The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has a wide range of powers to investigate, sanction or even prosecute businesses, so it's important to be aware of when those powers may be used.

1. What is the HSE?

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is an independent regulator for UK work place health & safety sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions. The organisation was formed after the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 came in to force and works alongside other regulators to reduce work related deaths and serious injuries.

The HSE is responsible for enforcing health & safety at workplaces including; factories, farms, building sites, schools and colleges, hospitals and nursing homes, and central and local government premises.

It is worth being aware, however, that, depending on the nature of your business, there may be other regulators with health & safety responsibilities for your industry sector or premises. For example, local authorities (environmental health) deals with ordinarily lower risk workplaces such as offices (except government offices), shops, hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs, and leisure premises. Other regulators include the police, the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The HSE often works collaboratively with these regulators, agencies, and government departments.

2. The roles and responsibilities of the HSE

The roles of the HSE come in two parts:

  1. Improving Regulations - The HSE helps mould health & safety law within the United Kingdom by working with the government to consolidate and review health & safety regulations.
  2. Compliance - The HSE investigates work place compliance with the current regulations and has powers to enforce such compliance.

These roles come with the responsibility of protecting the health, safety and welfare of people at work and the public who may be affected by those work activities. The HSE holds itself to the key principles of proportionality, consistency, transparency, and accountability when carrying out their roles.

3. Overview of Compliance Powers of the HSE

  • Investigation - The HSE has to the power to visit businesses in order to identify risks and check the standards of health, safety, and welfare in that business as well as giving advice on risk management.
  • Exemption - The HSE also has the power to issue certificates of exemption from requirements and regulations depending on the specific circumstances and provided that health and safety will not be compromised.
  • Sanction - In cases where health & safety regulations are not being met the HSE has the power to require improvements, stop certain high risk activities, recommend prosecutions (in Scotland), and even execute prosecutions themselves (in England and Wales).

4. Investigations by the HSE

The HSE and local authorities decide which businesses they wish to visit based on risk. They concentrate their investigations where the risks are likely to be highest, in particular where:

  • There is evidence that health & safety performance is poor.
  • The business operates in one of a number of hazardous industries (for example, offshore, nuclear, rail, some chemicals, and explosives).
  • There has been a specific incident or complaint that the HSE want to investigate - they concentrate here on the most severe accidents, those resulting in deaths or major injuries.

5. Sanctions by the HSE

The HSE has several courses of action open to it if, following an investigation, they determine there have been breaches of the law. They may issue a warning or, where appropriate, serve prohibition or improvement notices. Such notices mean that particular activities have to be stopped altogether or improved within a certain period of time before they can continue. The HSE may also withdraw approvals for activities or may vary licence conditions or exemptions.

If there has been a serious breach in the law, such as failing to comply with any notices served, then the HSE may prosecute, or report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service with a view to prosecution in Scotland.