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Workplace Inspection and Regulatory Enforcement

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Inspection Systems

Auditing has been defined as “the structured process of collecting independent information on the efficiency, effectiveness and reliability of the total safety management system and drawing up plans for corrective action” (Successful Health & Safety Management 1991).

The workplace inspection therefore is not only the final stage in setting up a safety management programme but is also a continuing process in its maintenance. It can be conducted only where a properly devised management system for safety has been established. Such a system first envisages a formal policy statement from management setting out its principles for creating a healthy and safe working environment and then establishing the mechanisms and the structures within the organization whereby these principles will be effectively implemented. Management must furthermore be committed to providing adequate resources, both human and financial, to support the system’s mechanisms and structures. Thereafter, there must be detailed planning for safety and health, and the defining of measurable goals. Systems must be devised to ensure that safety and health performance in practice can be measured against established norms and against previous achievements. Only when this structure is in place and is operating can an effective management audit system be applied.

Complete safety and health management systems can be devised, produced and implemented from within the resources of larger enterprises. Additionally, there are a number of safety management control systems which are available from consultants, insurance companies, government agencies, associations and specialist companies. It is a matter for the enterprise to decide whether it should produce its own system or obtain outside services. Both alternatives are capable of producing excellent results if there is a genuine commitment by management to apply them diligently and to make them work. But for their success, they do depend heavily on the quality of the audit system.

Management Inspections

The inspection procedure must be as painstaking and objective as the company’s financial inspection. The inspection must first determine whether the company’s statement of policy on safety and health is properly reflected in the structures and mechanisms created to implement it; if not, then the inspection may recommend that the fundamental policy be reappraised or suggest adjustments or alterations to the existing structures and mechanisms. A similar process must be applied to safety and health planning, to the validity of the goal-setting norms, and to the measurement of performance. The results of any inspection must be considered by the top management of the enterprise, and any correctives must be endorsed and implemented through that authority.

In practice it is undesirable, and often impractical, to undertake a complete inspection of all of a system’s features and their application throughout every department of the enterprise at one time. More usually, the inspection procedure concentrates on one feature of the total safety management system throughout the plant, or alternatively on the application of all the features in one department or even subdepartment. But the objective is to cover all the features in all departments over an agreed period in order to validate the results.

To this extent management inspection should be regarded as a continuous process of vigilance. The need for objectivity is clearly of considerable importance. If inspections are conducted in-house then there must be a standardized inspection procedure; inspections should be undertaken by staff who have been properly trained for this purpose; and those selected as inspectors must not assess the departments in which they normally work, nor should they assess any other work in which they have a personal involvement. Where reliance is placed on consultants this problem is minimized.

Many major companies have adopted this type of system, either devised internally or obtained as a proprietary scheme. When the systems have been carefully followed through from policy statement to inspection, feedback and corrective actions, a substantial reduction in accident rates, which is the prime justification for the procedure, and increased profitability, which is a welcome secondary outcome, should result.

Inspections by Inspectorates

The legal framework which is designed to afford protection to people at work must be properly administered and effectively applied if the purpose of the regulatory legislation is to be achieved. Most countries have therefore adopted the broad model of an inspection service which has the duty of ensuring that safety and health legislation is enforced. Many countries see safety and health issues as part of a complete labour relations package covering industrial relations, wages and holiday agreements, and social benefits. In this model, safety and health inspections are one element of the labour inspector’s duties. A different model also exists in which the state inspectorate is exclusively concerned with safety and health legislation, so that workplace inspections concentrate solely on this aspect. Further variations are evident in the division of the inspection functions between either a national inspectorate or a regional/provincial inspectorate, or indeed, as in Italy and the United Kingdom, for example, as a working combination of both national and regional inspectorates. But whichever model is adopted, the essential function of the inspectorate is to determine compliance with the legislation by a programme of planned inspections and investigations at the workplace.

There can be no effective inspection system unless those who undertake this work are given adequate powers to carry it out. There is much common ground among inspectorates as regards the powers given to them by their legislators. There must always be the right of entry to premises, which is clearly fundamental for inspection. Thereafter there is the legal right to examine relevant documents, registers and reports, to interview members of the workforce either individually or collectively, to have unrestricted access to trade union representatives at the workplace, to take samples of substances or materials at use in the workplace, to take photographs and, if appropriate, to take written statements from people working at the premises.

Additional powers are often provided to enable inspectors to rectify conditions which might be an immediate source of danger or ill health to the workforce. Again there is a wide variety of practices. Where standards are so poor that there is an imminent risk of danger to the workforce, then an inspector may be authorized to serve a legal document on the spot prohibiting the use of the machinery or plant, or stopping the process until the risk has been effectively controlled. For a lower order of risk, inspectors can issue a legal notice formally requiring that measures be taken within a given time to improve standards. These are effective ways of rapidly improving working conditions, and are often a form of enforcement preferable to formal court proceedings, which may be cumbersome and slow in securing remediation.

Legal proceedings have an important place in the hierarchy of enforcement. There is an argument that because court proceedings are simply punitive and do not necessarily result in changing attitudes to safety and health at work, they should therefore be invoked only as a last resort when all other attempts at securing improvements have failed. But this view has to be set against the fact that where legal requirements have been ignored or disregarded, and where people’s safety and health have been significantly put at risk, then the law must be enforced and the courts must decide the issue. There is the further argument that those enterprises which disregard safety and health legislation may thereby enjoy an economic advantage over their competitors, who provide adequate resources to comply with their legal duties. Prosecution of those who persistently disregard their duties is therefore a deterrent to the unscrupulous, and an encouragement to those who try to observe the law.

Every inspection service has to determine the proper balance between providing advice and enforcing the law in the course of inspection work. A special difficulty emerges in connection with the inspection of small enterprises. Local economies, and indeed national economies, are often underpinned by industrial premises each employing fewer than 20 people; in the case of agriculture, the employment figure per unit is very much less. The function of the inspectorate in these cases is to use the workplace inspection to provide information and advice not only on legal requirements, but on practical standards and effective ways of meeting those standards. The technique must be to encourage and stimulate, rather than to immediately enforce the law by punitive action. But even here the balance is a difficult one. People at work are entitled to safety and health standards irrespective of the size of the enterprise, and it would therefore be wholly misguided for an inspection service to ignore or minimize risks and to curtail or even forgo enforcement simply to nurture the existence of the economically fragile small enterprise.

Consistency of Inspections

In the view of the complex nature of their work - with its combined needs for legal, prudential, technical and scientific skills, inspectors do not - indeed should not - adopt a mechanistic approach to inspection. This constraint, combined with a difficult balance between the advisory and enforcement functions, creates yet another concern, that of the consistency of inspection services. Industrialists and trade unions have a right to expect a consistent application of standards, whether technical or legal, by inspectors across the country. In practice this is not always easy to achieve, but it is something for which the enforcing authorities must always strive.

There are ways of achieving an acceptable consistency. First, the inspectorate should be as open as possible in publishing its technical standards and in publicly setting out its enforcement policies. Second, through training, the application of peer review exercises, and internal instructions, it should be able both to recognize a problem and to provide systems to deal with it. Finally, it should ensure that there are procedures for industry, the workforce, the public and the social partners to secure redress if they have a legitimate grievance over inconsistency or other forms of maladministration associated with inspection.

Frequency of Inspections

How frequently should the inspectorates undertake inspections of the workplace? Again there is considerable variation in the way this question may be answered. The International Labour Organization (ILO) holds the view that the minimum requirement should be that every workplace should receive an inspection from the enforcing authorities at least once each year. In practice, few countries manage to produce a programme of work inspection which meets this objective. Indeed, since the major economic depression in the late 1980s some governments have been curtailing inspection services by budget limitations that result in cutbacks in the number of inspectors, or by restrictions on recruiting new staff to replace those who retire.

There are different approaches to determine how frequently inspections should be made. One approach has been purely cyclical. Resources are deployed to provide inspection of all premises on a 2-yearly, or more likely a 4-yearly, basis. But this approach, though possibly having the appearance of equity, treats all premises as the same regardless of size or risk. Yet enterprises are manifestly diverse as regards safety and health conditions, and to the extent that they differ, this system may be regarded as mechanistic and flawed.

A different approach, adopted by some inspectorates, has been to attempt to draw up a programme of work based on hazard; the greater the hazard either to safety or health, the more frequent the inspection. Hence resources are applied by the inspectorate to those places where the potential for harm to the workforce is the greatest. Although this approach has merits, there are still considerable problems associated with it. First, there are difficulties in accurately and objectively assessing hazard and risk. Second, it extends very considerably the intervals between inspections of those premises where hazards and risks are considered to be low. Therefore, extended periods may elapse during which many of the workforce may have to forgo that sense of security and assurance which inspection can provide. Furthermore, the system tends to presume that hazards and risks, once assessed, do not radically change. This is far from being the case, and there is the danger that a low-rated enterprise may change or develop its production in such a way as to increase hazards and risk without the inspectorate’s being aware of the development.

Other approaches include inspections based on facility injury rates which are higher than the national averages for the particular industry, or immediately following a fatal injury or major catastrophe. There are no short and easy answers to the problem of determining the frequency of inspection, but what seems to be happening is that inspection services in many countries are too often significantly under-resourced, with the result that the real protection to the workforce afforded by the service is being progressively eroded.

Inspection Goals

Inspection techniques in the workplace vary according to the size and complexity of the enterprise. In smaller companies, the inspection will be comprehensive and will assess all hazards and the extent to which the risks arising from the hazards have been minimized. The inspection will therefore ensure that the employer is fully aware of safety and health problems and is given practical guidance on how they may be addressed. But even in the smallest enterprise the inspectorate should not give the impression that fault-finding and the application of suitable remedies are the function of the inspectorate and not of the employer. Employers must be encouraged by inspection to control and effectively manage safety and health problems, and they must not abdicate their responsibilities by awaiting an inspection from the enforcement authorities before taking needed action.

In larger companies, the emphasis of inspection is rather different. These companies have the technical and financial resources to deal with safety and health problems. They should devise both effective management systems to resolve the problems, as well as management procedures to check that the systems are working. In these circumstances, the inspection emphasis should therefore be on checking and validating the management control systems found at the workplace. The inspection should therefore not be an exhaustive examination of all items of plant and equipment to determine their safety, but rather to use selected examples to test the effectiveness or otherwise of the management systems for ensuring safety and health at work.

Worker Involvement in Inspections

Whatever the premises, a critical element in any type of inspection is contact with the workforce. In many smaller premises, there may be no formal trade union structure or indeed any workforce organization at all. However, to ensure the objectivity and acceptance of the inspection service, contact with individual workers should be an integral part of the inspection. In larger enterprises, contact should always be made with trade union or other recognized worker representatives. Legislation in some countries (Sweden and the United Kingdom, for example) gives official recognition and powers to trade union safety representatives, including the right to make workplace inspections, to investigate accidents and dangerous occurrences and in some countries (though this is exceptional) to stop plant machinery or the production process if it is imminently dangerous. Much useful information can be gained from these contacts with the workers, which should feature in every inspection, and certainly whenever the inspectorate is conducting an inspection as the result of an accident or a complaint.

Inspection Findings

The final element in an inspection is to review the inspection findings with the most senior member of management on the site. Management has the prime responsibility to comply with legal requirements on safety and health, and therefore no inspection should be complete without management’s being fully aware of the extent to which it has met those duties, and what needs to be done to secure and maintain proper standards. Certainly if any legal notices are issued as a result of an inspection, or if legal proceedings are likely, then senior management must be aware of this state of affairs at the earliest possible stage.

Company Inspections

Company inspections are an important ingredient in maintaining sound standards of safety and health at work. They are appropriate to all enterprises and, in larger companies, may be an element in the management inspection procedure. For smaller companies, it is essential to adopt some form of regular company inspection. Reliance should not be placed on the inspection services provided by the inspectorates of the enforcing authorities. These are usually far too infrequent, and should serve largely as a stimulus to improve or maintain standards, rather than be the primary source for evaluating standards. Company inspections can be undertaken by consultants or by companies who specialize in this work, but the current discussion will concentrate on inspection by the enterprise’s own personnel.

How frequently should company inspections be made? To some degree the answer is dependent on the hazards associated with the work and the complexity of the plant. But even in low-risk premises there should be some form of inspection on a regular (monthly, quarterly, etc.) basis. If the company employs a safety professional, then clearly the organization and the conduct of the inspection must be an important part of this function. The inspection should usually be a team effort involving the safety professional, the departmental manager or foreman, and either a trade union representative or a qualified worker, such as a safety committee member. The inspection should be comprehensive; that is to say, a close examination should be made both of the safety software (for example, systems, procedures and work permits) and the hardware (for example, machinery guarding, fire-fighting equipment, exhaust ventilation and personal protective equipment). Particular attention should be paid to “near misses” - those incidents which do not result in damages or personal injury but which have the imminent potential for serious accidental injuries. There is an expectation that after an accident resulting in absence from work, the inspection team would immediately convene to investigate the circumstances, as a matter outside the normal cycle of inspection. But even during routine workshop inspection the team should also consider the extent of minor accidental injuries which have occurred in the department since the previous inspection.

It is important that company inspections should not seem to be consistently negative. Where faults exist it is important that they be identified and rectified, but it is equally important to commend the maintenance of good standards, to comment positively on tidiness and good housekeeping, and to reinforce by encouragement those who use personal protective equipment provided for their safety. To complete the inspection a formal written report should be made of the significant deficiencies found. Particular attention should be drawn to any shortcomings which have been identified in previous inspections but have not yet been corrected. Where there exists a works safety council, or a joint management-worker safety committee, the inspection report should be featured as a standing item on the council’s agenda. The report on the inspection must be sent to and discussed with the senior management of the enterprise, who should then determine whether action is required and, if so, authorize and support such action.

Even the smallest companies, where there is no safety professional, and where trade unions may not exist, should consider company inspections. Many inspectorates have produced very simple guidelines illustrating the basic concepts of safety and health, their application to a range of industries, and practical ways in which they can be applied in even the smallest enterprises. Many safety associations specifically target small businesses with publications (often free) which provide the basic information to establish safe and healthy working conditions. Armed with this sort of information and with the expenditure of very little time, the proprietor of a small business can establish reasonable standards, and can thus perhaps obviate the sort of accidents which can happen to the workforce in even the smallest business.



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