But we always had people who were unhappy with an unannounced inspection, or being prosecuted or getting a notice in the past. It's just a little bit extra there."
That 'little bit extra' has been too much for many frontline factories to bear, according to some angry messages received by WM. "I always viewed working with HSE as a partnership," comments one manufacturing manager. "It's not how I view them now. They've become an enforcement agency looking to justify their costs."
Norton refutes the idea that HSE inspectors have taken on a more aggressive and punitive style under FFI. "That's not my experience," he counters. "I would say it could be different inspectors and the way they go about things... I don't do anything differently to before FFI. If the company was going to get a notice before FFI, it will still get one now. When I'm issuing notices or material breach letters, I've got to be able to justify that."
Why the innocent believe they have something to fear
Some will take reassurance in Norton's words, which embody the HSE's party line on FFI: follow the law and you have nothing to fear. Yet, by setting the new powers in black and white, the regulator has failed to spot an expanding grey area.
It's a conflict of interest, say critics, that a financially-strained HSE now holds direct powers to raise extra revenue by being slightly more stringent here or there. That might be a wildly cynical view and disrespectful to a regulator of unimpeachable integrity. But, in reality, just by creating the link between income and regulatory activity, you are hanging an almighty millstone around the HSE's neck. "The inspectors who want to shine are going to be the ones issuing the most notices," as one site manager told WM. "That's just down to human nature – it doesn't matter if there's an instruction to do so or not."
The mood of distrust is one for which we have Westminster to thank. The government has waxed lyrical about cutting health and safety red tape and introducing more common sense regulation. However, ministers have delivered just the reverse. The decision to cut HSE budgets by 35% has been the driving force for FFI.
The manufacturers who are supposed to spearhead UK plc's economic rebalancing are now on the receiving end of a stealth tax. As one manager put it, after a recent HSE inspection: "We are willing to incur considerable direct costs and indirect costs from the management time dealing with his requests, [but] there might come a time when our parent company has a different view, and considers the cost of doing business in the UK is just not worthwhile."
A happier future
In truth, this type of complaint is likely to be restricted to the minority. Budget constraints mean HSE is focusing its proactive inspections on perceived high-risk manufacturing sectors such as metals and chemicals, and cutting back elsewhere. However, that doesn't necessarily mean good tidings for all other members of the UK manufacturing family.
While the HSE inspector's arrival rarely sparks spontaneous fist pumping in the back office, it does provide valuable direct contact that can prove a powerful force for improvement. Norton says: "Quite often a comment after the visit is, 'that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, you are reasonable and not here to find fault for the sake of it'."
The comments conjure up the possibility of a different kind of paid-for HSE service. More a fee for advice, rather than intervention – an arm around the shoulder rather than a slap across the wrist. "Not really," says Norton on the likelihood of this. "The workload the inspectors have mean there's not really that time to spend with the company. There's a huge amount of information that's available on the website."
Norton is true to his word. Log on to www.hse.gov.uk
and you will find a wealth of easy-to-use guidance, from the A-Z of Working at Height regulations to template risk assessments. Okay, so it's not the one-to-one personal touch that many still hanker for from their safety regulator. But that's a pipedream in the austerity-hit world in which HSE must now operate. The HSE website will offer you something thought provoking, which is likely to help you become a better, safer business. And best of all – FFI or not – it won't cost you a penny.
Five ways to make inspection day run smoothly
1 Train your receptionist
Having a receptionist who guards access to your site like a loyal Alsatian has its advantages in normal business. But bearing teeth can get you off on the wrong foot when HSE comes calling. Norton says: "A common question is, 'have you made an appointment?' You explain that this isn't the way that we work, we come unannounced."
The explanation has sufficed in 99.9% of cases, adds Norton. "I've had one occasion since 2005 when I was refused entry. They'd never been visited by HSE and weren't aware of our powers. They were quite forthright and adamant that we weren't coming in." Norton decided to fight his battle another day and went back to the site after writing to them to contest their decision. He could have requested police aid to gain access.
2 Make yourself available
HSE inspectors will want a chaperone as they look over your site. Expect to be quizzed on protocol, give feedback on any faults and be a sounding board on when to don PPE, according to Norton. "We definitely need someone from the company there to explain what each machine does and to answer questions on procedures... Every single time, I'd want someone there. And also to point out any areas in which I need to wear PPE." The length of inspections will depend on the size of your site and the nature of any issues that arise, adds Norton. All proactive work is typically completed in one day, he stresses.
3 Be open and upfront
Leave the cover ups to the professional make-up artists. If you have a health and safety problem, be upfront about it, advises Norton. "Just be open and upfront with the inspector, and hopefully the inspector will be open and honest with you," he says. "There's nothing worse, in my experience, than finding out something and getting the impression it had been covered up or the wool had been pulled over your eyes."
4 Avoid the obvious mistakes
Nothing will rile your inspector more than uncovering some basic and avoidable safety own goals.
Top of the pile is wilfully manipulating machine guards, explains Norton. "My biggest frustration is coming across the same problems in lots of different places – things that are relatively easy and the company should know better, such as guards defeated or taken off completely."
5 Don't be afraid to speak up
It's easy to be in awe of an inspector who has the power to issue notices. However, keeping schtum for the entire visit, or turning into a yes man to keep the peace, is self defeating.
Inspections will be far more productive when you push for more information and advice on key recommendations. Remember to strike the right tone: ask questions with enthusiasm and respect, and you're likely to get answers served up the same way.
Norton says: "At the end of the day I will hold a wash-up meeting. I will go through a handwritten letter of any notices or issues and ask: 'Do you understand what I'm saying and why I'm saying this?' They've got that opportunity with me, face to face, to say they don't quite understand what I mean or what I want them to do."