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Local government FAQs

These FAQs help illustrate the nature of some of the issues that HSE routinely gives advice on.  The list is not exhaustive and further questions and answers may be added at a latter date.

For queries relating to services delivered by your council, e.g. construction and highways maintenance, waste and recycling, social care, etc, see our list of topics and industries.

My council removed signs advertising a performance by our drama society – they blamed health and safety which can’t be right. What is HSE doing to tackle these myths about health and safety rules?

HSE wants to make clear that health and safety is about managing real risks properly, and not stopping people getting on with their lives.  HSE publishes information and guidance to help employers better understand work-related risks and how to manage the risks they create through sensible and proportionate precautions.

HSE has set up an independent panel – The Myth Busters Challenge Panel – to scrutinise dubious decisions made in the name of health and safety, whether they affect the workplace or the general public.  Details can be found on the Challenge Panel web pages.  This includes details of the Challenge Panel Findings.

Some of the examples the panel has considered continue to embody the long standing myths tackled by HSE as part of the Myth of the Month campaign and in our ‘Putting the record straight’ web pages.

Further information is available on HSE’s sensible risk management web pages.

What health and safety checks are needed prior to installing our town's Christmas lights?

The key thing, as with all health and safety, is to keep a sense of proportion – not to go over the top or take inadequate precautions.

The risks will depend on the weight and scale of the display and its location – these can vary considerably. Heavy displays need to be fixed securely and have anchor points that can cope with the effects of strong winds and an accumulation of ice or snow.  If decorations are strung across highways and busy pedestrian areas more checks may be needed .  Local authorities often use the The County Surveyors’ Society’s Code of practice for the installation and operation of seasonal decorations on or above the public highway  to inform their policies for these installations.

Where the risks are lower, for example wall-mounted Christmas trees along a footpath or lights in a park, a simple visual check may be all that is necessary prior to installation. Putting up simple decorations in or outside of your building is unlikely to create any problems – people are familiar with the everyday risks involved and a sensible approach to installing them is all that is necessary.

I work for a council, and want to know who has responsibility for my health and safety? 

In most councils, the chief executive is at the top of the organisational structure for the paid service and has overall responsibility for health and safety.  Councillors also have an important role - including responsibility for many local policies and budgets. While not in day-to-day control, councillors need to satisfy themselves that risks are considered as part of their decision-making process and are sensibly managed.  Most councils have arrangements in place that mean day-to-day management of health and safety falls to line managers.  They have a crucial role in managing risks. If you have concerns, you should firstly raise them with your line manager or speak with your local health and safety representative.

Who is responsible for the health and safety of contractors?

Health and safety legislation requires that the employer does all that is reasonably practicable to ensure the safety of their employees and those affected by the work activity. However putting a service out to tender is not a mechanism for transferring all the health and safety risks and responsibilities to a contractor. The local authority as client must ensure that whoever carries out the work is able to do so in a way that controls health and safety risks and that they are not forcing conditions or systems upon your service provider that put workers or the public at unacceptable risk.

Throughout the stages of a contract, from conception to conclusion, the client has a duty to ensure that the contract is specified and carried out in a manner that ensures, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of contractors, employees and members of the public, including service users.  You will need to test any prospective service provider's ability to deliver a safe and healthy operation. Once the contract is awarded that is not the end of the matter. As client you will need to ensure, through robust client monitoring, that what was required has been done and that the systems of control remain effective.

We want to organise a public charity concert in our town hall but I'm worried about health and safety requirements - is it worth going ahead?

Risk management should be about practical steps to protect people from real harm and suffering - not bureaucratic back covering. If you believe some of the stories you hear, health and safety is all about stopping any activity that might possibly lead to harm. This is not HSE's vision of sensible health and safety - we want to save lives, not stop them.  So please don't be fooled by the myths - use the simple principles - if anyone says you can't because of health and safety just ask them to explain what they mean.

Do regulations on legionella apply to local authority owned housing stock?  

While some of the conditions within domestic water systems would be suitable for the growth of legionella, given the relative small size of most systems and the high throughput, the actual risks are probably lower than, say, larger systems. Recent research (by the Building Research Establishment) has shown that about 10% of British homes have legionella in their domestic water system.

Clearly, there are other risks associated with hot water systems, i.e. scalding. An LA or other social landlord will need to conduct a risk assessment for the whole system that addresses all potential hazards, e.g. legionella, scalding, biocides and then weigh up the risk; possible prevention/control measures etc and come to a decision about what to do. They should document this and be able to demonstrate that they have done everything reasonably practicable to address the risks associated with water.

A generic risk assessment that includes legionella risks would be satisfactory so long as it is able to identify the different types of system(s) that are installed - clearly some systems, e.g. those that do not have stored water such as combi-boilers, will present a much lower risk than others will.

As to informing tenants of the risk, the LA or housing provider may want to advise tenants when the risk could increase e.g. use of showers after holidays.

I've just taken over as clerk of the parish council and I've heard that we need to topple-test all the gravestones - is this true?

The risk of injury from a gravestone or other memorial, which has become loose and unstable is very low and there is no requirement to routinely mechanically test memorials.

Burial authorities in England and Wales do have a general duty under the Local Authorities' Cemeteries Order 1977 (LACO) to maintain burial grounds in good order.  Different legislation applies in Scotland. Many burial ground operators, if they employ people, will also have duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

You need to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure that visitors and those working in burial grounds are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. You should ensure that any action you take to manage memorials or other aspects of the burial ground is proportionate to the level of risk, and undertaken in a sensitive way.

The Ministry of Justice takes the lead on burial ground matters in England and has produced guidance to help burial authorities adopt sensible and proportionate approaches to manage the overall low risk presented by memorials.  It has also published a number of FAQs to address queries about the guidance.

The sensible risk-based approach set out in the Ministry of Justice guidance is also relevant to burial authorities across Scotland and Wales. However, specific queries should be directed to the Scottish Government or the Welsh Assembly Government as appropriate.

Is there a requirement on social landlords to inform tenants of the presence of asbestos?

Social landlords should ensure that their undertaking does not put tenants at risk. However, as the law stands, this responsibility does not extend to a positive duty to disclose the location of asbestos to tenants. That said, social landlords should record the location of any asbestos and also make it safe by sealing it.

Disclosure is ultimately a matter for landlords’ own internal policy. But they should be working with tenants to agree their programme of work, and therefore local decisions on how to handle asbestos should take tenants’ views into account.

In England and Wales, specific requirements for standards in dwellings are contained in the relevant Housing Act and associated legislation, including the Housing Health and Safety Rating System Regulations, which specifically deal with health and safety risks and poor conditions. Local authorities are responsible for enforcing this legislation.

Further information about the legislation can be obtained from the Department for Communities and Local Government in England - see Communities and Local Government Housing health and safety, or the Welsh Assembly Government - see Welsh Assembly Government Housing.

In Scotland the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 exists but the regime differs and further information is available from the Scottish Government - see The Scottish Government Housing webpages.

We are planning to survey our properties for asbestos prior to refurbishment, but we want to minimise both the health risk and the disruption to our tenants. What is our best course of action?

A “refurbishment/demolition” survey is required before carrying out any work that may disturb the fabric of a building. The purpose of this survey is to locate asbestos containing materials (ACMs) so that they can be removed before the refurbishment work starts. This type of survey is likely to be intrusive and destructive.

Therefore these surveys would need to be conducted in unoccupied areas to minimise risk to tenants. However, the scope of such surveys need only be fairly limited in cases of minor refurbishment. Whatever the size of the area surveyed, it should be isolated from other areas of the property, for example by a full floor to ceiling partition, and furniture and furnishings should be removed as far as possible or protected using sheeting.

Clearly, though, such surveys, particularly when required for larger areas, can be very disruptive, so where possible they should be programmed to take maximum advantage of any periods when properties are untenanted or ‘void’.

Surveys should never be limited in scope merely to avoid inconvenience to tenants. So far as is reasonably practicable, information should be obtained on the location of all ACMs.

“Asbestos: The survey guide” (HSG264) provides more detail on survey requirements.

I work for a social housing management company, which will be commissioning contractors to carry out refurbishment on our properties. How do we ensure our contractors are competent to handle risks from ACMs?

As a company who commissions contractors, you will take on the role of client, and as such for work of this nature specified duties are set out under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 (CDM). This includes a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that anyone you appoint is competent. Knowledge of asbestos risks and working precautions form an element of this competency. Steps should be taken to check that potential contractors have had the relevant asbestos awareness training to an equivalent standard to that required for non-domestic premises as outlined in the Approved Code of Practice to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 (CAR).

Similarly, those selected to carry out survey work should be able to demonstrate requisite arrangements, skills and experience through such means as UKAS accreditation or personal certification.

More detailed information is contained in “Managing Health and Safety in Construction” (L144).

We have a large number of properties that need to be surveyed for asbestos prior to refurbishment, but we have only limited resource available to do this work. What do you advise?

What is required in this case is a carefully planned sampling programme of a representative proportion of each dwelling ‘type’ in order to get an accurate picture of the presence of ACMs. It is not possible to specify sampling ratios, as these will depend on the variability of the housing stock. The sampling strategy should be informed by the advice of a competent surveyor and take account of:

  • original construction information;
  • building material specifications;
  • subsequent refurbishment or building works;
  • previous asbestos surveys or removals;
  • and information generated during the survey process itself that may necessitate a revision of the original planning assumptions.

I’ve heard people talking about safety problems with domestic heating systems. Where can I get advice about this and other housing safety issues?

In England and Wales local authorities (LAs) regulate housing issues under the Housing Act 2004 and Housing Health and Safety Rating System Regulations. This enables them to address health and safety risks in dwellings, such as those posed by failures to domestic heating systems. You should contact your local building control department or housing safety unit for further advice.

In Scotland, under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010, similar arrangements apply

HSE regulates gas safety legislation in domestic premises - this includes responsibilities on landlords and the work of gas engineers.  Our domestic gas webpages provide further information, including FAQ’s on gas safety, for those with legal responsibilities as well as for tenants and homeowners.

HSE’s free Gas Safety Advice Line can be contacted during office hours - freephone 0800 300 363.

Product safety for domestic gas appliances and other domestic equipment and appliances is overseen by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and enforced by the Trading Standards departments of local councils. If you have a concern about the product safety of a gas appliance you should contact ConsumerDirect on 08454 04 05 06 or the Trading Standards Department of your local council.

Depending on the nature of the domestic safety issue you may also find the following information sources helpful:

  • HSE has published a safety alert setting out the risks from failures to maintain the safety of hot water systems by social housing landlords
  • The government website on home and community - visit the safety at home webpages
  • The Solid Fuel Association provides advice about solid fuel appliances. Contact the SFA helpline - 0845 6014406
  • HETAS is the independent UK body recognised by DEFRA for the official testing and approval of domestic solid fuels and solid fuel burning appliances
  • OFTEC - The Oil Firing Technical Association offers advice on oil heating and cooking

For all other enquiries:

Updated 2014-10-01