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Monday, 28 March 2011 19:19

Inspection Services

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National, state or provincial, municipal and other local government units employ inspectors in a variety of agencies to verify compliance with laws, ordinances and regulations intended to promote and protect the health and safety of both workers and the public. This is government’s traditional role of enacting laws to address socially unacceptable risks and then to assigning agencies to establish programmes to achieve conformance with the regulatory standards. The inspector or investigator is the key person on the front-line in enforcing regulatory standards.

An example of such a legislative mandate is the role of inspection of workplaces for health and safety practices. Worksite inspectors visit workplaces to verify compliance with regulations governing the workplace, potential occupational and environmental hazards, the tools, machines and equipment being used, and the way the work is done, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). The inspectors have the authority to initiate penalties (citations, monetary fines and, in egregious cases, criminal prosecution) when deficiencies are encountered. Under laws enacted in some localities, regional authorities share responsibilities for carrying out inspections with federal powers.

Other areas in which governmental agencies have inspection responsibilities include environmental protection, regulation of food and drugs, nuclear energy, interstate commerce and civil aviation, public health and consumer protection. Engineering and building inspections are generally organized at the local level.

Throughout the world the basic functions and protections addressed by inspection services are similar although the particular legislation and governmental structures vary. These are discussed elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia.

To protect workers and property, to avoid statutory penalties and the adverse publicity that accompanies them and to minimize legal liability and the costs of workers’ compensation benefits, private sector enterprises often conduct in-house inspections and audits to ensure that they are complying with the regulations. These self-audits may be conducted by appropriately qualified staff persons or outside consultants may be retained. A notable recent trend in the US and some other developed countries has been the proliferation of private consulting organizations and academic departments which offer occupational health and safety services to employers.


In general, inspectors are faced by the very same hazards they are charged to identify and correct. For example, workplace health and safety inspectors may visit worksites that have toxic environments, harmful noise levels, infectious agents, radiation, fire or explosion hazards and unsafe buildings and equipment. Unlike workers in a fixed environment, the inspectors must anticipate the kinds of hazards they will encounter on a given day and make sure that they have the tools and PPE they might need. In each instance, they must prepare themselves for a worst-case scenario. For example, when entering a mine, inspectors must be prepared for an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, fires and explosions and cave-ins. Inspectors checking isolation units in health care facilities must protect themselves against contagious organisms.

Occupational stress is a prime hazard for inspectors. It stems from a number of factors:

  • Work stress is increasing as fiscal retrenchments cause reductions in agency budgets, which often results in understaffing. This brings pressure to manage an increasing work load that inevitably affects the ability to maintain the quality and integrity of inspections.
  • There is also the stress of having to enforce the minutiae of guidelines and regulations which the inspector may acknowledge to be unwarranted in particular situations. And, when circumstances do not allow them to be overlooked, the inspector may bear the brunt of abuse for enforcing unpopular rules and regulations.
  • Employers, and sometimes the workers as well, may resent the “intrusion” of the inspector into the workplace and his or her need to maintain a high level of suspicion with respect to subterfuges and cover-ups. This often makes the job unpleasant and stressful for the inspector. This antagonism may escalate into threats and actual violence.
  • The inspector may suffer from feelings of responsibility when neglected or unrecognized hazards in the workplace result in a worker’s loss of life or limb or, even worse, in disaster involving many individuals.
  • Like many employees who work in the field on their own, inspectors may suffer from such bureaucratic ills as distant and/or inadequate supervision, lack of support, endless paperwork and separation from home, family and friends.
  • The necessity of entering unsafe neighbourhoods may expose them to crime and violence.
  • Finally, particularly when they are required to wear uniforms, they may be seen as enemies by those who bear a grudge against the particular agency or the government as a whole. This can culminate in abuse or even violent assaults. The 1996 bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the US is an indication of such hostility to government.


Agencies employing inspectors must have clearly written health and safety policies describing appropriate measures to protect the health and well-being of inspectors, particularly those working in the field. In the US, for example, OSHA includes such information in its compliance directives. In some instances, this agency requires inspectors to document their use of the appropriate protective equipment while performing an inspection. The integrity of the inspection may be compromised if the inspector himself or herself violates health and safety rules and procedures.

Education and training are the key to preparing inspectors to properly protect themselves. When new standards are promulgated and new initiatives or programmes undertaken, the inspectors should be trained in preventing illness and injury to themselves as well as being drilled in the new requirements and enforcement procedures. Unfortunately, such training is rarely offered.

As part of programmes for learning to cope with work stress, also rarely offered, inspectors should be trained in communication skills and contending with angry and abusive people.

Table 1 lists some of the categories of government inspectors and hazards to which they may be exposed. More detailed information about the recognition and control of such hazards is to be found elsewhere in this Encyclopaedia.

Table 1. Hazards of inspection services.



Associated hazards

Occupational safety and health compliance officers

Investigate and cite safety and health hazards

A wide variety of safety and health hazards

Agricultural inspectors

Investigate agricultural and farmworker health and safety

Agricultural equipment, chemicals, pesticides, biological agents and
outdoor environment

Environmental inspectors

Investigate industrial and agricultural sites for contaminated air, water and soil

Chemical, physical, biological and safety hazards

Health inspectors

Investigate nursing homes and hospitals for compliance with hospital safety and health standards

Infectious, chemical, radioactive and safety hazards

Food inspectors

Investigate and cite food product safety and establishments

Insects, vermin and associated microbiological agents; chemical agents; violence and dogs

Engineering and building inspectors

Investigate for compliance with building construction and fire operation and maintenance codes

Unsafe structures, building and construction equipment and materials

Customs inspectors

Investigate for contraband and hazardous materials entering territorial boundaries

Explosives, drugs, biological and chemical hazards


A recent phenomenon in many countries that is disturbing to many is the trend toward deregulation and decreased emphasis on inspection as an enforcement mechanism. This has led to the under-financing, degrading and downsizing of agencies and erosion of their inspection services. There is a growing concern not only for the health and safety of the cadres of inspectors but also for the health and well-being of the workers and the public they are charged to protect.



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