Get prepared | HSE’s priorities for 2021

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been at the heart of the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Over the last year, its priority has been making sure that workplaces are COVID-secure through a nationwide campaign of spot checks and inspections.

The HSE’s actions have included:

  • Completing over 165,700 COVID-19 spot checks and responding to over 210,000 concerns.
  • Carrying out some 2,000 workplace checks a day, a number which is said to be constantly rising.
  • Targeted spot checks in industries where workers are most likely to be vulnerable to transmission risks.

However, it is keen to stress that its core role as a regulator remains – that is to say it will continue to regulate traditional, non-COVID-related occupational health and safety in a multitude of industries.

Unfortunately for employers, the HSE doesn’t publish an inspection agenda detailing what sectors and activities it is targeting and when – often announcing spot checks just days before they begin, as was recently the case in Manchester. It does, however, publish an annual Business Plan setting out its objectives and priorities, which should give businesses some indication of where they should focus their efforts. 

If you haven’t got time to read the 40-page document, we’ve summarised the salient points below.

The challenge

HSE figures for 2019/20 show:

  • 6 million work-related ill health cases – new or longstanding.
  • 7 million workers sustaining a non-fatal injury.
  • 8 million working days lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries.
  • 65,427 non-fatal injuries to employees.
  • 111 fatal injuries to workers.
  • 5 million work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) cases – new or longstanding.
  • 8 million work-related stress, depression or anxiety cases – new or longstanding.

The HSE aims to reduce work-related ill health through the application and enforcement of health and safety legislation. It seeks to increase knowledge and awareness of health and safety risks and ensure employers are doing all they can to provide a safe working environment. Behaviour change is encouraged through risk assessments and direct interventions, including inspections, investigations and prosecutions. Last year, the HSE:

  • Identified serious failings at over half of its 19,500 intelligence-led inspections.
  • Carried out 6,000 investigations.
  • Issued 8,777 enforcement notices.
  • Brought 364 prosecution cases with a 92% conviction rate.
In the year ahead, and with the anticipated emergence from the pandemic, the HSE says it is to apply with renewed vigour its customary non-COVID occupational health and safety regulatory role.

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Continued focus on tackling major causes of ill health

One of the foundations of the HSE’s regulatory role is to secure the effective management and control of all health and safety risks. Therefore, while the HSE is to continue carrying out COVID-secure spot checks, inspectors are to also target other specific issues and activities.

As part of the HSE’s Health and Work strategy, there is to be a sustained focus on work-related ill health. This year marks the fourth year of tackling three major causes of work-related ill health:

  • Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – MSDs are the second most common reported cause of work-related ill health, accounting for 36% of all cases and 29% of all working days lost due to ill health.
  • Occupational lung disease – said to result in 12,000 deaths each year. The focus is on reducing exposure to carcinogens and asthmagens, with a particular emphasis on reducing lung disease risks in metalworking.
  • Work-related stress – stress, depression or anxiety is the most commonly reported cause of work-related ill health, accounting for 43% of all cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health.

A planned programme of around 8,000 proactive inspections is also to be undertaken. This will include a specific focus on:

  • The control of wood dust in the woodworking sector.
  • The control of flour dust.
  • The control of welding fumes.
  • The waste and recycling sector.

Sector inspections

Building on previous campaigns, the following sector inspection activity is planned:

  • Manufacturing/fabricated metals – previous inspection campaigns found significant levels of uncontrolled risk, particularly in activities and processes that can cause ill health. Inspections are to focus on the control of carcinogens and asthmagens specifically associated with welding fumes, flame cutting, paint-handling processes and metalworking fluids.
  • Food manufacture – there is to be increased focus on the control of asthmagens arising from flour dust in bakeries. Inspections will also focus on the movement, storage and handling of heavy loads and from repetitive tasks which cause MSDs.
  • Woodworking – inspections will focus on ill-health risks, particularly occupational asthma and sino-nasal cancer which can result from poor control of exposure to wood dusts.
  • Waste and recycling – inspections will focus specifically on the management of transport, maintenance activities and safe machinery isolation practices to prevent fatal and serious incidents within the industry. Selected premises will also be inspected to assess how effectively the health risks associated with exposure to bioaerosols are being managed.

Where appropriate, inspectors are to revisit previously inspected sites to evaluate whether there is evidence of sustained and improved compliance.


Manufacturing has a mixed health and safety record and is to continue to be a priority sector for the HSE as hazards abound and close contact is common. The HSE says more improvements need to be made, particularly as:

  • On average, 27 manufacturing workers are killed each year, accounting for almost 20% of all workplace fatalities. The fatal injury rate is higher than the all-industry average; the main causes include being struck by objects, falls from height and contact with machinery.
  • Around 3% (78,000) of manufacturing workers are injured in workplace incidents annually, higher than the all-industry rate; the leading causes are lifting, handling, and slips, trips and falls.
  • Annually, around 3% (86,000) of manufacturing workers suffer an illness believed to be work-related. Known manufacturing health issues include MSDs, stress and lung disease.

The HSE says it wants to see improvements in all areas of the sector’s health and safety performance, particularly to reduce:

  • Cases of occupational lung disease, MSDs and work-related stress; and
  • Serious and fatal incidents, particularly those caused by heavy loads, maintenance and catastrophic events.
"Had our HSE spot inspection this morning. Passed with flying colours, he was really impressed. Said it will soon be law that all businesses will need to have written COVID-19 risk assessments, so he was impressed we already had them. He said he’d been to loads of businesses where it seemed like COVID wasn’t even happening. He didn’t want a tour, was happy with everything he had seen. He was really complimentary, said it was one of the best places he’d been to. I just wanted to say a big thank you for your help and support, we couldn’t have got this response without you."

Elizabeth Smith Veterinary Practice


Through enforcement action, the HSE seeks to prevent harm, sustain improvement in the management of health and safety risks, and hold employers to account when they fail to meet their obligations to protect people. It stresses that it will not hesitate to prosecute those who behave in a reckless way or deliberately break the law and place people at risk.

As such – and with the prospect that the HSE may soon be in your area – now is the time to review your current measures, get organised, and enlist support if necessary.

FREE COVID-19 Risk Assessment Templates

Our Health & Safety specialists have created a range of sector-specific risk assessment templates to help you assess your environment and document your control measures.

Not confident in your compliance? Act now

Not sure where to start when it comes to health and safety? Want to make sure your workplace is safe and compliant and that your business is inspection-ready at all times?

Ellis Whittam can help you to assess your environment and current measures, introduce proportionate controls to manage risk, and document the steps you have taken to keep people safe. And with simple software and ongoing consultant support, you can stay on top of your responsibilities and make safety less of a sideline.

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