Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Health and Safety Authority: Chairperson-Designate
I remind members, visitors and the people in the Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off or in flight mode for the duration of this meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even when they are on silent mode.
I welcome Mr. Tom Coughlan, who is the chairperson designate of the Health and Safety Authority. Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to state that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I ask Mr. Coughlan to make his opening remarks to the committee.
Mr. Tom Coughlan:
I thank the Chairman and the other members of the joint committee for giving me this opportunity to address the committee. It is a privilege and an honour for me to be here as chairperson-designate of the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. I welcome the invitation because my appointment as chairperson would give me an opportunity to continue to make a high-level contribution to the public sector and to use the skills and experience I have gained during 40 years of public service in local government.
I understand it is customary on these occasions to give some personal background information. I am from Mulranny in west Mayo. I am married to Ruth and we have two sons. We have lived in Ennis for 22 years, having relocated from Galway in 1995. I commenced my career in local government as a temporary clerical officer. Having served at all administrative and managerial levels, I was appointed as chief executive of Clare County Council in 2009. As chief executive of a large local authority, I gained extensive senior-level practical experience in developing and implementing strategy, change management and partnership and stakeholder engagement and significant experience of governance at executive and political levels. I possess State board experience, having been appointed to the board of the Shannon Airport Authority in May 2013. I was subsequently appointed to the board of Shannon Group plc on its incorporation in August 2014. I continue to serve as a non-executive director of the group.
When I applied to the Public Appointments Service to be considered for the position of chairperson of the HSA, I considered that I met the requirements of the person specification as advertised. I applied for the position on the basis of my genuine belief in the importance of the role and objectives of the HSA. The principal objectives of the HSA are to ensure workers in Ireland, and people affected by work, return home safely to their families and everyone is protected from the harmful effects of chemicals. As the former chief executive of a multifunctional authority which employed over 1,000 indoor and outdoor, technical and administrative workers, I appreciate the importance of achieving such objectives. Responsibility for occupational safety and health and chemicals policy has been formally delegated to the Minister of State with responsibility for employment and small business, Deputy Breen. I understand the Minister of State met members of the board of the HSA in recent months and has been closely involved in promoting a range of safety initiatives targeted at high-risk sectors. I expect to meet the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, very soon.
Like many public bodies, the HSA has seen a reduction in its financial and human resources over the past eight years. Specialist technical expertise levels are less than those required. It is important for the HSA to be empowered to rebuild its capacity and capability. I welcome the increase provided in the HSA's 2017 budget for extra payroll funding. I welcome the non-pay funding that has been allocated specifically for Brexit-related purposes. It is unlikely that Brexit will have any medium-term impact on the regulation of occupational safety and health at EU level or in Ireland. However, potentially significant impacts may arise with regard to chemical regulations and aspects of chemicals policy which are essential to the continued operation of many Irish and foreign direct investment enterprises. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the economy. They need simple tools and guidance to help them to manage workplace safety and health. In recent years, the HSA has invested significant resources to enable enterprises to achieve compliance in the simplest and most cost-effective manner. A culture of health and safety compliance contributes positively towards national competitiveness by reducing the costs of workplace injury and illness. Balanced and proportionate regulation acts as an aid to ensuring there is an even playing field in competitive areas.
The HSA's strategy for the period from 2016 to 2018 refers specifically to work-related health and the promotion of well-being and positive mental health. The HSA is working with the Department of Health and other bodies to ensure workplaces in Ireland protect the health and well-being of employees and, furthermore, encourage people to improve their own health and well-being. Sadly, there were 45 work-related deaths in 2016. The highest number of fatalities - 21 - was in the agriculture sector. As I come from a rural background in the west of Ireland, I appreciate the impact of farm fatalities on communities and accept that agriculture is a major challenge for the HSA. I understand the HSA, in conjunction with the farm safety partnership advisory committee, has sought to broaden the type of contact the HSA has with farmers and to find the most effective means of spreading the message of prevention within the farming community. The upturn in the construction sector will also pose a continuing challenge.
I understand that the HSA plans to increase the level of construction inspections based on the risk profile of the sector in its 2017 work programme.
The HSA's remit is broad, spanning more than 200 Acts, regulations and conventions. The authority seeks legal compliance through motivating, influencing, promotion, information, education, inspection and enforcement. Its vision is "healthy, safe and productive lives". Achieving that vision, particularly in the context of such a broad remit, is a significant challenge. I trust that committee members will appreciate that I have not as yet attended a board meeting of the HSA or had the opportunity to explore in depth the issues relating to the authority. However, on the basis of the briefings that I have received to date, I am fortunate that the most recent chairman, Mr. Michael Horgan, and his board, the previous chairpersons and boards, the chief executive and his team have established and maintained an organisation that is capable of achieving that vision. I look forward to chairing the board of the authority and playing my part in achieving that vision so as to ensure that workers return home safely to their families.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to meet it today.
I approached Mr. Coughlan to make my apologies to him personally. I must attend a debate on a Bill in the Seanad. I thank Mr. Coughlan for his presentation. The role that he is taking on is an important and serious one and I wish him well. The well-being and safety of workers are of paramount importance to us all.
I noted Mr. Coughlan's mention of agriculture, in which regard much remains to be done to protect people, especially young people, from the dangers associated with the fact that they just so happen to be domiciled in businesses run by their parents and families. I apologise for being unable to stay for longer.
I am in the same boat, in that I must attend the debate on the Companies (Amendment) Bill. I wish Mr. Coughlan well. He has a comprehensive CV from what I read of it and he seems suited to the job. I have no doubt from listening to him that he intends to make the role his own. He will be instrumental. It is great to hear that he comes from a farming background. Besides deaths, a number of serious injuries caused by farm accidents are never reported. This problem was one of Mr. Coughlan's main points.
I wish Mr. Coughlan the best of luck with his work. Undoubtedly, he will be a great success.
I thank Mr. Coughlan for his presentation and wish him well in his position. I have a particular interest in this matter, as it was prominent in my role as a trade union official. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts of the 1990s were some of the best legislation ever passed, but the problem then seemed to be that people could have the best legislation possible just so long as there were no inspections. In my years there, the number of inspections was insufficient to meet the level of need. It is unfair to ask this of Mr. Coughlan before he starts, but what are his views on the resource issue as it affects inspections? What assurance can he give us of a substantial increase in resources?
Mr. Tom Coughlan:
I thank the Senator. I noted his reference to a trade union background. He will be familiar with the fact that the HSA's board is tripartite, in that it is representative of employers, employees and the Minister. That works well and is to be welcomed.
Regarding resources, there were 10,400 inspections in 2016 and I understand that there will be an increase in resources in 2017, although I have not yet had a chance to examine that matter in depth. Before being briefed on the HSA, I did not realise how important a certain element was. While the authority has a reactive enforcement role in terms of inspections following incidents, the bulk of its inspections are carried out on an advisory basis. According to the statistics on the outcomes of inspections, 41% resulted in written advice, 48% resulted in verbal advice and 11% resulted in enforcement. The role of inspections - not just in terms of enforcement, but also advice - is critical for health and safety. Resources have become available and additional inspectors are being recruited, which is a good sign. At budget time, I hope that it will be possible for Oireachtas Members to increase the HSA's level of resources.
I thank Mr. Coughlan for attending. I congratulate him and wish him well in his post.
In County Limerick, which neighbours the county for which Mr. Coughlan was county manager, agricultural safety is a major issue. Construction safety is also an issue according to his presentation. That industry is beginning to expand again. From my own campaigning, though, I have picked up on issues relating to mental health in the workplace. I will offer a suggestion for future consideration. Agriculture and construction are male-oriented industries, in that most of their workers are male. Men find it challenging to discuss mental health issues and express their views. Unfortunately, this is apparent in some of the figures on a number of tragedies in recent years.
While we are all trying to promote positive well-being and mental health through education, more could be done in the workplace, especially as regards male-oriented work. I understand that females also work in those industries, but the workers are predominantly male. An initiative or vision should be put in place in the coming years to identify trends and communicate about mental health well-being to these people through their work. Whatever help Mr. Coughlan requires from our side, I would be more than willing to give it. It is time that we be more innovative on this matter. Our intentions are always in the right place, but finding innovative solutions is difficult. Now that the issue has been mentioned, mental health is coming more to the fore commercially with a view towards saving on sick days and the like because of stress. We could have a double whammy and educate people on health and safety through the workplace.
Mr. Tom Coughlan:
Yes. I thank the Deputy for his questions and I understand his point. One of the HSA's strategic priorities between 2016 and 2018 is to focus on work-related health risks. It is only when one delves into the detail of the role of the HSA that one realises that it is not all about safety inspections and the physical environment in which people work. It is easy to recognise physical risks, but the HSA also has responsibility for the health element. As the Deputy said, it is more difficult to identify non-physical risks in the workplace, for example, risks to mental health. Health and work-related health risks will form a strategic priority and focus for the HSA. Much of the work that has to be done in that space must be done through partnerships and engaging with stakeholders.
The Deputy mentioned the HSE. There are a number of stakeholders and partners.
For example, a range of partners are involved in the farm safety advisory group and that is the way the Health and Safety Authority will have to work in the future. It will have to create alliances and work with stakeholders, because these are not just problems for the Health and Safety Authority. They are also problems for the farm community and the construction sector. I said that one of the valuable lessons I learned in local government, particularly as chief executive, was the importance of working in partnership with different agencies, bodies and organisations and that will be my focus in my term in the HSA.
I welcome Mr. Coughlan and thank him for his presentation and his input to our session. It is refreshing to hear how he intends to approach the job. Is this the biggest organisation of which he has been chairperson? His CV shows that he has been on a number of boards over the years. Why did he apply for this post? Did it particularly interest him or was it just because it was available and suited his skills set?
Can Mr. Coughlan take us through the process? He said it was advertised through the Public Appointments Service. How many, if any, interviews did he have? Can he tell us what he hopes to achieve in his term as chairperson? I am not asking him to predict the future but what are his key goals? I wish him well in the post.
Mr. Tom Coughlan:
It is the biggest organisation of which I have been chair but I have been chief executive of Clare County Council, which has 1,000 employees and is a multifunctional organisation with a significant budget. I also have a background in corporate governance and have qualifications in that subject.
I applied for the position having retired about a year ago, after 40 years in local government. I felt, however, that I was too young to fully retire and that I had more to give. I had a knowledge of the public sector, which I could continue to use in order to make a contribution, and I was very interested in taking up either a board position or a chair position which would allow me to do that. When I was appointed as chief executive of Clare County Council, one of my priorities was health and safety and I embedded health and safety into the organisation. There was a particular reason for doing that and Clare County Council won the national award during my term for health and safety in a local authority. I integrated health and safety into performance monitoring and development so health and safety was an area in which I was particularly interested. When the chair and board positions were advertised, I applied because I had a genuine interest in the area.
The position was advertised and I had to submit a CV. I had to make a comprehensive submission on how I met the requirements of the position. I had also to say why I felt I would be a good chair of the Health and Safety Authority and my background knowledge of health and safety, my corporate governance knowledge, my managerial knowledge and my change management knowledge were included in the covering letter I submitted with my CV. I applied to the Public Appointments Service and went through its process, to which I am not a party and on which I cannot, therefore, comment. I was, however, delighted to be advised by the Department that I had been recommended as chair.
Mr. Tom Coughlan:
This may change when I learn more about the role but I have already stressed the importance of engaging with stakeholders. The Health and Safety Authority is a very efficient, well-run organisation. In one way it stands alone, at arm's length from the Department, and I hope it will continue to operate efficiently. I hope the organisation will continue to be adaptable and can change according to external circumstances. Strategic priorities have been set for 2016-18, one of which concerns work-related health risks, and I hope the HSA will concentrate on that area. Safety chemicals accreditation is another area, as is changing the organisation as necessary to make sure it is fit for purpose. I hope that at the end of my term the HSA will be recognised, nationally and internationally, as best in class. I cannot do that on my own and will have to do it with the executive and fellow board members, with the Department and with all other stakeholders.
I wish Mr. Coughlan all the best for the future and hope he does well in his job. If he makes the HSA best in class, it should mean there will be fewer fatalities and accidents, which would be very welcome. I commend him on his reference to positive mental health, an area to which the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, referred in the last presentation. It is important that we focus on that issue in the workplace. He recognised the fact that the construction industry will pose a challenge because of the good things it will be doing in the future in the area of infrastructure and building houses. He said there will be an increase in inspections in this area so we will see how we get on with them. I wish him the best of luck for the future.
I add my voice to that. I see the vision of the authority as focusing on healthy, safe and productive lives. Mr Coughlan said he would play his part to achieve that vision so as to ensure that workers returned home safely to their families every day. This is something we can all aspire to because 45 work-related deaths in 2016 means that 45 families were destroyed. In the next few years we are, hopefully, going to see a glut of young apprentices in the construction industry and in farming and health and safety are very important. We have come through a period of rogue builders and it is very important for any parent who sends a child out to do an apprenticeship that the health and safety checks are in place.
On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Coughlan for coming here to engage with us today. I wish him success in this role and we look forward to meeting with him again in the future. The clerk to the committee will write to the Minister informing her that we have completed our engagement with Mr. Coughlan and a transcript of this meeting will be provided.