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What to expect from a Health and Safety Awareness Officer

Do you know the difference between an Inspector from the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) and a Health and Safety Awareness Officer? Either of these can inspect business premises, but there are important differences between them that are worth knowing before you receive a visit.

It is most likely that your perception will relate to HSE Inspectors, who can arrive unannounced and enter premises without prior permission. A Health and Safety Awareness Officer (HSAO), on the other hand, can only enter business premises with consent and, once on site, their powers are relatively limited in comparison with HSE Inspectors. Nevertheless, an HSAO can enforce certain aspects of Employer’s Liability Compulsory Insurance (ELCI) legislation, as well as informing employers of their duties under this legislation.

The HSAO's role is to support the HSE’s regulatory work, promoting health and safety awareness and providing information to employers, employees and others who may be affected by work activities. This includes working with organisations and partners such as Learning and Skills Councils, Business Links, training organisations, colleges of further education, ethnic business groups, local authorities, trades unions, and business and safety groups.

When HSAOs visit, their primary role is to provide information, guidance and advice. During a visit, an HSAO will observe work activities as well as the standards of housekeeping and the quality of welfare facilities. Any obvious problems such as noise, transport, manual handling, or dust and fumes will also be noted. The HSAO will inform dutyholders about any relevant guidance, publications and other sources of advice and information. However, HSAOs do not advise on technical matters (such as the design of safety-related control systems) or express opinions on compliance with the law.

At the end of a visit, the HSAO will speak with the safety or employees’ representative. Note that during the visit or afterwards, the HSAO may decide it is necessary for an Inspector to visit the business to provide advice or to assess a particular hazard.

In contrast to HSAOs, HSE Inspectors (and Inspectors from local authorities and other enforcing authorities) have the right to enter any workplace without giving notice, though notice may be given where the inspector thinks it is appropriate. On a normal inspection visit an Inspector would look at the workplace, work activities, how health and safety is managed, and check for compliance with health and safety law. The inspector may offer guidance or advice and may also talk to employees and their representatives, take photographs and samples, serve improvement notices and take action if there is a risk to health and safety that requires immediate attention.

Such action may be informal in the case of minor infringements or, for more serious breaches of health and safety legislation, the Inspector may issue an Improvement Notice that states what needs to be done, why and by when. Where an Inspector finds that an activity involves or will involve a risk of serious personal injury, a prohibition notice may be issued, prohibiting the activity immediately or after a specified time period, and explaining why the action is necessary. The activity must not be resumed until remedial action has been taken. Dutyholders have a right to appeal against Prohibition Notices, and the Inspector will tell them about this in writing.

Occasionally the Inspector will consider that it is also necessary to initiate a prosecution. Decisions on whether to prosecute are informed by the principles in the HSE’s Enforcement Policy Statement, which is available as a PDF via the HSE's website. Health and safety law gives the courts considerable scope for punishing offenders and deterring others. For example, a failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice, or a court remedy order, carries a fine of up to £20 000, or six months’ imprisonment, or both. Unlimited fines and in some cases imprisonment may be imposed by higher courts.

The HSE has published a new leaflet, 'What to expect when a health and safety awareness officer calls', which can be downloaded free of charge as a PDF. This complements an existing leaflet, 'What to expect when a health and safety inspector calls' (HSC14).

Advice and support with machine-related health and safety matters is available from consultants and engineers at Pilz Automation Technology. Please contact Pilz for more information.

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Pilz Automation Ltd
Pilz House, Little Colliers Field
Corby, Northants, NN18 8TJ
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 1536 460766
E-Mail: sales@pilz.co.uk

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