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When an inspector calls

Earlier this month I spent a day out on visits with an inspector. This is not the first such day I've spent by any means but this one was somewhat different in that the inspector I was with specialised in occupational health. The sites we visited were being targeted because a previous inspection visit had highlighted some specific concerns about the management of risks to workers' health.

I was reminded of what it feels like to be a dutyholder when an inspector calls. Whatever one has planned for the day, there is now a new priority to deal with.

I've never been a great fan of visitors turning up unannounced at my house, and an unannounced inspector visit generates some similar feelings for those in charge in the workplace, coupled with that same nervous feeling we all get when we see the police car right behind us in our rearview mirror when we're driving. Am I doing anything wrong? What will they find?

Ever since I became Chair of HSE, I have been going out with inspectors to see things for myself. Seven or eight times a year, I will ride along as they visit firms of all sizes and from all sectors, sometimes on formal inspection visits and sometimes engaging with industries on joint programmes of work.

I've been to foundries (I was very surprised to discover just how many we still have in Britain), down a potash mine (how many gardeners realise that their favourite fertiliser is mined more than one mile deep and several miles out under the North Sea?), to fairgrounds (fascinating, and complex in the range of hazards), aboard a North Sea Oil rig, on a farm and to a semiconductor factory to name but a few. I've seen some great employers, really putting a lot of thought and consideration into managing the particular risks in their workplaces and protecting their workers. And I've seen others who leave a lot to be desired.

What I saw last week was the extent to which longer term health issues tend to take second place to managing immediate safety risks. Things get put on the 'to-do' list but somehow never get done, leaving people at risk of dermatitis, asthma and other illnesses - and often unaware of the risks they are being exposed to or are taking with their own health by not wearing the simple protective equipment they've been provided with.

I also saw business managers who appreciated the very sensible and proportionate advice they were given about how to deal with issues. We may not have been welcomed with open arms when we arrived but in every case we left on good terms - despite some formal action needing to be taken.

I never cease to enjoy my visits with inspectors and I come away from those visits reminded of how important our work is - it can literally be life saving.