That is the question many people are asking after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) hired private firms to carry out site inspections.

HSE site inspections are being carried out by staff from private firms for the first time in history. In December 2020, the watchdog awarded two contracts worth a total of £7m to debt collection firms in an effort to bolster its workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The £7m spend is a significant spend (and the largest single expenditure) from a pot of £14m emergency funding awarded to it by the Government last May to help it cope with the coronavirus crisis. The operatives, known as 'spot-check support officers', carry letters confirming their authorisation to carry out the work – but Prospect, a union representing HSE inspectors, said the move was not an adequate replacement for personnel lost over a decade as a result of cuts to the organisation's budget.

Prospect General Secretary Mike Clancy said that the funding boost, designed to help the HSE cope with the increased level of work, equated to just "10% of the real-terms funding cut the HSE has experienced over the past 10 years, and there are now fewer than 500 main grade inspectors in the UK".

A HSE spokesperson said the site inspections would be "similar to the proactive telephone-based spot checks introduced earlier in the year" and that HSE "implemented the same process for spot-check visits to workplaces, using third-party suppliers". It is claimed that the use of private contractors has allowed the HSE to "scale up" its proactive work and "to focus on more complex COVID-19 work in addition to investigating reported concerns and investigating incidents".

Whilst the two private firms are said to have extensive experience across the public sector, many are concerned there will inevitably be "lower quality" spot checks by private contractors carrying out "tick-box checks" which would have previously been the remit of experienced inspectors.

The HSE's budget has fallen recently, which arguably has coincided with the number of cases brought to court by the body falling from 711 in 2015/16 to just 355 in 2019/20. Only time will tell if the spot checks will result in lower quality inspections and impact the number of cases coming to court. Whatever the fear over quality, this initiative will clearly mean more random checks, so more than ever organisations need to ensure they have reviewed their health and safety management.

Originally published 05 February 2021

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.