A Health and Safety Officer (“HSO”) is responsible for monitoring a company’s compliance with health and safety law and providing advice to both companies and employers on the work environment. This will involve both desk based monitoring as well as company visits.
An HSO is any member of staff working for either the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”), local government, or a similar body, who is specially trained to monitor compliance with Health and Safety Law. As well as compliance monitoring HSOs are also expected to provide advice and promote health and safety awareness in the workplace. This may include advice on legal as well as technical issues.
HSOs will on a day-to-day basis liaise with company management to ensure that employees’ safety is being considered within the work environment, providing advice on how to comply with legislation and maintaining records of companies’ compliance. Besides the advisory function, HSOs are also responsible for enforcing compliance if a company exhibits flagrant disregard for legislation. This can involve legislative enforcement or, in a worst-case-scenario, closing down the business.
When making a company visit HSOs are responsible for recording information and may make use of specialist equipment to do so. The overall role is to make sure that there is nothing that will or potentially could jeopardise the health of the employees of a firm. Evidence collected may include monitoring of noise or pollution, making sure that equipment is safe and machine guards are in place where necessary.
There is a banded scale for employees working for both the HSE or a local government authority; however, depending upon the role, size and location of the local authority, pay scales will differ. Graduates and inexperienced employees should expect to start on around £25,000 – £40,000 with management roles increasing to £60,000+. There has also been an increasing number of private sector companies advising on health and safety issues and working on a consultancy basis. Salaries are likely to be similar to local authorities but the most successful consultants can expect to earn £100,000+.
There is also likely to be a defined benefit pension scheme available to all HSE and local government employees as well as life assurance and income protection benefits. There is a pre-prescribed expenses and mileage allowance available.
UNISON is the main trade union for local government authorities and is active in petitioning for pay increases.
- Carrying out routine inspections, including collating evidence and taking samples as necessary
- Investigating complaints in the work environment
- Ensuring compliance with legislation and making sure that an employer is not being negligent with regards to the safety of its staff
- Advising on technical and legal issues
- Working with other professionals such as scientists, laboratory staff and lawyers
- Collecting evidence and building case files including maintaining a database of inspections and actions outstanding
- Presenting information in court or other public enquiries
In order to practise you must have completed a BSc or MSc in environmental health, accredited by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (“CIEH”) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland or the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (“REHIS”). In order to get onto the course you will need to have either NVQs or A-levels. It will be advisable to study science based subjects such as chemistry, physics and mathematics but these are not essential. You will most likely need 5 A-Cs at GCSE and a B or higher in mathematics.
There is a wide range of courses available and sandwich courses which give you a year’s experience are common. The CIEH also requires you to engage in continual professional development (“CPD”) and complete a logbook before awarding the full charter.
- you will need to be calm with the ability to work in potentially high-stress environments. For example you may have to advise and create a case for prosecution following a death or serious accident at work. This may involve taking photographic evidence of the incident.
- communication skills are paramount
- technical skills, as mentioned in the qualifications section above
- you will be expected to work efficiently with other professionals but HSOs are largely responsible for building and maintaining their own inspection records. You will therefore need to be self-motivated and well organised.
- in some industries you might have to use ladders or go on scaffolding, into roof spaces or work in factories or in outdoor conditions, so an unfit person is likely to struggle in these environments
- you will need to be able to think on your feet at times to try and resolve dangerous situations
Standard office hours tend to apply (35-39 hours a week) but you may have to work evenings or weekends if you are called out for a particular incident. You will normally work in an office environment but a considerable amount of time will be spent on inspection and visiting workplaces.
The work tends to be diverse by nature but there may be instances where you are working with confrontational people and in high stress environments. This will be particularly true when enforcing legislation.
While not common, HSOs may be involved in incidents where severe bodily harm, injury or even death has occurred. Viewing a body with a missing limb or lots of blood requires a strong constitution. There will also be scenarios in which you deal with people who have been bereaved and are grieving.
UNISON recently published a document confirming that 57.7% of authorities report problems recruiting in Environmental Health. Environmental Health and HSOs are in demand and training provides real prospects for a career. However, competition for university places is increasing. The majority of courses will have a pre-agreed work placement embedded within the course but some courses may require you to source your own placements.
There is a clear hierarchical structure in most local authorities and it is possible to be promoted to a senior, principal or chief officer position.
There is also growing demand for public sector employees to join private sector companies.
Also known as…
- Health and Safety Inspector
- Health and Safety Awareness Officer
What’s it really like?
Helen Cameron – Senior Health and Safety Officer with Worcester City Council
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
What did you do before this job?
Catering management including a Health and Safety (“H&S”) role.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
Currently I work in an enforcement role for a local authority which includes routine inspections of a wide range of premises (from children’s nurseries to catering, gyms, shops, tyre fitters, hairdressers), accident and complaint investigation and specific project work, e.g. hairdressers, slips, trips and falls. The Health & Safety Executive inspects garages, building sites, chemical plants, railways, hospitals, etc. The role in private sector work is very similar but industry specific. Large companies will have their own Health and Safety officers. Small to medium enterprises can often do it themselves with either local authority support or external advice. This could be via consultants or by using Health and Safety Executive web information.
What do you like about the job?
No two days are ever the same and it’s a great job for meeting a wide range of people from individuals on the shop floor to managing directors.
What do you dislike about the job?
H&S is still unimportant to some organisations which means it can be an uphill struggle to implement improvements. The other issue is that H&S has become a bit of a joke due to the impression that the media give about H&S. The need for H&S to be managed has been hi-jacked by those who use it as an excuse to refuse events, flower baskets, swings and playing with conkers etc because of concerns over costs and personal injury claims. The HSE now has a website to try and dispel these myths.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Firstly, go for it but don’t always expect to be popular or listened to. Secondly, you need to be people oriented to get things done and thirdly, it is not highly paid (around £25 – £40k max) but rewarding in other ways.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
There are plenty of jobs but if you want to move into larger concerns you will need appropriate qualifications or think about a wider degree, e.g. environmental health business management which broadens options.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
H&S is a complex and sometimes challenging field of work. You need to be tenacious and persistent to succeed. Legislation requires a ‘competent person’ to deal with H&S, the level of which will vary according to the type of business. A small low risk business, e.g. small shop, can get by with background reading and advice from their enforcing authority. For many areas you will, however, need an appropriate level of training. This could range from a basic CIEH (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health) certificate, NVQs or a full NEBOSH diploma or a University Masters; the latter are essential requirements if you work in high risk areas such as transport, chemicals, or building. Whatever route you take, expect to go on having to update your knowledge to prove competency.
Individuals can also train in specific areas such as manual handling, risk assessment, fire etc.