Site managers! Do you live in terror of a safety visit, no matter how innocent you are? And do you wish you knew what went on in those inspectors' heads? To unravel the mystery, we spent a day with the dark hero of health – Norman the HSE inspector.
Norman McRitchie, 42, a married father of two living in Essex, is a health and safety inspector based in Luton. His route into the site safety inspection is unusual: after studying for a science degree at Glasgow he took a diploma in accountancy at Strathclyde, then worked in that field for 15 years. But an interest in health and safety led him into safety and security management for the same firm, before he transferred to the HSE. "I was more interested in people than figures, that's what it boils down to," he says. "I've now been with the HSE for three years, first in the services sector. I've been in the construction sector for 10 months."

9.30am Touching base
Norman's day starts at 9.30, when he arrives in the office to catch up with colleagues and pick up any overnight complaints that have been phoned in. Complaints can come from members of the public or people working on sites, and an HSE inspector will be dispatched as soon as possible to check them out. He's got a complaint to deal with today – roofers are throwing tiles from the roof of a house in Luton. But before he heads out, Norman has a quick meeting with some colleagues about the HSE's Healthy Handling Initiative in March (see "Blitzing the South-east", page 40).

There are eight inspectors in the HSE's Luton construction division, covering Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, coping with more than 1000 sites at any one time. There are other inspectors based in the same office, covering services (which include hospitals, schools, the police and fire brigade), agriculture and food, and engineering. As Norman's career path proves, inspectors tend to be generalists, not specialists. "People transfer between the groups quite frequently," says Norman. "You don't need a lot of technical knowledge of the industry you're inspecting. We go on training courses to get up to speed on that industry's issues."

11am Tiles of the unexpected
Norman's in the car en route to his first site visit, the reported complaint about the roofer. Does he worry about facing a hostile reception? "It's very unusual that people get nasty when we turn up; most builders are very pleasant people. In other industries, you frequently have to explain who you are and what you're doing, almost to talk your way in. But on most construction sites, they know who you are and you get a reasonably good audience." So how often does Norman have to file a bad report? "About 25% of site visits result in a prohibition or improvement notice. It's not the sort of thing we do lightly, but if they need it, they need it. We're not into nit-picking, looking for silly things to make a fuss about. All the issues we look at are major ones that can ruin lives."

We arrive at site one, a red-brick terraced house on a quiet street in Luton. There's scaffolding up the front and a tiler is now laying new tiles on the roof. There's no sign of tiles being thrown into the street, as he's obviously finished that part of the job.

Norman asks the guy to come down, and explains the complaint. The tiler admits he was throwing the broken tiles straight onto the street. Usually he has a skip, but he couldn't get one this time. Norman suggests using a rubbish chute in future, and gives the tiler a report recording his visit, what the problem is, and listing possible changes. Norman shows him the relevant passages in the Health and Safety Act. He's unthreatening and calm, but also very specific, sure and methodical. Norman reads the report out loud to ensure the tiler understands and requests a reply from the company owner, setting out how he intends to stop this from happening again. The tiler signs and dates the report. He gets a copy, there's one for his boss, and Norman keeps one.

Norman then inspects the scaffolding, front and back, and is satisfied it's safe. We're back in the car and off to site two.

"In a position like this there's not much you can do, as he's already stopped doing the dangerous thing and there isn't any risk," Norman explains. "If I'd found him still doing it, I'd have issued a prohibition notice. On a road like this – not a busy thoroughfare – it's hard to get too worked up. The man was reasonable, he's not terribly bothered but he knows he's been a bit of a naughty boy. This visit will go on file at the HSE, and if there's a future problem then it won't look too good."

Would he always deal with this situation so casually? "If there had been guys still chucking things down, or if there were small children around, I would have taken a very different attitude."

Norman is aware of HSE inspectors' reputation for nit-picking, but he's undeterred. "We're not looking to tell people off, we're there to help and offer advice. I'd hate people to think that HSE inspectors are timid people worrying about what's around the next corner – we're not like that at all. We look at real risks. Having said that, it does affect you: we're probably more aware of health and safety issues at home than most people. I have plenty of smoke alarms, and anti-surge devices on electrical appliances. I put chains on the kids' windows when they were little, to stop them falling out. If I see someone doing something stupid I might go and have a word, but you try not to become too much of a busybody."

His personal experiences back up his certainty: "A lot of people in construction know there are risks, but they don't think it can happen to them. But from experience I know it can happen when you least expect it. I climb a lot in Scotland and a few years ago I fell 90 ft while climbing, but I luckily didn't break anything."

12.30pm He's back – and this time he means business
The other two sites we're due at today are revisits. Norman has seen both of them before and is hoping his recommendations have been implemented. The first is a small housing development on a main road in a residential area. The site manager is welcoming, saying the site is quiet today because the roofers haven't turned up, and the houses aren't yet ready for the plumbers and electricians yet. The floor screeds need to be laid, and then the interior fit-out can get under way.

We’re not into nit-picking, looking for silly things to make a fuss about. all the issues we look at are major ones that can ruin lives

"This site used to be a petrol station," Norman explains. "It's been on site for four-and-a-half years, but the buildings have been put up in the past nine months. They had a lot of work to do to make the site fit to build on, it was contaminated land. I drive past it on my way to work every day, so I have a good idea of what stage it's at. But I try not to make a nuisance of myself by calling into sites along my route too much – you've got to spread yourself around."

Norman explains his usual routine when inspecting sites. "The first thing I'll look at on a general site visit will be scaffolding – falls from height are the biggest killer in construction. I'm looking for plenty of edge protection: handrail, midrail and toeboard, and possibly brickguards. You'll quickly form an opinion on whether it looks right."

He spots a ladder that isn't locked on, and is concerned that a spare piece of wood balanced on the scaffold could fall off. Other than that, he's content.

"Next I'll look at workplace transport – people can get crushed by vehicles. This site is very muddy because of the high water table. But the mud stops people from walking on the vehicle route so there's not much danger from vehicles. If the driver of the forklift was here, I'd check his qualifications and the vehicle's record.

"The next thing is slips, trips and falls. Order and organisation are a bit of an issue on this site but there's not much you can do because of the mud. They've made some effort with tidiness." He asks the site manager to widen the planking wheelbarrow-run through the mud to 2 ft. And he's concerned about how the kerbstones for the driveways will be laid. The HSE discourages the manual laying of kerbstones or anything weighing over 20 kg: it would like sites to use vacuum-lifters or other equipment instead. He asks the manager to think about how to accommodate this.

He then runs through the Healthy Handling Initiative, using information sheets and pictures to illustrate his points. Everything is discussed and the process takes quite a while. The site manager is interested and keen to volunteer personal experiences and anecdotes. Norman stresses that the HSE will be visiting in March looking out for these issues, and mentions that some of this company's other sites aren't in too good a state. The site manager expresses concern that his workers don't always follow his advice, and Norman suggests he should make a note in the site diary when this happens, so that in the event of an accident or an HSE inspection, he can prove he gave the right advice.

If I saw one of the big firms doing this I’d throw the book at them – i want to apply the law in an equal manner

The fact that this is a small site isn't relevant as far as Norman is concerned. "I'm often asked whether the big boys are good at health and safety and the small ones are bad – my answer is that it depends on the individuals on site. If you've got a good manager on site who understands the risks then that's half the battle won."

2pm Stand-off with the local cowboys
We've just got time to pick up a sandwich on the way to the final site of the day. En route to the shops, we take a wrong turn down a cul-de-sac. As we're reversing out, Norman spots two young lads fixing some guttering on a semi-detached house. One is balancing on a stepladder supported by two other stepladders, and it looks extremely unsafe. Norman stops the car and takes some photos – he always carries a camera for gathering evidence. Then he asks the guy on the ladder to come down. Another man is climbing on the roof at first floor level, removing bits of broken guttering and throwing them down into a skip. He could easily slip and fall.

Norman introduces himself and takes their names and addresses, and those of their employer. He shows his ID and explains his concerns about needing proper scaffolding when working at height. The lad says they usually have protection but one of the company's vans had an accident and their hired van won't fit all the equipment in. Norman decides to issue a prohibition notice, meaning they'll have to stop work. He phones the company owner to explain what the problem is. They have a long phone conversation – the boss is obviously unhappy.

"I'm issuing a notice because the manager knew what the lads were doing," he explains. "To issue a prohibition notice I have to be sure there is a risk of personal injury and in this case I definitely am. Part of the reason I'm doing this is that I'm trying to be even-handed. If I saw one of the big companies doing this I'd throw the book at them, and so I want to apply the law in an equal manner.

"What really put the tin hat on it was seeing the guy climbing straight from the roof onto the scaffold without using a ladder or safety gear. Also, they're both very young – 18 and 19 – and they're not experienced people who understand the risks and have chosen to take it on."

Does this happen a lot? "Quite a bit – you'll see something as you pass that's so outrageous you just can't let it go. If I see a crane quite often I'll drop in and see how they comply with the regulations. If you get it wrong with a crane it's absolutely lethal."

Norman gives the prohibition notice to the workers and reads it out to ensure they understand. One says that their boss is sending another team with the safety equipment and they'll get on with work at ground level in the meantime. Norman's satisfied and heads off for his long-delayed sandwich.

I’m often asked whether the big boys are good at health and safety and the small ones are bad. if you have a manager who Understands, that’s half the battle won

 Musical interlude
Before the next appointment Norman has a quick tootle on his bagpipes – he's learning to play them, and keeps them in his car so he can practise when he has spare time between site visits.

3.20pm Has done better – three gold stars
The last site of the day is a school extension. It's an unusual semi-circular shape, with a sloping roof. There were issues with unsafe scaffolding and an untrained forklift driver when Norman last visited, so he's looking for a big improvement.

The site manager admits he made mistakes: "I was overambitious, I didn't know how fast we would lay the roof beams and we ended up removing the scaffolding guard rails to get it done. We only removed them for that morning and we shouldn't have done it to the extent that we did. Norman was quite fair, he felt he had to take steps and issue us with a notice. I'd been asking my company for weeks to make improvements, so I welcomed his comments.

We try to work as well as we can with the HSE. It's a dangerous industry and we need to do all we can, as it's people's lives at risk."

Norman is pleased with the changes. "The last time I was here, the first thing I saw was a guy walking along the top of a wall, even though there was a scaffold right next to him. This site is much improved this time."

But he's got some concerns about a gap in the roof. A roofer could fall through if he didn't look where he was stepping. He climbs up to have a chat with the roofer to ensure he's aware of the hazard. "If I was being picky I'd ask for some kind of barrier to be run across the roof to separate off this area, to stop people from crossing it. But at the moment I'm happy to leave it up to the site manager and the roofer's common sense."

He then runs though the Healthy Handling factsheets with the site manager, and lets him know about the HSE's blitz. His only other suggestion is that they need a sign at the entrance directing visitors to the site office.

Blitzing the South-east: the Healthy Handling Initiative

With its Heathy Handling Initiative, the HSE is trying to draw attention to the wide range of health risks that construction workers face. These often are not addressed in HSE inspectors’ site visits, because they’re too busy sorting out the more immediate safety risks.

The initiative will run throughout south-east England in March, and is likely to then be taken up in other areas of the country. HSE inspectors will run a blitz of site visits, focusing on four main issues in an attempt to make workers and site managers take them more seriously.

The initiative covers:

  • order and organisation

  • lifting and carrying

  • risks of wet cement

  • risks of hand-held vibrating equipment and tools.

For further information, call 01582-444248 or see