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State body that enforces Covid-19 guidelines in workplaces has issued 54 prohibition notices in last six weeks

Covid-19 inspectors from the HSA have inspected over 1,500 workplaces since mid-June.

Image: Sakso Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

THE STATE BODY inspecting workplaces to ensure they’re complying with Covid-19 guidance has issued 54 prohibition notices in the last six weeks, where inspectors have noted a risk of serious personal injury to workers.

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has also inspected over 1,500 workplaces in that time and it is being urged to publish a report on what it’s found so far to give other workplaces examples of how to avoid the risk of Covid-19 spreading between staff and customers.

And, with hundreds of inspectors from other State organisations drafted in to help the HSA in its work, Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane said it’s important that there is transparency around the work these inspectors are doing. 

The Department of Business, however, has said that between the HSA and the other inspectors drafted in, over 9,500 inspections have been conducted of businesses since the economy began to re-open in mid-May. 

Clusters

As large swathes of the Irish workforce has gone back to their employment in the last 10 weeks or so, there have been incidences of workplace clusters of Covid-19.

One such incidence was at a construction site in Dublin which recorded more than 20 cases. Another outbreak occurred at a fast food restaurant in Kildare. 

Last last month, acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn expressed his concern at the number of outbreaks in workplace settings.

He said: “We are now seeing outbreaks of the virus in a range of work settings, including in construction, in fast food outlets and in supermarkets.

I would remind all employers that the workplace and most particularly, shops, services and supermarkets, are the new frontline. We are asking you to do everything you can to put the safety of your staff and customers first.

It had always been the case that public health authorities expected there to be more clusters and outbreaks as the country opened back up, but senior figures emphasised the importance of handling each cluster correctly when it was identified.

Prohibition notices

Playing a key role in helping to ensure businesses are following the guidelines so that these clusters don’t happen is the HSA. 

Criticism had been levelled at the HSA for its failure to inspect premises earlier in the pandemic, such as meat plants, and opposition TDs said that having just 67 inspectors would not be enough to cope with the responsibility of ensuring Irish businesses were up to scratch.

In response to a parliamentary question from Cullinane, Tánaiste and Minister for Business Leo Varadkar said it remained the case that the HSA has 67 inspectors specifically for the Covid-19 Return to Work Safely Protocol.

But there were also an additional 500 inspectors, from the likes of the Workplace Relations Commission, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and environmental health officers helping to ensure compliance with the protocol, Varadkar said.

While over 400 inspections were carried out by the HSA in the week ending 19 June, this number has fallen since then. 

For the week ending 19 June, the HSA carried out 428 inspections. From these, seven improvement notices were issued along with eight prohibition notices and 245 “reports of inspection”. 

An improvement notice is 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.

A prohibition notice 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. 

A report of inspection is when an inspector gives written advice on how to further improve health and safety practices.

In the week ending 26 June, the HSA carried out 259 inspections, issued seven improvement notices, nine prohibition notices and 155 reports of inspection.

The following week – ending 3 July – 214 inspections were carried out with five improvement notices, 10 prohibition notices and 125 reports of inspection. 

For the week ending 10 July, there were 207 inspections, five improvement notices, eight prohibition notices and 112 reports of inspection. 

At the end of the week of 17 July, there were 261 inspections, 14 improvement notices, 10 prohibition notices and 155 reports of inspection. 

Lastly, for the week ending 24 July, 237 inspections were carried out with 11 improvement notices, nine prohibition notices and 130 reports of inspection.

It means, in total, that 54 prohibition notices have been served to businesses in this time, with a further 49 improvement notices issued.

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Next steps

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson David Cullinane said the figures show that a substantial number of reports have been given to businesses on how to improve. 

“What we need now on foot of these inspections is a report from the HSA themselves,” he said.

“What are the common issues they’re seeing? What lessons need to be learned? What guidance could they give to employers to help them keep their workers and customers safe? It’s a good and worthwhile exercise we’re calling for.”

Another concern for Cullinane is the number of inspectors currently working on the protocol. 

He said: “We were told hundreds more would come on stream. And we’re now told of an additional 500 on top of the HSA inspectors. 

What we don’t have a is a breakdown of what these additional inspectors are doing. Are they out in the field? And why have inspections fallen from 428 in June to just over 200 now?

Figures were also not provided on how many inspections carried out by the HSA were unannounced.

In his answer, Varadkar said: “The majority of HSA inspections are unannounced. However, in a small number of cases, an inspector may need to announce an inspection to ensure the appropriate individuals are available at a workplace.”

Cullinane said it should be expected that the vast majority are unannounced, but that a breakdown of how many aren’t would be welcome. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the HSA said since 18 May, it had conducted 2,648 Covid-19 related inspections/investigations and added it would be “fair to say” there’s been a high degree of compliance so far. It did not indicate whether it would produce a report on its findings so far.

The Department of Business, meanwhile, said that through its other resources, an average of 1,200 inspections of businesses are conducted each week.

A spokesperson added: “Since the re-opening of the economy in May over 9,500 such inspections have been completed.”

About the author:

Sean Murray

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