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A €20m budget and just 67 field inspectors: Is the HSA up to the task of policing the Covid reopening?

Success in re-opening in Ireland is relying on community transmission of Covid-19 not to rise sharply again.

0010 Builders Source: Rollingnews.ie

AS THOUSANDS OF people return to work during Phase One of the government’s reopening plan, there is a massive responsibility upon each and every employer to make sure workplaces are as safe as possible. 

The level of transmission of Covid-19 within the community has fallen sharply in recent weeks and, according to Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, has effectively been “extinguished”.

For Ireland to enter Phase Two of re-opening and beyond, health authorities have said it is imperative this progress continues.

The Health and Safety Authority has a key role in drafting the plan to ensure there is no resurgence of the virus in Ireland’s workplaces. 

The agency will also have responsibility for inspecting places of work to ensure they are adhering to the correct health and safety guidelines, particularly around social distancing.

If an inspector witnesses workplace practices that are particularly egregious, they will have the power to seek a court order to shut the premises down.

And, with a Return to Work Safely protocol devised by the HSA and other government agencies now in effect, business has its own roadmap for what it should be doing to protect its staff and customers as they return to work. 

However, amid criticism that the agency has been to slow to act in certain sectors so far – particularly in the area of meat processing -  questions are being asked if the HSA is ready and able to cope with policing the Covid-19 re-opening.

What is the HSA?

The HSA was established in 1989 when the government enacted the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act.

Addressing the Dáil at the time then-Labour Minister Bertie Ahern said the “clear objective” in setting up this authority was to “help reduce accidents and ill-health at work which gives rise to human loss and suffering”. 

coronavirus-mon-may-18-2020 Construction workers return to work at a site in Castleknock Source: Aine McMahon/PA Images

It is Ireland’s statutory body with responsibility for ensuring workers are protected from work-related injury and ill-health. It also provides advice and guidance for businesses to adhere to health and safety requirements. 

Headquartered in Dublin, the HSA has a budget this year of €20 million. 

In 2018, the last full year for which figures are available, it carried out 9,000 inspections and investigations. A large number of these were in construction (4,026) and agriculture (1,852). 

Under the heading of wholesalers, retailers and garages, there were 792 inspections and 122 investigations completed. And there where were 165 inspections of accommodation and food service companies along with 30 investigations.

In previous years, however, the HSA carried out far more inspections. In fact, the number of completed inspections each year fell steadily in the last decade. In 2011, there were 15,420 inspections and investigations. In 2015, the total number had fallen to 10,880.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie in 2016, a spokesperson for the HSA said it was aiming to “do more with less” after figures showed its funding for workplace safety initiatives had been cut almost in half. 

It has 182 full-time employees, which is made of staff in administration and inspector grades. 

The latest figures provided just this week show there are 109 full-time equivalent staff across the inspector grades. Of these, 67 field inspectors have been assigned to inspect premises on foot of the Return to Work Safely Protocol. 

The government says this protocol should be used by all workplaces to make sure they adapt their procedures and practices to comply fully with all the public health protection measures. 

It sets out clearly what employers’ responsibilities are, what workers must be made aware of, and what workers must themselves but do with the aim of ensuring the spread of Covid-19 is as limited as possible. 

As part of the effort to keep Covid-19 suppressed, there will be an urgent need to inspect premises across the country. The demands on the HSA’s resources will increase throughout the summer as more and more businesses return to operation under the government’s five-phase plan.

What powers do inspectors have? 

There are a couple of pieces of legislation under which the HSA inspectors are granted powers, including the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and the Chemicals Act 2008.

coronavirus-tue-may-19-2020 Traffic on the M50 in Dublin as phase one of Ireland's five phase exit plan was triggered on Monday. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Images

When an inspector visits a workplace, they have powers to initiate a number of actions if they spot something that gives them cause for concern.

Under law, they’re entitled to enter a business and look at the level of preparedness on safety and health management on site.

These powers include:

  • They have the right to enter a place they believe is a place of work. They have the power to search and examine that premises or any process or procedure carried out there.
  • They can ask workers to produce records they require, ask questions relating to their inspection, take measurements or photographs, and even remove something they believe may be a risk to safety.
  • They can issue what is called an Improvement Direction when they identify an activity which may involve risk to the safety of health of people. The employer must take appropriate action to address the issue or risk the matter escalating.
  • Inspectors can also issue a Prohibition Notice. This is when they identify something which involves a risk of serious personal injury to any person. By law, the place of work will have to comply with this direction and won’t be able to carry on whatever activity has been prohibited until they address the matter. 
  • They can gather evidence and prepare a report on an investigation so that the Director of Public Prosecutions can initiate proceedings in the Circuit Court. 
  • Inspectors can also apply “ex-parte” to the High Court to seek an order to restrict or prohibit work activities at part or all of a workplace.

To give an idea of the amount of times they would exercise these powers, of the 9,000 inspections and investigations in 2018, inspectors issued 450 Improvement notices and 500 Prohibition notices.

A HSA spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that the time takento initiate actions to shut a premises down can vary from case to case.

The spokesperson said: “In relation to ex parte High Court applications, each case would be considered on its own merits and the length of time involved depends on the circumstances of the particular situation.

However, the use of this process is expected to be the exception rather than the rule as HSA inspectors already have a range of enforcement powers at their disposal including, for example, improvement notices and prohibition notices. Our approach in the first instance is to engage with employers with a view to resolving any safety, health and welfare issues.

Does it have enough resources to respond to coronavirus?

Facing the scrutiny of TDs this week, HSA CEO Dr Sharon McGuinness fielded questions on the Return to Work Safely Protocol.

The main sticking point was whether the HSA has enough resources to actually follow through with what’s required and be able to inspect thousands of businesses as the economy reopens. 

The protocol was published on 9 May before Phase One started, and was put together by the HSA in collaboration with the HSE and Department of Health. Discussions were also held with unions and employers groups before it was finalised.

0028 Builders Source: RollingNews.ie

Each workplace will have to appoint at least one lead worker whose responsibility it is to ensure that Covid-19 measures are strictly adhered to.

It is incumbent on employers to develop detailed plans for their business in advance of returning to work. It’s also the responsibility of workers to self-isolate if they feel symptoms, to practice good hand hygiene and social distancing at work.

In settings where the 2-metre limit cannot be adhered to, alternative protective measures should be used such as installing physical barriers, wearing face masks and minimising any direct contact between workers. 

Nowhere in this document does it mention that workplaces will be inspected to make sure they are adhering to the protocol. That’s where the HSA comes in.

As outlined above, the agency has the powers to inspect these places and take action to shut down those who aren’t adhering to the rules.

However, a group of Dáil deputies – including the Social Democrats and People-Before Profit TDs – said in a joint statement last week the HSA is “neither equipped nor robust enough to carry out the scale of inspections necessary”. 

Speaking at the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19 Tuesday, Dr McGuinness said the authority’s inspection programme had been “refocused” to oversee compliance with the return to work protocol. 

sharon mcguinness hsa HSA CEO Dr Sharon McGuinness addressing TDs. Source: Oireachtas TV

However, she was pressed by multiple members on fact that the HSA has a mere 67 inspectors at its disposal.

Also addressing the same committe, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Patricia King said this number is “not adequate at all”.  

“There is a resource issue,” she said. “The government has to improve the resource throughput to the HSA to do this job. The first phase of return is the construction sector and we are not satisfied at all that the resource inspectorate is there for that.

As the other phases of the economic reopening go on, this will get much more acute. Very small employers in the hospitality sector and so on will all require the same level of scrutiny.

Dr McGuinness said that talks are at an “advanced” stage with the government for more resources and she was hoping that the plan would be signed off “very shortly”. 

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane pressed the HSA CEO on exactly how many more inspectors there would be whenever this additional support is given by government, saying “surely the HSA has a plan”. 

Dr McGuinness said they were “working through that final number” and that she would “prefer not to give an exact number because we are still in discussions”. 

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“It is unacceptable that we cannot have the number here,” Cullinane retorted.

“We should have it. People want reassurance and to know that they will be protected. The figure of 67 is woefully inadequate. If Dr McGuinness cannot provide this committee, of all committees, with the numbers that does not instill confidence in me that the HSA will have the capacity it needs.”

Meat plants

One industry badly affected by the Covid-19 outbreak in recent weeks is the meat processing sector.  

Health officials have labelled the number of cases “worrying” after it was confirmed over 800 have been confirmed among workers in meat processing plants, including 16 clusters.

To put that into context, that’s around 3% of all confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. 

Were concerns about these meat plants raised with the HSA? 

david cullinane Sinn Féin's Cullinane

Here’s the exchange between Cullinane and Dr McGuinness:

Cullinane: “Can I just go back to Dr McGuinness? Has Dr McGuinness’s organisation any remit in relation to meat factories?”
McGuinness: “Yes. In terms of all workplaces, we have a role.”
C: “‘Yes’ is the answer. I thank Dr McGuinness. Did the HSA receive any complaints? Has Dr McGuinness’s organisation received any complaints in relation to meat factories?”
McG: “We have received a number of complaints.”
C: “Were there any inspections done on foot of those?”
McG: “Not at present, but because there is a national outbreak control team which takes from public health, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and ourselves.”

Dr McGuinness went on to say the issue in meat plants was very much directed by the “public health element”, in terms of getting the outbreak under control there and preventing others from getting sick and the virus spreading to the community. 

Arrangements for inspecting these meat plants were happening “as we speak”, she added.

However, she also admitted that despite 200 complaints of breaches of Covid-19 regulations since March, not all of the workplaces in question had been inspected.

Under further scrutiny from Social Democrats Róisín Shortall and Rise’s Paul Murphy, McGuinness said that the back to work protocol had given the HSA clarity on what duties employers have and what actions the agency can take when inspecting premises. 

“The protocol has put it in a way that is enabling us to enforce and ensure compliance with measures that workplaces can address,” she said.

“Workplaces and workers now understand where their role and obligations can be met.”

Certainly, the HSA has the powers to seek to shut down businesses that have unsafe practices.

With this new protocol, that will include powers to shut down employers that flout Covid-19 rules.  Critics have said that they’ve been slow to act so far. 

SIPTU manufacturing division organiser Greg Ennis told TheJournal.ie it was shocking to hear that the HSA hadn’t been inspecting meat plants thus far, given the warnings that workers and unions had been raising. 

“We wrote to the HSA complaining about their lack of inspectors,” he said. “I’ve been voicing concerns about the meat industry in general for the past three months. We didn’t want this to become another nursing home scenario.Now we have over 850 cases. Where clusters have broken out, we’ve been calling for workers to be withdrawn without loss of earnings.”

Minister for Business Heather Humphreys told the Dáil on Thursday that the number of new “additional resources working with the HSA” will be “in the hundreds”. She didn’t specify if these “additional resources” would all be inspectors.

The HSA spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that hundreds of inspections have been carried out this week.

“The Authority is checking for compliance with the Return to Work Safely Protocol and taking appropriate enforcement if and when necessary,” the spokesperson said.

“Over 400 onsite inspections (as of Thursday 21 May) have been undertaken this week across a range of industry sectors since the economy reopened under Phase 1 of the Roadmap on Monday 18 May.

These inspections were informed and directed by the complaints received as well as proactive and unannounced inspections for companies reopening under the Roadmap. 

Siptu’s Ennis, however, said it was entirely unnacceptable this was only happening now. 

“Within the manufacturing division of Siptu, we’ve 40,000 members in hundreds and hundreds of employments,” he said. “Many people have been working right through during this pandemic. 

To have 67 staff in the field is nowhere near enough. We’re hearing there’ll be more inspectors now, but that sort of an approach only coming towards the end of May is unacceptable. For the HSA to say they haven’t been inspecting [these meat plants] – there’s no excuse for them not to have been here for the last two months.
While I welcome the [Return to Work Safely] protocol, policing of that protocol is the key issue. If you don’t have the resources, it can’t be done correctly. 

Work in a meat plant or other industry that is being affected by an outbreak of Covid-19? You contact me at sean@thejournal.ie or on Threema with the ID 4RNZ67Z6

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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