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How safe is your workplace?

Even if you work in an office, you could be at risk of health and safety issues. The CEO of the Health and Safety Authority tells us more.

Image: Keith Levit/The Canadian Press/Press Association Images

IS YOUR WORKPLACE safe? Last week marked the European Week for Health and Safety at work, where businesses of all sizes were urged to find out more about risk prevention.

Whether it’s a large or small business you work in, it pays to be aware of health and safety issues. Martin Halloran, CEO of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) spoke to TheJournal.ie about health and safety in Irish businesses.

Ireland

Every year, more than 5,000 people lose their lives in the EU as a result of accidents in the workplace, according to Eurostat. “By and large, the performance in Ireland is very good in the European context,” said Halloran. “We still have an issue where this year to date we have had 35 people killed in workplace accidents. Last year we had over 50 people killed in workplace accidents.”

It’s quite significant. Ireland does perform well but we have to think of the tragedy, the human suffering and trauma. Overall the level of awareness in Ireland is very high.

The level of awareness varies between industries, but there are still behaviours where people can be subject to various accidents, said Halloran. The important thing is translating this awareness into behaviour change.

A growing awareness in the construction sector, for example, led to a drop in workplace deaths from the high numbers of the 1990s.

People should not die in the workplace. Any person is entitled to go to work, do their work and return home safely.

However, Halloran does say that when inspectors go out, they do see slippage in the workplace due to the recession. “They would see that many companies are struggling to survive. But the approach our inspectors take when they visit the company is advisory, to assist and support.” He said that as long as business are willing to do right thing, then the HAS doesn’t have to use enforcement.

In an extremely dangerous situation, the HAS has the power to close the business down. But “by and large” they seek voluntary compliance.

What are the most dangerous industries?

Agriculture and construction are two of the most dangerous industries to work in – but just as they are dangerous, there is a growing awareness of health and safety too.

In agriculture, one of the most common issues is an unguarded PTO, a power shaft that connects the tractor to other machinery. People have become entangled in this, leading to deaths and amputations. Unfenced areas where there are animals such as bulls are problematic. There are also situations where machinery is not maintained or there is poor housekeeping on a construction site.

With regard to offices, they are by and large safe environments, but there can be issues with quite common things like slips, trips and falls, torn carpets and slippery floors. One very dangerous area for people is work-related vehicle safety – such as when using forklifts.

Areas of concern

Current areas of concern include the waste sector, which has become privatised after being looked after by local authorities. Because of some issues including ones surrounding staff riding on the back of the vehicles, the HSA has begun working with the waste community.

Another area is the new technology of alternative energy sources wind sources, so they have engaged with wind energy companies on this. Issues include working at heights, extreme environments, scale, lone working, and more.  There are always new and emerging risks in different sectors, said Halloran.

Sometimes, they receive complaints from staff who don’t feel their employer is listening to them or addressing their needs.

We actively encourage managers and employers to consult with staff. Staff by and large have a very good sense and understanding of risk in workplaces. There is a legal obligation on employers to consult with them. It is the right thing to do and they can learn a lot.

What can the HSA do?

If there is a very serious situation, the HSA inspector can immediately require shutting down the place of work. The HSA has very significant power and can very quickly seek a High Court order to shut down the workplace.

A prohibition notice is where the process/activity or part of the workplace has to be stopped until a correction is taken. Out of 13 – 14,000 inspections per month, the inspectors give verbal advice in 30 per cent of cases, give written warnings in 40 per cent, working on the basis of voluntary compliance; in 7 – 10 per cent they will issue formal legal notices; in 12 – 15,000 of those, about 7 per cent will be told there must be an improvement if work can continue.

With 30 per cent, or 4-500 a year, the actual process has to stop until the appropriate correction is taken. But only less than a handful have the place of work shut down, and often the employer will know themselves that this is needed, said Halloran. There are 30 – 40 criminal prosecution a year for breaches.

Have a health and safety concern?

The simple thing is to visit the HSA website, said Halloran. But he says that dialogue between employees and employers is incredibly important, so you could also take your concern to your manager. Find out more about the Health and Safety Authority by visiting the official website.

Read: Company fined after death of 3-year-old Louth boy>

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