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July 1, 2015

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Health and safety in the enforcement industry

By David Asker

Ours is a working and social culture where, quite properly, a safety culture is growing: one only has to look at the UK accident statistics to be reminded of this. There are many professions and cultures where a detailed and analytical approach to safety is vital, particularly those where the risks of injury arise from a variety of causes, and in particular that most unpredictable of sources; the average human being.

In my 32 years as an authorised High Court Enforcement Officer (HCEO), I have found that the human element demands respect and attention: as you’d expect when enforcing the orders of Her Majesty’s Courts, it’s not unusual for your presence to be greeted with hostility and resistance. Thus it is that we must place such high importance on the matter of risk analysis and mitigation, in order to properly protect both the subject of the court’s orders, the public at large and our enforcement agents (EAs).

At the Sheriffs Office, we are HCEOs and we enforce judgments and orders to recover money and property. Our HCEOs and EAs plan each eviction with meticulous care to prepare for the expected and the unplanned – that ‘worst-case’ scenario. But ultimately, when we arrive on site, we cannot guarantee the precise reaction and environment we will be met with and thus our planned responses should accommodate both expected and unexpected risks. Our teams are trained, experienced, equipped and ready to adapt and respond in a predictable and safe manner to the unpredictable.

We are sensitive to the fact that the enforcement of a money judgment or an eviction can be a distressing circumstance for the defendant, but it must also be considered that such events do not “just happen” out of a clear blue sky: this matter will have already been considered by the court and a ruling made which the EA must put into effect. Assaults – threatened and actual – upon EAs continue to be reported: while there are no excuses for them, their likelihood must be considered and plans made to avoid such incidents, or to safely mitigate the effects.

We have cases where EAs have been physically attacked, taunted, threatened and subjected to racial abuse. To have an EA slashed at with a carving knife (cutting his face but narrowly missing his stomach) or to be greeted by a defendant welding a switched-on chain saw is unacceptable and the avoidance of such incidents is mandatory under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

In both cases, the EA’s training avoided serious injury and the attackers were brought to justice and imprisoned. The offence of obstructing an EA is a criminal offence under s.77 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 and the advent of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 has reiterated the duty of the police to assist an EA executing a writ, which means we have access to the resources necessary to remove or reduce the risk of physical assault.

We conduct a large number of evictions, primarily trespassers in commercial buildings and land, but also tenants where the landlord has obtained an order for possession, which has been ignored. We undertake extensive assessment and planning for enforcement operations, both routine and those involving public order issues, and our EAs are appropriately trained: pre-operational and start-line briefings (so-called “toolbox talks”) are a vital part of our culture, as are debriefings and the analysis of perceived potential incidents.

An example of knowledge gained through debriefing and incident analysis, is that we’ve found that hazards also arise from the ‘parting-gifts’ from emotionally charged occupants. We plan for these, and our experience has taught us to remain vigilant. Over the years we have uncovered ‘booby-traps’ set up for the sole purpose of inflicting harm upon our EAs and disturbing discoveries which have included, perhaps unsurprisingly, many collections of lethal weapons inside properties.

A most alarming attempted act of revenge was discovered recently when our EAs found, during a routine sweep of an office building immediately after squatters had exited with their belongings, a Calor gas cylinder sitting quietly on top of an electric cooker ring, which had just been switched on. It appeared that had been planted by the outgoing occupants, which demonstrates why a sweep is always carried out. Had the gas canister vented as it cooked and the pressure risen, the resulting flammable jet could have killed or maimed.

We must also plan for environmental hazards, as one would expect given the diverse nature of the premises that we attend. For example, asbestos bearing materials are prevalent in most buildings put up before the mid-1980s: while if they remain undisturbed they are safe, there is a potential for disturbance and the release of hazardous fibres. We have found squatters removing copper pipes, stripping off asbestos insulation, despite having been warned of the risks by building managers. Our EAs are now being trained to safely identify asbestos and what safety precautions are needed.

Our duty of care for the health and safety of persons extends beyond the protection of our own workforce, to the safety of every person on any eviction site which we control. In one instance, we were mid-way through an eviction when our EAs discovered an unexpected occupant, a 92 year-old woman not previously identified during intelligence briefings as being present. Our eviction teams include EAs trained to deal with vulnerable persons. So, after she warned us that she couldn’t be moved, we contacted a doctor and social services: upon learning of the eviction, they arrived on scene quickly, and pronounced her fit enough to be moved, under her doctor’s supervision, by ambulance into the care of social services. In our role as EAs, we have long ago learned to expect the unexpected.

I hope that these few examples show why effective health and safety planning, training and delivery is crucial to the enforcement of any writ enforcement operation and can save lives.

David Asker is director of corporate governance and an authorised High Court Enforcement Officer

More information about what an AHCEO considers during the risk assessment and planning phase of an eviction can be found here.

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