Protecting Britain's workforce is an important job. Science and engineering graduates are at a distinct advantage when entering this highly-competitive profession

Working as a health and safety inspector involves protecting people by making sure that risks in the workplace are properly controlled. You will ensure employers comply with all aspects of health and safety laws and that workplaces are not the cause of ill health, injury or death.

You'll do this by inspecting business premises, advising employers and investigating accidents, and through enforcement of the law.

Health and safety inspectors work mainly for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), although you might find employment in local authorities and large organisations. You'll work either for a general team or specialise in a particular area, such as construction, forestry or hazardous goods.

Responsibilities

Work activities vary depending on the geographical location and specialism but generally include:

  • visiting business and industrial premises to inspect processes and procedures and ensure good health and safety practice;
  • investigating accidents and complaints and determining if there has been a breach of health and safety law;
  • carrying out examinations of machinery, working environments and structures, taking measurements of noise, heat, and vibrations, and taking photographs and samples where necessary;
  • ensuring workers are provided with suitable protective equipment, such as eye goggles, ear protectors or appropriate types of gloves and clothing;
  • investigating precautions taken to prevent industrial diseases;
  • investigating procedures for working in hazardous environments or with potentially harmful substances;
  • keeping up to date with new legislation and health and safety standards;
  • staying informed about developments within particular sectors, e.g. in agricultural or construction settings;
  • providing specialist advice and information on health and safety to businesses and organisations and advising on changes required;
  • negotiating with managers and operators to try to eliminate possible conflicts between safety considerations and production/profit;
  • writing reports on results of inspections and investigations and completing detailed paperwork;
  • determining when action, i.e. notices or prosecution, may be necessary and gathering and presenting the appropriate evidence;
  • developing health and safety working programmes and strategies;
  • developing methods to predict possible hazards drawn from experience, historical data and other appropriate information sources;
  • preparing for, and presenting court cases if a decision is made to prosecute (this differs in Scottish law) and also appearing as a witness in court or at an employment tribunal;
  • providing training and educational support to employers and new or trainee employees.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for trainee inspectors with the HSE are in the region of £25,000, rising to £30,000 after a two-year training period.
  • HSE inspectors who have completed training and have three to five years' experience earn in the region of £35,000 to £50,000, depending on the area of specialism and geographical location.
  • At senior specialist level, salaries can reach up to £90,000, depending on specialism, location and level of responsibility.

Salaries within individual organisations, local authorities and other health and safety bodies may vary slightly from the above.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday, but will involve some evening and weekend work in cases of serious incidents or accidents.

Career breaks, part-time work and job-sharing are quite common, although it is vital to keep up to date with knowledge of health and safety laws and regulations, as well as specialist areas.

What to expect

  • Although the work is office based, a lot of time is spent travelling to and visiting workplaces, which may be both indoors and outdoors.
  • Conditions in working environments may be noisy, dirty, smelly, stressful or even dangerous. Protective clothing may be required.
  • Self-employment and freelance work is sometimes possible. With experience, it may be possible to work as a consultant in occupational health, giving advice and lecturing.
  • Opportunities are available in most large towns and cities throughout the country.
  • The gender balance is roughly equal.
  • Although hours can be flexible, long days with travel are commonplace. There is frequent travel within a working day and occasional absence from home at night. Overseas work or travel is not common but will depend on the setting.

Qualifications

Graduates from any discipline can enter this profession, but a degree in one of the following subjects may put you ahead of the competition:

  • engineering, including electronic/electrical, mechanical and environmental;
  • environmental health;
  • food technology;
  • physical and applied sciences.

Subjects regarded as relevant will depend on the area of health and safety you want to work in. For example, nuclear inspectors will need a degree in a scientific or engineering subject, whereas inspectors in the food industry will need a qualification in food technology.

If you are aiming for specialist inspector roles, you must have a relevant first degree followed by a postgraduate qualification and relevant work experience, or chartered membership of a relevant professional institution.

A minimum grade C in maths at GCSE (or equivalent) is usually sought.

You can enter this profession with a HND and at least two years' work experience in a relevant profession. A related professional qualification is beneficial. Entry is not possible without a degree or HND.

Entry requirements vary between local authorities, although all entrants must meet Civil Service nationality requirements.

Recruitment is through a competency-based application form, followed by assessment centre and ability testing. This is usually carried out centrally and through the services of an external management service.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • the ability to acquire an understanding of legal matters and to apply industry legislation and standards;
  • an understanding of modern industrial technology;
  • practical ability to use instruments of measurement;
  • willingness to stay up to date with new developments - change is constant in this profession;
  • persuasion and negotiation skills;
  • problem-solving skills;
  • written communication skills;
  • the ability to use discretion and tact;
  • confidence and resilience.

A driving licence is essential.

Physical fitness and agility can be important, as climbing heights and negotiating uneven surfaces and obstacles may be necessary on occasion. You may have to pass a medical.

Employers

The main employer of health and safety inspectors is the HSE, which falls within the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

In order to get a real sense of what the job involves, learn as much as possible about the work of local authority health and safety departments and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Vacancies usually attract a high number of applicants and there is generally fierce competition for the posts.

Inspectors work in offices across England (with the head office based in Merseyside), Wales and Scotland. The Field Operations Directorate (FOD), which deals with much of the training, is managed as three geographical divisions throughout the UK.

The HSE is responsible for:

  • agriculture;
  • airports;
  • construction sites;
  • educational establishments;
  • hospitals;
  • landfill sites;
  • manufacturing premises;
  • mines;
  • nursing homes;
  • police and national government;
  • railways;
  • underground systems;
  • utilities including gas, electricity and water suppliers.

Health and safety teams within local authorities employ inspectors and are responsible for shops, offices, hotels, catering establishments, leisure and entertainment businesses and places of worship.

While much of this type of work is undertaken by environmental health officers, there is a need for health and safety professionals, particularly at a managerial or strategic level.

Health and safety inspectors are now more common as organisations adopt risk assessment strategies, and some inspectors find opportunities in organisations such as hospitals and large food retailers with responsibility for large teams of staff.

Health and safety inspectors with extensive experience can work for specialist consultancies in areas such as construction health and safety, stress management and safe working at heights. These roles involve consulting with businesses regarding their legal duties and helping them maintain good health and safety standards by carrying out audits, conducting site inspections and providing training.

Health and safety professionals can also be found in the manufacturing, construction, logistics and utilities industries, although job titles and functions may vary.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are also handled by specialist recruitment agencies, such as Principal People.

Professional development

The HSE provides a clearly defined training route. As a new entrant, you will complete the Regulators' Training Programme (RTP), which lasts for three years and leads to a postgraduate diploma in Occupational Safety and Health. This includes practical training on the job alongside attendance at appropriate discipline conferences and training events. However, HSE is in the process of modernising the RTP to a blended learning approach.

Traineeships are advertised, usually in twice-yearly blocks; see the HSE for more details.

As a trainee inspector within the HSE, you'll be appointed to one of the area offices around the UK. Each office has a number of specialist industry groups and you'll normally gain experience in several of these over the three-year training period.

Initially, you should expect to accompany and observe experienced inspectors before carrying out supervised site visits yourself. With experience, you can become involved in a national interest group responsible for a particular industry throughout the UK.

During this time, you'll develop a range of contacts, including:

  • safety officers;
  • senior company managers;
  • trade union representatives;
  • the staff of health and safety bodies.

As a health and safety inspector within a local authority, you'll usually undergo a similar period of training involving placements within various departments and shadowing experienced staff. As well as on-the-job training, you'll attend short, external courses in specific areas such as noise control and product recognition.

Some authorities encourage health and safety staff to work towards a postgraduate qualification such as an MSc in Health and Safety.

You could consider joining the chartered organisation for health and safety professionals, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). It offers training, qualifications and events for its members.

Irrespective of your work setting, you'll attend courses in order to update your knowledge on new developments in health and safety. You are expected to acquire and develop a good understanding of legal and technical matters.

Career prospects

As a new recruit within the HSE, you'll join as a trainee inspector of health and safety in the Field Operations Directorate (FOD). Subject to satisfactory completion of the two-year training programme, you may be promoted to principal inspector or above.

As your career develops, it may be necessary to change location to take on increased responsibility, take a different post within the HSE or take a secondment to another part of the Civil Service.

You will usually consolidate experience with a range of industry groups, staying three to five years with each group.

The next step is principal inspector, which depends on competing for vacancies further up the hierarchy; applicants compete for a limited number of posts. There is considerable variation in the age and length of service of those who are successful.

You would need wide and substantial experience to be promoted to a safety officer in industry, a policy role at senior management level, a consultancy post or lecturing.

If you are prepared to move into a managerial post or sidestep into a similar role in a different sector, that could open up additional career development opportunities.