Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 19 May 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Briefing by ICTU, HSA and CIF Representatives on the Reopening of the Construction Industry
We have a quorum and will recommence in public session unless there is anything members wish to discuss in private.
I welcome our witnesses and thank them for coming here today. From the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, we are joined by Patricia King, general secretary; Dr. Sharon McGuinness, CEO of the Health and Safety Authority will join us by video link from committee room 1; and we will also be joined by Mr. Tom Parlon of the Construction Industry Federation, director general. I understand Ms King and Mr. Parlon will join us shortly in the Chamber.
We are working under tight time constraints and I am aware Dr. McGuinness cannot see the time slots from the committee room. We are working to remedy that before next week's meeting. We will indicate whether slots are five or ten minutes and she can perhaps keep track of it on her phone if that might be of assistance. I am just letting her know in case I have to cut across her to ensure there is sufficient time for everybody to ask questions.
Deputy Duffy is substituting for Deputy Smyth. We were not informed of that in advance but it is okay as it is the start of this session.
I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings, namely, the State's response to Covid-19, is to be given. They are 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.
While we expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and with candour, witnesses can and should expect to be treated fairly, with respect and consideration at all times. If they have concerns with regard to their treatment, they should bring them to the attention of the committee immediately and they will be considered.
I ask witnesses to limit their opening statements to five minutes. We have received their statements in advance. I call on Ms Patricia King, general secretary, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, to make her opening statement.
Ms Patricia King:
I thank the committee for its invitation to present to it this afternoon.
As this pandemic began to emerge globally, as well as in the early weeks when the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Ireland and public health measures were advised, ICTU notified the Government through the labour employer economic forum, LEEF, of its intention to put forward proposals to ensure the health and safety of all workers in all workplaces. ICTU based its submission on the principle that the safety, health and well-being of every person is paramount, and therefore supersedes all others. We also took the view that all public health advice should be adhered to without exception. During the course of our interactions in the LEEF process, we advocated a mandatory national protocol be developed which would encompass a set of directive actions to which every employer, worker, contractor, customer and client had an absolute duty to strictly adhere in order to maintain safe workplaces.
We set out a number of key principles which we believed were crucial to the delivery of a mandatory protocol capable of ensuring safe workplaces upon a return to work. Those principles included worker representation; training; negotiated or agreed changes to work practices; mandatory compliance with all the listed health and safety provisions with no opt-outs; and the assignment to the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, of the responsibility to oversee the implementation of all aspects of the national protocol, including the use of its powers to inspect and order the closure of workplaces where appropriate.
On workplace representation, we submitted that a workplace worker representative infrastructure be put in place across all sectors and in every workplace. The primary purpose of this measure was to ensure that workers could be confident that their voice would be heard, that the provisions of the protocol would be strictly adhered to, as well as allowing such a representative or representatives to liaise directly with the HSA inspectorate. This measure was essential given that, outside of Statutory Instrument 146, which deals with some individual representative trade union rights, there are no provisions in Irish law which specify the right of workers to be represented. Section 25 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 sets out the provisions relating to such workplace representatives. However, it confers no obligation for the appointment of such representatives. It should also be noted that in SI 291/2013, Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Construction) Regulations 2013, section 23(1)(b) provides that "the project supervisor for the construction stage shall facilitate ... where more than 20 persons are normally employed at any one time on a construction site at any stage of the project, the appointment of a site safety representative from among the employees of the contractor or contractors undertaking the project in accordance with the procedure outlined in Schedule 6." The national protocol now commits to each workplace having such a role. The inclusion of provisions for induction training for all workers and training of workplace representatives on their role and function, together with specialised training in the proper use of cleaning, storing and disposal of personal protective equipment, PPE, are in our view critical to the operation of the protocol.
It is agreed within the protocol terms that any changes to workplace policies or work patterns will be agreed through negotiations with trade unions or worker representatives. The protocol is intended to be universal but does not replace existing obligations under current health and safety legislation, nor does it prevent the development of further specific measures in a particular sector, industries or companies, provided they reflect the principles of the protocol.
The document outlines in a detailed way all of the safety measures required to be put in place and implemented. This virus is very active and can cause serious personal injury to a worker who may contract it. These measures, therefore, seek to mitigate the risk to workers and are vital to maintaining safe workplaces.
This not a set of discretionary guidelines but a suite of mandatory directive actions with no exceptions or opt-outs.
Chairman, it is not my intention to refer in detail to the health and safety provisions set out in the document, as I am sure the committee is very familiar with them. However, I am satisfied that all of the necessary expert advice from the relevant State agencies was sought and utilised in the final output. ICTU advocated strongly that all of the necessary measures, under each safety heading, should be specified in the interests of clarity and compliance.
On the matter of compliance and enforcement, the HSA, which is the statutory body charged with ensuring the safety, health and welfare of workers is protected in the workplace, has been assigned responsibility for the implementation of all aspects of this national protocol, including being available to advise and train worker representatives. It will also have the powers to inspect workplaces and order their closure when appropriate. This is reflected in the broad range of functions assigned to the authority by section 34 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, including functions to encompass the prevention of danger to workers from the spread of infectious disease. Section 35(1) of the Act empowers the Minister to confer additional functions on the authority, which are connected with the functions prescribed in section 34 of the Act. For the avoidance of doubt, in our view the Minister should exercise her power under section 35(1) to expressly assign to the authority a function to promote, foster and enforce compliance with the provisions of this protocol. We hope the committee will consider making a recommendation in this regard.
Inspectors of the authority have extensive powers of enforcement, including the power to serve-----
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend. I am the CEO of the HSA.
The Return to Work Safely Protocol was developed by all those who have an interest and role in ensuring workers are kept safe, businesses can operate and the public health measures around Covid-19 can be met. In this regard I acknowledge the support of all the stakeholders involved, including ICTU and CIF that are here today as well as IBEC, Chambers Ireland, the HSE, the Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Health and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
Covid-19 has challenged us all. The authority recognises that there are particular challenges in the workplace. We have the worker who has fears and anxieties about returning to work. We also have employers and businesses that are looking to reopen, regain their markets and plan for a future that may seem uncertain. The key to a safe return to work over the next number of weeks is shared collaboration, communication and compliance with and enforcement of the measures outlined in the protocol, which sets out in detail the steps businesses, employers and workers need to implement in order to reduce the risk from Covid-19 in the workplace. By following the protocol, employers and workers will be able to meet these challenges and ensure a safe working and business environment.
The authority will be involved in ensuring compliance, in line with occupational health and safety requirements. Through the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 the authority has the powers to advise, monitor, inspect and enforce adherence to the protocol. We will provide advice and support to employers, employees and workers on how they are implementing the Covid-19 measures as set out in the protocol through our helpline, website and during site inspections. A range of checklists and templates has been developed and is available on our website for use by employers, workers and worker representatives. Further material is being developed.
During a site inspection a range of enforcement actions can arise. For example, the inspector can address and advise on any shortcomings in relation to the measures through a report of inspection, which is left with the employer at the end of the visit and can include timelines and follow-ups that are needed. We can also take an appropriate action under the 2005 Act, including an improvement notice and a prohibition notice. Furthermore, if, following an inspection, the inspector forms the opinion that the risk to the safety, health and welfare of persons is so serious that the use of a place of work should be restricted or immediately prohibited, an application can be made ex parteto the High Court for an order restricting or prohibiting the use of the place of work or part thereof.
The authority has been Ireland's regulator of occupational health and safety since 1989. In normal circumstances, we implement a risk-based occupational health and safety inspection programme across all sectors covering some 10,000 inspections and investigations in any given year. The programme is based on both proactive and reactive inspections with the latter often arising from complaints, reports of serious incidents and fatalities.
Our inspection programme has been refocused now to oversee compliance with the protocol. In the first instance, the prioritisation of inspections will be focused on those sectors that are scheduled to open in line with the road map and based on any complaints received.
Any worker or employer can submit a query or a complaint to the authority’s helpline, the workplace contact unit, WCU, with the attached details. This helpline is confidential and every contact, whether a query or a complaint, is acknowledged and receives a reference number for tracking. Each complaint is initially followed up with the relevant company or employer by the WCU, our helpline, and if there is no response, or if the response is not satisfactory or in the event of receipt of multiple complaints, etc., we will follow up with the employer through an inspector. The inspector may then decide to do an unannounced inspection or, indeed, a pre-arranged inspection if warranted.
As a general rule, our inspections are unannounced. However, due to the fact that workplaces may have different working arrangements in place to protect against Covid-19, we recognise that in a number of cases, and we expect very few cases, that we will need to arrange a suitable time to visit. Once on site, we will ensure compliance against the protocol and where there is a breach of a statutory obligation the inspector, based on his or her evidence and expert opinion, will determine what enforcement action may be needed.
In terms of staff numbers, the authority has a full staff complement of 182 which is made up of staff in administration and inspector grades. The inspector grades comprise of grade I, which are senior inspectors who run teams, as well as grade II and grade III field inspectors. Generally, our inspectors cover field inspections across all our mandates. We have occupational health and safety, chemicals, and market surveillance of products. Inspectors can be involved in general or specialist inspection, or policy implementation at national, European, and international levels. Of the 109 inspectors currently in the authority across all three grades, we have 67 field inspectors fully assigned to inspect on foot of the protocol. These include both general and specialist, as well as policy inspectors reassigned to field inspection.
A cohort of inspectors must be retained to ensure our other legal mandate. As Ms King said, the general rules on health and safety continue to apply. We continue to have that role in terms of reactive and proactive inspections.
Mr. Tom Parlon:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to talk to the committee today.
Yesterday, the construction industry reopened partially. Workers returned to sites and jobs that are utterly changed due to Covid-19 and the new measures that have been put in place to protect them, their families and our communities. They are literally building the new normal the Government said we will enter in the coming months.
Since the Government shut down our industry on 28 March, construction companies and workers have been preparing to return to work safely. In terms of safety, our industry is recognised as one that is well-developed. That other countries facing similar lock-downs did not include construction is a recognition of the safety culture baked into modern construction. In Ireland, our preparation has involved extensive consultation with unions, Government, and international experts. The CIF's standard operating procedure, SOP, translates the latest HSE, WHO and medical advice into a construction context. The SOP fits into the national protocol agreed between Government, industry and unions and enforced by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. Today just over 130,000 out of a total of 147,000 employees have completed the SOP’s online safety induction in advance of returning to work. Not all of these are traditional on-site construction workers, it includes office-based professionals, engineers, design teams, architect, etc.
I would like to commend the industry’s companies and its employees for their commitment to safety. These workers are rebuilding our economy while they are building. Homes, roads, hospitals, schools, and other essential construction has begun again. Our industry is also well placed to contribute to economic recovery as we enable other sectors to operate. We are able to recommence work without major State support and 100,000 of our employees can now gradually be taken off the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS.
I want to assure people that companies are being sensible and practical in returning to work. There was no big bang return to work yesterday. Larger contractors allowed a reduced workforce on site yesterday to assess sites, test new measures, and embed new protocols in safety culture. It will take months for the industry to reach previous output levels.
Covid-19 compliance officers have been appointed and are monitoring progress. Under the national protocol agreed with the Government and Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, workers representatives are also being appointed. The important message we have all been sending to workers is that if they are unsure about safety they can inform these representatives so any issue can be addressed.
All the SOPs and national protocols are important guidance and can help shape behaviours but I am confident our workers will also step up and operate safely.
The SOP provides guidance, based on the HSA advice, not just on site but on the way to site and on the way home. For example, we have provided best-in-class guidance on travelling in vans on the way to work. We are asking that PPE is taken off and left on site. Larger companies are putting in place one-way walking systems and have reduced headcount on site. We have very clear isolation protocols for anyone reporting symptoms and we will now keep logs of work to assist contact tracing.
Those companies that have been able to operate over the past month working on essential services have been operating new safety measures. Reports are positive but implementation of the SOP is challenging and companies are reporting a significant drop in productivity.
It is understandable that the public is afraid. The pandemic has shut down our society but it has also paralysed us. We now know that we must restart our economy in a manner that prevents the spread of the virus or we face horrific long-term economic, social, and psychological consequences. I want to assure the public that we are taking the responsibility that falls on the construction industry very seriously. Our workers want to work but want to contribute to stopping the spread.
They are also building a sustainable and safe future for Ireland, helping us recover from the impact of this pandemic. I would appeal to members of the public, the media and our politicians to support us and our workers as we take these first steps towards reopening our economy and society for everyone. I thank the Chairman.
I am glad to see Dr. McGuinness and Ms King here and they are very welcome. Mr. Tom Parlon has not lost the knack of slipping into the Government benches so easily, although it is a different kind of combination of Government we have across from us. It would be challenging, I am sure.
Yes. Mr. Parlon is very welcome, anyway. The different actions that have been taken on the various sites will have incurred much cost to the builder or the contractor. How is that going to be covered? Given what Ms King is asking for and what Dr. McGuinness will be overseeing, it is clear to me that there is going to be a huge amount of cost. In terms of the CIF and the contracts that it knows of, can Mr. Parlon tell us what the impact will be on the contracts? If one has entered into a contract, how can this be catered for?
Mr. Parlon deals with the bigger contractors but who represent the smaller contractors? Does Mr. Parlon have a direct line to them beyond his membership and is he exercising that in order to make sure that they are protected and that their employees are protected? Can Mr. Parlon comment on that, please?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
It is the case that there are going to be increased costs. Different people have attempted to put a figure on that. I regularly talk to my colleagues across Europe and their view, and that represents the entire industry across Europe, is that the extra costs will be between 5% and 10%. I spoke this morning to a very substantial house builder in Ireland and he reckons that the cost per house that he is turning out at the moment will be increased by between €10,000 and 15,000. He expects that the cost in respect of apartments, which are obviously more intense and where it is more difficult to practice physical distancing, could be as much as €20,000 extra. He tells me that the programme for building a house currently is about 15 weeks and he estimates that with new physical distancing and so on that will go to 25 weeks. There are some more intense sites that could be substantially more than that.
Currently, the Office of Government Procurement is examining that. It issued a guidance note last week. We in the CIF were disappointed to find that it only applied to the extra expenses that we have to incur in terms of coping with the new national protocol but we are expecting a new note, maybe this week, that is going to look at how the extra costs are going to be dealt with in the public sector. However, in the private sector, one has to negotiate one's own terms.
I can assume from that that there will be an extra cost, particularly in State contracts, and that is not resolved as yet. A formula must be found to agree this with Government but we can expect something in the region of 5% to 10% or maybe more, depending on the nature of the site. Is that correct?
Does the HSA have the required number of inspectors to visit sites without notification and in the proper protective equipment? Is the legislation robust enough to deal with Covid-19 and what might be found on sites? When is the HSA going to commence inspections - not planned inspections, but random ones?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
As I said, we have assigned 67 field inspectors with immediate effect and they have already been out this week enforcing the protocol and checking compliance with it. It has been recognised by the Government that the HSA did not have sufficient resources and that we would need additional resources to oversee compliance with the protocol. We have therefore been in discussions with others across the Government. I am confident that the resources the authority needs will be fully there to oversee compliance with the protocol, drawing from other Departments as-----
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
The intention is to use existing inspection structures across the different Departments and the HSA to oversee compliance with the protocol, so in a way the cost relates only to the specific actions people are taking. Those discussions are quite advanced and we are hoping to have that signed off very shortly. We will roll those additional resources out as needed over the course of the road map, including reallocating our own inspectors on a rolling basis if and when they are needed.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
As an employer, I am responsible for the staff of the authority, as is every other person who is an employer. We are clearly acting in line with public health advice and guidance. We are also the market surveillance authority for PPE regulation and we have been working very hard to ensure a constant supply of suitable and proper PPE across the board throughout these last few weeks. The need for PPE depends on the situation and the protocol is clear that PPE is used depending on the hazard involved. One may not need it on the first basis but it is something we look at.
As regards the requirements of protecting those on sites and the different grades of workers, is Ms King satisfied that there has been a proactive response from the construction industry and the HSA? Does Ms King see weaknesses in that response, even at this stage, and what would she like to see improved?
Ms Patricia King:
Only 67 HSA inspectors is not adequate at all. There is a resource issue. 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.
I must cut across Ms King because my time is up. What protections and supports are in place for small builders and contractors? I put the same question to Mr. Parlon. Are the witnesses satisfied with those protections? Does Mr. Parlon represent those contractors?
Ms Patricia King:
As employers under the legislation, contractors have a duty and an obligation to protect their staff. If they are in operation as an employer and are employing people, they must make sure the workplace is safe. The HSA is there to advise and support them but by the same token, the staff are entitled to go to a safe workplace and ensure everything that should happen does. As I said in my presentation, this is a virulent virus.
It does not make exceptions whether one is a small or a big employer. All of the measures have to be put in place.
I am taking time from Deputy Pearse Doherty so I will have ten minutes. I welcome our witnesses and commend them on the work they are doing, and for the collaborative effort of the CIF, the trade union movement, the HSA and others to get the protocols in place in the first instance. That needs to be noted and the people involved should be commended on it.
We all accept that there is a desire from sections of society to go back to work and have restrictions eased. Equally, there is a balance to be struck because people want to be made safe and protected. My questions are about process and making sure that we have a plan in place to protect workers. Obviously, we want the economy to reopen but it has to be done in a safe way.
My first questions are for Dr. McGuinness. I presume she would accept that a plan needs to be put in place. Protocols can exist but will be irrelevant if there are not the resources and capacity to enforce them, so enforcement is key. Any plan needs to be resourced from human and financial perspectives. On the human side of it, Dr. McGuinness said that 67 field inspectors have been assigned to deal with this protocol. I presume that is across a whole layer of businesses and not just construction as the economy starts to reopen.
Ms King said that 67 inspectors is totally inadequate and I agree. We spoke on the phone about this earlier in the week. Dr. McGuinness said that additional resources may be made available, although those may not be financial resources. Is she talking about assigning more inspectors or people from different organisations being assigned to the HSA? Are those 67 inspectors adequate? When, and how, will more become available? What is the regional breakdown for those inspectors? Is it done centrally or broken down regionally?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
Good afternoon Deputy. It is broken down both regionally and in specialist teams. We have a number of different regional teams, two based in the Dublin and eastern region and others in the west, south east and south west. There are specialist teams across the county doing particular elements.
That does not strike me as adequate. Dr. McGuinness said there are two teams in Dublin and other regional teams. When one starts to break down the figure of 67, it does not appear to be anywhere near enough.
Can Dr. McGuinness move on to the next question I asked? She said that the number of 67 inspectors will be increased. How will it be increased? Will it be through additional resources or staff coming from elsewhere? What number of inspectors does she anticipate the HSA will get to?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
As I said, I am confident that the resources we need will be given to us. We will be drawing from departments such as environmental health in the HSE.
Surely the HSA has a plan. Dr. McGuinness is saying that she is confident the HSA will get additional resources. Does she, as the CEO, know what additional resources will come and in what number? As I said earlier, plans need to be in place and resourced. We saw what happened in meat factories and nursing homes where plans were not in place. Rather than saying that the HSA will, or may, get additional resources, surely Dr. McGuinness has an idea as to how many additional inspectors she will have at her disposal when those additional resources arrive. She must have a number in mind.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
We are working through that final number and I would prefer not to give an exact number because we are still in discussions. We have a range of protocols working to ensure that support is put in place to ensure full oversight and compliance with the protocol.
The challenge is that we are reopening the road map, as the Deputy said, on a staged basis. We are on day two and we have already been out and have done over 80 unannounced inspections. We are confident that we can get to them. In a general sense in any given year we do 10,000 inspections, even with that number.
I have 28 seconds left. It is unacceptable that we cannot have the number here. 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. We heard from the leader of ICTU, who does not believe the capacity is there. Even today, Dr. McGuinness is not in a position to tell this committee how many additional inspectors the HSA will have over the next number of weeks. We have to bear in mind that more businesses will be open as the second, third, fourth and fifth phases kick in. I want to note a concern. It is unacceptable that we do not have the numbers. The main point I will make, and I will finish on this, is that-----
I thought the time was flying. The clock let me down. I will return to the point I made to Dr. McGuinness. I am concerned about the numbers and the fact that we do not have a number from her today in terms of the increase.
Ms King, in response to Deputy McGuinness, said that she felt 67 inspectors were inadequate. Has she made any representations in terms of how we can beef up those numbers? The trade union movement and trade unions have expertise, such as the people in Ms King's organisation who have experience in health and safety. Could they help in this emergency situation? Notwithstanding the HR issues that might arise, is there the possibility of reassignments from other areas into this area? Is Ms King in any way comforted by the fact that there are only 67 inspectors and we do not know what the number will increase to?
Ms Patricia King:
I thank the Deputy for the question. I take no comfort from the fact that only 67 inspectors are assigned because that will not do the job. The HSA has assigned a call centre to take complaints. The implementation programme will not be completed just by having a call centre. I want to make that exceptionally clear. It is part of an infrastructure, but it is not by any means the entire system.
The HSA inspectors are very professional people and we will need many more of them. There is an inspectorate across the country in various State agencies and Departments who have the role of inspecting workplaces. They cover agriculture, food, the environment, health and so on. All of those people have the title of inspector and duties and responsibility relating to different aspects. There may very well be some conversation that could be had, taking account of all the issues for those individuals in terms of any changes to their work and so on. Conversations about reassignment could take place while this pandemic is ongoing. We do not have any role, as such, other than the trade unions which represent those workers which have a role in terms of dealing with any change in work practices.
Something which is very tricky and difficult, but which is now coming to the fore, is the fact that in the workplace having the voice of workers heard without them feeling threatened or anything else is not covered under any law in this country.
I thank Ms King for her response. That is very helpful because if this committee has value then it should be making recommendations. We know there can be a reprofiling of people from elsewhere. People can be reassigned.
There could perhaps be use of the expertise of the trade union movement to beef up the inspectorate that is already in place with the HSA.
Can I just go back to Dr. McGuinness? Has Dr. McGuinness's organisation any remit in relation to meat factories?
Sorry, I find extraordinary the situation that we have in meat factories. Here is an example of one industry where we have a real problem. We are being told the HSA is the body that can go in, do the inspections and then put in place penalties or sanctions, and close businesses. The HSA has received complaints about meat factories where we know there were clusters and none of the authority's inspectors has been able to go in there. That does not instill any confidence in me in how Dr. McGuinness's organisation will respond to other queries.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
The challenge here is that Covid is a public health matter. The issue in meat plants has been very much directed by the public health element to get that under control and a range of guidance and advice has been involved there. We are being included in those discussions and arrangements are being made for inspections, as we speak. However, the primary responsibility was first and foremost to get those outbreaks under control in those workplaces so that it did not spread into the community and that is where we come in. We are now moving forward with those inspections.
I would like to continue with Dr. McGuinness. It is important that we tease out this point. My understanding of the point Dr. McGuinness was making is that this primarily was led on a health grounds intervention within the meat factory inspection process. Is it correct that the HSA was involved in that process but the reason that the inspection process per se did not take place is because it was being dealt with through the public health departments?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
That is the current situation. There is, as I said, a national outbreak control team led by the HSE.
There are actually 10,000. I know one can break figures down whichever way one wants, but there are approximately 10,000 inspections. Do I understand from what Dr. McGuinness was saying that, as an organisation, the HSA is in discussion with Government and that Dr. McGuinness is proactively looking to increase the capacity within the HSA to carry out inspections?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
Absolutely. I regret that I cannot give a number. Those discussions are ongoing and we hope that they will be fully informed by the end of this week. As I said, we are talking to all of the supports. Ms King mentioned several of the different agencies that already have inspections bodies. We are looking to those and the support is there. We are merely nailing down, I suppose, the final number so that we can inform people. There is the support and the commitment to working with us to ensure the compliance with the protocol.
I will ask one specific question on that. Is the HSA open - my understand is it is not - to re-employing recently retired inspectors as a priority as part of that process? Obviously, it is a highly-qualified job. There is a great deal of knowledge required to do it well. We are talking about people who are in a position to step back into a role. Is the HSA actively looking, as part of its negotiation with Government, to make sure there is an allowance to bring back recently retired people who might wish to work in this area?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
If that is an option, we would certainly look at that. In terms of the three areas, the workplace contact unit has been reassigned staff from other Departments already so that we are building up the capacity to take those complaints. Inspectors will be augmented by others across the board, and, indeed, as needed by external resources, but with the resources that the Government is committing to we should be adequately in a position to fully ensure the compliance with the protocol.
In light of both the way this country operates and the nature of the inspection process, I presume that the primary obligation to ensure a safe workplace is on the employer. We obviously need a robust inspection regime and I am glad to hear that the Health and Safety Authority is committed to strengthening that. However, we need to be conscious of the fact that the Return to Work Safely Protocol is designed to create a robust regime which employers, working with their employees, will honour. That is the cornerstone of safe workplaces. It is backed up by a robust inspection regime.
I would like to ask Mr. Tom Parlon about the construction industry. I accept the case concerning the larger active members of the CIF. Anecdotally, however, one hears that the larger operators are more likely to be have the resources and more able to operate accordingly. What is the industry doing to ensure that smaller sites throughout the country are actively involved? They are more difficult to inspect and less likely to follow all the obligations. Although they are not the CIF's core members, this represents a very major obligation because if they do not do this right they will shut this industry down again. What is the CIF doing to ensure that this happens?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
According to reports received up until lunchtime today, we have had dozens of Health and Safety Authority inspections. That agency has been very active on the ground. It has made quite robust inspections and has not encountered any major issues. Our standard operating procedure has been downloaded approximately 10,000 times. Every large and small contractor has taken that on board. It is their licence to get back to work. I mentioned that approximately 130,000 workers have completed the induction course throughout the length and breadth of the country. It is available in several languages, including Russian, Polish and Romanian. It is also available in Irish. More than 1% of our workers downloaded the induction as Gaeilge. The industry has really come together on this. I certainly would not accept the claim that smaller firms, the one-man or two-man family operations, are any less diligent than the big players.
I thank the witnesses for the briefing. It is fantastic that continuing professional development has been rolled out so quickly to workers across the construction sector. I applaud everyone involved. I work in the sector. It is great that this has happened and people can get back to work. I have several questions, some of which have already been answered. What is the metric for social distancing on sites? Is it a question of area per person? Is it similar to the 2 m radius? Who will implement and enforce on-site safety checks? Will there be a dedicated member of staff for this, apart from the usual health and safety officer who is there already? Will sites run on a 24-hour basis? If not, is there a possibility of redundancies and how will they play out? What are the Covid-19 protections for subcontractors on site? Are they similar to those for the main contractors? Lastly, will Government contracts be extended in light of this situation?
Ms Patricia King:
The Deputy raised two points. Social distancing is hugely important to ensuring that we are part of the defence against the virus. There are exceptional cases of what is described as "close working". In those circumstances PPE must be in place. Close working cannot happen otherwise. That is very clearly stated in the protocol. Members might notice that the protocol uses the word "must" - not "should" or anything else - and that is for a very good reason.
The second point is that the worker representation infrastructure on the ground is more than the health and safety representatives. They will play a role as well, but the idea behind it is that there would be a worker representative, alongside a management representative every day. They should be easily identifiable and they should be known to be the anti-Covid person. Their job is to go around and ensure that all the measures are being implemented, and they must do that two, three or four times a day if that is required. They should have regular audits, daily if necessary, but certainly twice weekly with senior management to ensure that people are satisfied that this is happening on the ground. The representatives must be afforded the respect and support of the employers and workers because they have a very key role. That is the point that I had in mind when we suggested this should happen. If that infrastructure is respected and it works, then we have a much better chance of ensuring that all those measures are in place on the ground. That was the overall objective of putting the system in place.
It is not just about having the stripes on the ground and the queueing pieces and so on; it is making sure the infrastructure is respected and works all day, every day to make sure that we give every workplace a chance to be safe.
Mr. Tom Parlon:
I do not find myself agreeing with ICTU very often, but I certainly agree in this case. The collaboration on this has been very strong. Physical distancing is a challenge. As those who have worked on sites know, it is tricky and, in some cases, it is quite difficult. The direction is that if there is a need for closer working that one should seek every opportunity to do it differently. That may be with the help of mechanical aids or by whatever other means but, as ICTU has said, if one must do that it is necessary to work while using the proper PPE.
Yesterday, both the Trade Union Federation and the Construction Industry Federation reached an agreement that will be signed tomorrow. BATU, Connect and SIPTU claim to represent 90% of the entire construction workforce. We have agreed all the terms. It is very much a collaboration. The union representative on site will be the eyes and ears of the workers. If they see a difficulty, they will bring it to the attention of the Covid supervisor and then it will be brought to the attention of management. If an issue cannot be resolved it will come to the attention of the trade unions and CIF. We have a facility in place where that can be worked out.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
As has been said already, the protocol does set out the process for employers and workers and the engagement with the worker representative in anything that happens on site. As I stated, that is key. As with compliance in any organisation, it is about getting it right on the ground. Collaboration and engagement in adopting the protocol in full in terms of the worker representative and employer duties is key.
Much work has gone into the protocol to make it a comprehensive document and it stands out among all the documents we have received from the various sectors as one that much work has gone into.
I will direct my first couple of questions to Dr. McGuinness. They relate to people who are looking to return to work but whose safe passes have expired. Is there any process in place for them to have their safe passes renewed or for those who want to apply for a new safe pass?
My next question is for Mr. Parlon. I wish to follow on from what Deputy McGuinness said about the extra costs for building a house or apartment. I know that sites can range from small or medium to big, but they are not necessarily the most complex of building projects. Mr. Parlon mentioned an increase in costs of between 5% and 10%.
With regard to more complex sites, such as the national children's hospital, how does Mr. Parlon estimate costs might shift on projects of that size and complexity? It has been well-documented that the cost of that project has increased from €400 million to €1.7 billion. A higher figure of €2.4 billion has been suggested. There is great concern about the cost of this project. Would those kinds of percentages apply in this case? Would they increase exponentially?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
Some sites are obviously more complex. The Deputy referred to one of them. The industry is building data centres, highly sophisticated pharmaceutical plants, IT plants and so on. The industry has suggested the extra cost to complete such projects while the very strict regime is in place could be as much as 40%. One of the big sites had 1,800 people on site. Under the new physical distancing measures, the maximum allowed will be 500 to 600. That will extend the period of building. The cost of having cranes and other facilities on site will increase. That will have to be worked out. We are striving-----
Mr. Tom Parlon:
-----for collaboration. I am in a group called the Construction Industry Council, which includes engineers, chartered engineers, surveyors, architects and so on. We have come out with a statement to say we should attempt to agree costs collaboratively, because there is a legal industry that lives off disputes. That will be the big challenge. We hope the Office of Government Procurement will take a lead role. If it gives guidance this week as to how it sees these measures affecting public sector projects, it would set a positive example for private sector projects.
We all expect to live with these measures for an extended period of time. To clarify, Mr. Parlon is saying that the cost of a large complex project such as the children's hospital could increase by 40% during the extended period in which we will be living with these measures.
That is astronomical. I believe that improvements could be made in our communications to smaller construction companies, particularly those involved in kitchen and bathroom fitouts. They may be able to go on to a new site in a housing development but they cannot go into someone's home to fit a new kitchen or bathroom. I am getting a number of representations about that. Improvement could be made and extra effort could be made in communicating with those workers. That would be very appreciated.
I have a question for Ms King about protecting workers who raise issues on sites. There is nothing there to protect such workers at the moment. Can any comfort be given to them at this time? Is there anything that could be brought forward to give them the confidence to call out health and safety failures if and when they see them?
Ms Patricia King:
We have put out our own material. In a sense one could call it promotional material. We are trying to reach out to those workers. Workers who are used to being in a trade union are familiar with the structures. They know where they need to go, they contact their officials and they have regular meetings. We are trying to reach out to workers who are not currently part of the trade union movement to tell them that the important thing is that workers are safe. Much of the conversation here today has been about construction. We are going to have much bigger problems in the next phase because, while there is a fair bit of trade union organisation on construction sites, there are other parts of the economy in which there is not and in which there is vigorous anti-trade union sentiment. We are going to meet much bigger problems as the economy opens.
I thank all the witnesses for their presentations. I will concentrate on the issue of construction workers on big sites because they must be regarded as very high-risk workers. They are different from any other category of worker in that, in the main, they do not have an employer. Many of them are self-employed sub-contractors. They do not necessarily have any representation from either of the bodies represented here. In fact, it has been suggested that more than half of them are not represented. They travel a lot; they come up from the country to work on the big sites in Dublin during the week. They stay in quite unsafe crowded lodgings during the week. They shop in local shops and mix in the community.
I note that little or no risk assessment has been done on the impact of large numbers of workers mixing in the community. A few weeks ago, a very large site in Santry in my constituency reopened illegally. It was brought to my attention by local people who contacted me to complain about large groups of construction workers in local shops buying breakfast, lunch etc. and not observing any of the rules at all. People were really concerned about the threat to the community. It is on two levels: there are the on-site risks and the local community risks. I am not satisfied that adequate risk assessment has been done on either front.
We know that guidelines and regulations tend to be meaningless without a robust inspection, enforcement and penalty regime. What is Ms King's view on the provision of penalties - fines in particular - in the protocol? Does she think these are effective? Should other measures be taken to improve the effectiveness of the penalty option to ensure adherence to the guidelines in the protocol?
Ms Patricia King:
The protocol is based on the terms of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. As we know the penalties in that are dealt with in sections 77 to 79. That is just on the penalties. The other piece is the power of the inspectors. The inspectors can go on site with powers that range from just doing an inspection and giving some advice right up to saying: "I'm seeing here a risk of serious personal injury and therefore that activity has to stop now and that means it has to be closed." The power that inspector has means that even if the employer wants to appeal that, the activity is still stopped while that appeal is being made. That is fairly robust power.
Ms Patricia King:
Two things can happen under section 78 of the Act. At the moment a €1,000 fine can be imposed but it is one of these that needs to be paid within 21 days of issuing the ticket. Twenty-one days is far too long; that should be addressed. I would urge this committee to consider that. it should be an on-the-spot fine from our perspective.
A HSA inspector can move to go to the District Court. A €3,000 fine or 12 months' imprisonment applies if the complaint is handled in the District Court. If it is on indictment and the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, goes to another court, it can be €3,000 or two years in jail. Those are the penalties that exist in the current legislation. Somebody said to me this morning that it is the value of the deterrent. The value of a deterrent even of a €1,000 fine is based on how many times a person does it. It could be very effective if it was utilised on a constant basis and people felt threatened by it.
I have some questions for Dr. McGuinness. It has been reported that 200 complaints of breaches of the Covid regulations have been made. How many of those have been inspected? It was also reported today that there is some issue about the HSA not being in a position to make unannounced visits to construction sites. This is mind boggling if we are talking about high-risk situations and poor risk assessment done on the reopening of building sites. What will the HSA be doing to ensure adherence to the regulations on construction sites?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
They were unannounced inspections. What I said about needing to do a planned inspection and contact a company in advance may depend on the type of inspection that we need to carry out if we were expecting to meet with somebody on the site and, because of working arrangements, they were not there. It is very limited and we do not expect it to be the norm, which we expect will primarily be unannounced inspections which are the norm for us anyway.
We have looked at all complaints received and they have been addressed. On the protocol -----
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
Complaints can arise for many different reasons. We have looked at all the complaints and addressed them with employers. They run from the period beginning at March which covered many of the Government announcements. Not all would have warranted site inspections and some would have closed as sites and are now re-opening. We received complaints in the recent past which will all be addressed and, if warranted, there will be a follow-up inspection.
The issue of workers returning to work confident that they will be safe at work is vital and the State has a crucial role to play in that. I have questions for Dr. McGuinness from the HSA on this issue. The first relates to the question of the 200 complaints. I received a letter from the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, on 13 May, which said there had been 200 complaints about non-adherence to Covid-19 public health guidelines in work and there had been zero physical inspections by the HSA of any of those complaints. I found it astounding that there were over 200 complaints. I take Dr. McGuinness's point that the HSA addressed them but I know that two of those complaints came from me and I was not told anything of what had happened on foot of them. I know of other workers who complained who were not told anything about what had happened either. How can the HSA have had over 200 complaints and not had any on-site inspections? How can that be explained?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
The HSA workplace contact unit receives quite a significant level of contacts, which can be either queries or complaints. Since 1 March we have had over 3,735 different contacts to the HSA workplace contact unit. The majority, 3,188, referred to requests for information, where someone asked a question and we provide an answer. There were about 547 complaints in total, of which roughly 288 to date related to Covid. We are still addressing a number of those.
As I said previously, a complaint to the HSA - and we continue to have the same process - can be made, we must assess it, track it, refer it to, and discuss it with, the employer and we follow up as appropriate with the employer, be it indirectly or through an inspection. We keep everything confidential, both for the complainant and the employer, and we do not tend to go back and explain when and if we have done an inspection. That is not part of our general role. What we do is ensure that everyone is addressed. The challenge was, and the benefit of the protocol is now, that we have a clear framework both from an employer and worker perspective, that they know what is expected from us as the regulator and that will allow us to take the appropriate action and steps.
How were 80 done yesterday and zero done prior to a week ago? How is that explainable? Surely that is some policy choice or decision? How can it be that all of a sudden there is a requirement to have 80 in one day, which I welcome - although I suspect that it is not enough - but up until last week there were zero, despite the HSA having received complaints?
It seems to me that there was a problem and that the complaints were not being treated appropriately previously, if the authority had 80 such complaints yesterday.
In early April, the HSA was advising workers and those who complained that it "did not have the powers to enforce the public health guidelines". It said it could not do anything about this. This was said repeatedly to many people. Does the authority now have the powers to enforce the public health guidelines and did anything change legally to result in that?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
The protocol brought up together in a concept under the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act. Previously there was general guidance out there from a public health perspective done by our public health colleagues but now, in the protocol, it is clear how these can be managed and addressed by employers, workers, and ourselves in line with the protocol.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
The protocol has put it in a way that is enabling us to enforce and ensure compliance with measures that workplaces can address. The challenge up to now has been that there has been much advice and recommendations from a general concept and now this has been put into an operational format for workplaces that we can take forward. Workplaces and workers now understand where their role and obligations can be met.
Finally, hundreds of thousands of employees were in work before this week and before the protocol. Dr. McGuinness is saying that if a protocol had been in place previously, the HSA would have been able to act more effectively, and could have, for example, been doing on-site inspections before the last week.
My first question is for Dr. McGuinness. The Minister for Enterprise, Business and Innovation was asked in the House last Thursday whether she had staff available to migrate temporarily to the HSA. She did not answer the question, although she said 290 staff members who were available, but that she was waiting to be asked. I know that negotiations are ongoing but has Dr. McGuinness given any figure to the Department or are there any plans in place to consider training up additional HSA inspectors for site inspections? If not, could I ask what is delaying that?
I welcome the fact that the construction industry is opening up. There are many industries around the country watching Mr. Parlon's sector and they are hoping that it will be successful and will have limited difficulties with Covid-19 so that others might follow its path quickly.
Has anything changed in the insurance market with respect to opening up? Is additional risk being levied against those who are working in the construction sector, particularly smaller subcontractors, who are open to insurance gouging?
My second question is on PPE. I have been involved in some projects recently to source Irish PPE for the healthcare sector. I hope that the CIF will make a deliberate attempt to resource and to standardise all of its PPE through Irish manufacturers rather than buying it overseas. That would be a very good message.
In the event of a Covid-19 breakout on site involving more than a couple of workers, at what point does the scale of the breakout determine when the site would be closed for a period?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
It is in both in our own standard operating procedure and in the national protocol that if workers displays symptoms on site, they have to be isolated and seek help, and their doctor must be called. An isolation facility must also exist for them. If a positive case transpires, the HSE moves in and will use their own protocol to check.
As I said in my opening address, we now will have a log of people. Certainly, there is a major attempt now on sites to keep different groups separate. They will have separate staggered breaks, lunchbreaks, arrival times and so on. So if there is an outbreak we hope to be able to confine it but that is entirely up to the HSE in terms of how it does that.
In terms of PPE, we do not want to compete with the HSE on that. The jury seems to be out still in terms of the use of face masks. The wearing of masks is recommended in crowded areas or where people are close. The protocol says, "in line with HSE advice". We know that both our own standard operating procedures or SOP and the national protocol are living documents and if some new direction comes out then it will be included. We are sourcing products. Some former sportswear people are now commercially manufacturing face masks. I am amazed by what has been achieved by people in this country and some of my own members have come up with standalone facilities for working on-site. When they were off for the last three or four weeks they spent time in their workshops creating stuff.
Earlier somebody asked me about smaller players. All of the safety advice and so on that we have is freely available on our website and the webinars are open freely to big and small players whether they are members or not. Likewise, on our LinkedIn page we have a massive lot of followers and a commercial page. If some Irish supplier comes along and says he or she is providing X, Y or Z then we invite him or her to put it up on our LinkedIn commercial page, which is very full. Certainly it will be our intention to buy locally and it is probably a hell of a lot easier to get supplies locally now.
Mr. Tom Parlon:
We are working on that area. Insurance companies are pretty quick to change. They have issued new policies and said that they no longer cover anything related to Covid-19. Clearly, there is a major debate about their liability in terms of what they covered previously and that is a big issue.
In terms of the liability of our members, we have a national protocol that is very comprehensive. Our advice to our members is to follow the protocol to the letter of the law and by doing so they will not have any major liability in terms of anybody who has an issue on a site.
Many developments have closed down. I respect that some of my questions cannot be asked today but perhaps Mr. Parlon will furnish me with the details later. The final stages of many of these developments such as council houses in west Cork, Dunmanway, Bandon and Rosscarbery all had to be pulled due to Covid-19. These developments were very urgently required social houses for people in need. Are there dates for specific projects? Can Mr. Parlon give us a breakdown on the specific projects? Can he give us a date for when these council houses will be finished and made available to residents? Projects, like the children's hospital in Dublin, have run very much over budget, which we have debated all along. Does the fact that constructions like this and others have had to close down due to Covid-19 mean taxpayers will have to pay added costs to conclude these projects?
There are many hospitals builds going on throughout the country at the moment, especially community hospitals in west Cork, Skibbereen and Castletownbere. That is fine, they are going on and I presume they will see out their term. I worry about the Clonakilty Community Hospital and other community hospitals because funds were supposed to be made available to allow projects to go ahead. Will those funds remain available? Has that been indicated? Will the projects go ahead or be pulled, which is a serious issue? I would like to ask questions on roads funding but we get so little roads funding in west Cork that it is pointless to ask specific questions.
Mr. Parlon might answer my next question. Some large house builders have told their subcontractors that the new environment of reduced house prices will require a 20% reduction in their rates of costs charged to the main contractor. If so, subcontractors will go bust. Is that the case?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
In terms of projects, a couple of weeks ago the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government deemed a number of social housing projects that were close to completion to be essential and they were allowed to start up again.
That has worked successfully and all of them adopted our SOP before the national protocol came into place.
As regards the extra cost, whether on the taxpayer or someone else, the industry is very conscious that the economy is heading for a major challenge. We all know that. First-time buyers and people buying privately are going to be in a worse situation because incomes will be tightened and qualifying for mortgages in that situation will be more difficult. The reality is that that is going to add to the cost as well and it will be a difficult balance to find.
The Deputy mentioned big projects such as the national children's hospital. There is no question that a complex project like that will involve substantial costs if it is to be completed under the new protocol. I understand that particular project has not opened up yet, and I am sure those discussions and negotiations are going on. Not every site has reopened. Some individuals dealing with public sector clients were extremely disappointed with the cavalier attitudes of the employer representatives when they were closing down sites and the contractors were told it was their problem. Some of those contractors are now saying they need to know what is happening before they open up again. The ball is in the court of the Office of Government Procurement, which is part of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Government has been extremely supportive of the construction industry because a massive number of construction employees have taken part in the subsidised employment scheme and that has allowed them to go back to work. Many are on the pandemic unemployment payment as well. That is an issue and a major challenge for the current Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the future Government to deal with, but the cost is just a fact of life. Whatever contractor is advising subcontractors that they will have to cut their costs by 20% is not going to have too many subcontractors coming to the site this week. That is for sure.
I thank all the witnesses for coming in and commend all sides on the development of the Return to Work Safely Protocol. It is very useful. There were some very different perspectives around the table when that protocol was being put together, but it is very useful to have this agreed approach between workers, employers and the Government.
I will start with Dr. McGuinness. Advice given to this committee today, which I think is new advice, essentially says that any worker who spends two hours or more in an indoor area, even a big room such as this one, with someone who tests positive would have to self-isolate for two weeks. As people return to work in large indoor areas such as supermarkets or entire floors of office blocks, is it Dr. McGuinness's understanding that if somebody tests positive - even though workers may have had no contact and might have been quite a bit away - everyone who has been in that indoor area for two hours at the same time as that person would have to self-isolate for two weeks? Is that Dr. McGuinness's understanding of what needs to be applied in workplaces in order to comply with the public health advice on close contacts?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
The protocol is underpinned by public health advice, so if that advice changes, parts of the protocol will change. At the moment the protocol still seeks to keep people working at home and that is a driver. The intention would be, where practical, not to have non-essential people in the office environment-----
I am sorry to cut across Dr. McGuinness but I know all that. I am asking a very specific question. Is it Dr. McGuinness's understanding that the advice I have just laid out, which is the advice this committee received yesterday evening, now applies to all workplaces and is that going to have to be enforced? For example, most people who work in a supermarket will have been in the same large indoor area with each other for two hours. Would it therefore be the case that if a single employee tested positive, everyone who has been in that space with him or her for two hours or more would also have to self-isolate?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
Our understanding of the protocol is that if someone is in a room, he or she should keep it to less than two hours.
If the public health advice is now recommending that, we will have to look at it. I think it depends. There are issues around contact tracing, etc., which is part of the reason we also have contact logs in the protocol. I did not hear that specific advice but this is the importance of having linkage, as we do, with the public health piece.
I will turn to the HSA's support for workers and employers because it obviously has a vital role to play. The return to work document is useful but, ultimately, this is going to have to be dealt with on a case-by-case, workplace-by-workplace basis. It is entirely possible that many workers and employers are going to be phoning in. An email address and phone number for the HSA have been given for all workers and employers returning to work. What has been committed to is that any such worker or employer will get a response from the HSA. Is there a target time for how quickly the HSA intends to get back to workers who have arrived into a workplace and are concerned that it is not compliant and safe, or to get back to an employer who is looking for help?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
Seven days would be our normal operating protocol but obviously we can do it much faster. Depending on the nature of the complaint or query, that can be prioritised. Seven days is set but we generally do it within a much shorter time period. It depends on the nature of the issue that needs to be addressed.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
Indeed. We have reassigned people and others have been seconded from other departments to support our workplace contact unit. We will obviously keep that in mind because the Deputy is right, and we are already hearing those queries coming in.
Part of the work we do is supporting SMEs, as we have been doing for many years. We also support workers. We were talking earlier about learning materials for safety representatives. We have had checklists and templates for the Covid-19 response plan on our website since yesterday and we hope companies will not need to come to us as often. If a representative of a company has a specific question, there is now a lot of advice coming on stream and we will continue to do that.
I am indeed. I have some questions that relate to the construction industry and some that relate to other areas of work. We have received new public health advice for how we conduct our business here. I am sure that nobody, least of all our esteemed witnesses, would suggest that there should be a kind of upstairs-downstairs situation whereby there is one rule for us and another for the poor unfortunate who happens to be working in a supermarket or on a construction site. Is it everybody's understanding that this protocol is a living document that is capable of being updated, as and when the public health advice is updated? We have had updated public health advice so we are updating how we do our business. Would that be our witnesses' understanding? As health advice is received, as we have received it and I assume that same advice is intended generally as public health advice, can that be incorporated into the protocol? Are all parties prepared for, and happy with, that?
Ms Patricia King:
I thank the Deputy for the question. It is a fact that the protocol is a living document. There is also provision in it for an oversight group under the labour employer economic forum, LEEF, process because we were the people who created the document in the first place. I expect that group will meet regularly, at least once a week and more often if required. That group should take on board all of the changes that will arise and evolve as the pandemic goes on and the economy reopens. I expect that group to be active to ensure this protocol, as a live document, can be adapted and altered to keep it in step with what is actually happening on the ground.
Might I suggest, if it is not too cheeky, that our witnesses take the advice we were given and factor that into their considerations? Public health advice is public health advice and if it applies here, it applies everywhere. I know that nobody, least of all our witnesses, would want a situation whereby we had a different set of rules from anyone else because every worker deserves protection, even a politician.
I refer to the 200 complaints that were made. People have contacted me and they are very frustrated. They have made complaints, and they describe doing so as screaming into a void. They do not know what follow up, if any, is being done. I know 80 inspections took place yesterday and I would be interested in knowing how many are planned for the rest of the week. Can the HSA sustain that level of inspection? I am not sure if, in the normal course of things, a figure of 80 inspections means everybody is making their best effort or is a normal day. What happened to the 200 complaints made?
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
As I said, those complaints dated from the time period of 1 March and overlapped a series of different Government elements. All of them would be addressed through the workplace contact unit and have been followed up, in some instances by inspectors where necessary. In terms of the complaints process, while we do not always go back to a complainant we address his or her complaint and he or she can, if asked, come back to us and see what has happened. We do not generally divulge, on either side, whether we have inspected a site because not only is the nature of the complaint confidential to the complainant, what happens at a workplace is also confidential. We can talk about it in the round. Each of those complaints would have been followed up and addressed to the complainant, who would have received a response, and the employer would have been contacted and checked in respect of the public health measures in place.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
They would have been addressed or will be, as I said, when they are looked at over the course of the next while. They will be addressed further if necessary. In terms of the complaints, some involved queries about what was and was not essential and other issues of which the Deputy is aware. Each of those would be addressed, as I said, in that manner.
Perhaps Dr. McGuinness and I have different definitions of what does and does not constitute a complaint being addressed. Some of those who have contacted me do not feel their queries were addressed. I respect what she is saying with regard to the process.
Can she talk me through what happens now if a worker on a construction site has a complaint? I take the point made by Mr. Parlon earlier. From my perspective, I do not often find myself agreeing with him, but I agree with him when he says the union representative on site is the eyes and ears of the worker. Never has there been a time when it has been more important for workers to be organised and members of and active in their trade unions.
I ask Ms King and then Mr. Parlon to talk me through what happens when a worker comes on site and wants, like most of the people in the HSA, to do the right thing but finds it is not being done and he or she has very serious concerns about his or her health and safety. What happens then?
Ms Patricia King:
That is the nub of the entire piece. The infrastructure would mean that the representative on the ground would be the eyes and ears in a workplace. The workers should feel confident about being able to liaise with that person and say something is not happening or is not happening correctly or often enough, such as cleaning, hygiene or whatever. Under this protocol, that representative is supposed to be able to liaise with the management representative during the course of the day and have a conversation about what needs to happen. If something does not happen, the representative has a number of options. If he or she is in a trade union, he or she can go to a trade union official. As the Deputy knows, larger companies have health and safety representatives. Smaller companies do not usually have them.
Ms Patricia King:
He or she can go to the health and safety representative and both can make contact with the HSA. That is all reactive. The protocol also states that we need to have a proactive approach.
One of the ways of being proactive is to have boots on the ground and to go out checking so that employers know this will be checked. The second point is that something like on-the-spot fines, which is what we are suggesting the committee should consider, brings with it an alertness that brings a deterrent value. From that point of view, that also will boost and bolster. When those things are in operation, workers become confident that their place of work will be kept safe. In the first instance, ICTU put forward the proposals on the protocol. The objective of that was to gain the confidence of workers that going back to work can be safe.
Finally, a feature of this pandemic across the labour market is that the lowest paid workers are much more exposed. They are the people in the essential services, aside from the health service. I am leaving aside the health service for obvious reasons because there is a combination of pay grades, etc., delivering that service. This is a global feature. This is the same in Australia, in America and in Ireland. If one sets the health service aside, these are the same people who do not have a significant representative infrastructure, who are not recognised and who suffer, and have for years, lots of resistance to issues they would raise within the workplace. We are seeing some of that in the meat factories. We saw an incident today where tests were not even given to the individuals who should have had them. Their individuality was not even being respected. From that point of view, this should bring about, as I think Deputy O'Reilly suggests in her question, some form of major reform. I hope this House helps us to bring forward legislation that, once and for all, will respect worker representation and their rights.
I hope we do too. Mr. Parlon might be very brief on that. I ask him to address whether, in the event that these protocols are not followed, his members are prepared and understand that they may have to close a site. If the protocols are not followed, that is the next logical conclusion. Are Mr. Parlon's members prepared for that?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
If the HSA gives us a directive to close a site, we do not have any option whether we like it or not. We agree, and that is part of our agreement to the protocol.
The Deputy mentioned about the living document. That certainly is the case whatever changes come about. I got notification today from the Department of the Taoiseach that there is a meeting of the consultative stakeholder forum on the national protocol at 2 p.m. on Friday next. Immediately, we are working. This is an opportunity for any issues that arise.
Mr. Tom Parlon:
The HSE - the medical experts - will be there. They will advise us, if that is the case.
In terms of the unions, I have the agreement here. If a worker representative raises an issue with management and it is not being dealt with, the trade union forum, the CIF and the HSA have a forum and they meet and discuss. There is an agreement that this would be done promptly. If it cannot be dealt with at that level, it is referred to the Covid-19 department of the HSA. All of those particular actions are there. It is good that it is there.
There is much focus here on the HSA and inspectors. I expect everything will not be perfect. It will take a while. I note some of our contractors have been dealing with this for the past month. It took a while. There were toolbox talks having to be called every couple of hours to say, "Lads, this is not the way it will work."
I am taking my five minutes.
I thank the witnesses for the work that they are doing. It is a challenging time for everyone, no matter what type of employment one is in. Much work has been done behind the scenes over the past few weeks in preparing for this.
My main question is to Mr. Parlon and it relates to the set-up in the construction industry. As I understand it, there is quite a high labour input in the construction industry in Ireland. Will this force or bring about changes in how we approach the construction industry? For instance, I was speaking to someone recently in the UK, where they are doing a lot of modular building in relation to apartments.
It is difficult to do that here because of a certain regulation that does not allow it. Are we going to see a change in the whole construction industry and how we approach building projects? We have to ensure health and safety at all times. Coming from a legal background, I have dealt with several cases where I have seen major tragedies on building sites which should not have occurred. They occurred because the necessary support was not there for the employee when the accident happened. We are trying to strike a balance between having enough people on site to do the work and making sure nobody is put in danger of Covid-19. From their experience in representing the industry, do the witnesses think there will be change? How can we protect jobs if that change does come?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
Before the pandemic we faced a challenge in getting people to work in the construction industry because we were competing with all the other sectors. We were just about to embark on a careers campaign funded by our members. That pressure is now off because there are forecasts of 300,000 people in long-term unemployment, so we have a pool of people to call on. The Deputy mentioned the move to off-site and modular work. That is a global shift which we are certainly reflecting. Strangely, several members of the Construction Industry Federation, CIF, provide modular buildings to the UK because we do not have sufficient scope in Ireland. If we were to embark on a very substantial social housing or apartment building programme, that would allow our operators to get into modular work. There is no question that it is the way forward.
The Deputy referred to some tragedies in construction. We have a very strong culture of health and safety. My colleague who is present here, Mr. Dermot Carey, is director for safety and training. Massive investment is made by all and sundry into health and safety. Complying with those requirements is a very big cost. We were able to get our standard operating procedure together so quickly, ahead of most other players, because we have that good culture. The move to off-site and modular construction is inevitable. It will probably mean that people will be working in enclosed factories, putting modular pieces together, rather than on sites. It will protect people from the worst of the weather but it will still involve a substantial amount of labour. We foresee that about 150,000 people will be back to work in the industry within about six or seven months.
I have one more question for all of the witnesses. House renovation involves very confined spaces. I am not sure what action can be taken there. With fewer people there, can there be sufficient health and safety measures to protect the workers while complying with regulations concerning Covid-19? House and building renovation is where the real risks are. What are the witnesses' views on that?
Mr. Tom Parlon:
The guidance issued to the construction industry stated that construction sites are to be opened where it is safe to do so. I can understand that at the moment it would be highly risky for construction workers to go into a house where a family is living to replace a kitchen or something like that. However, I read today that the negotiations for the new Government have called for a very substantial number of retrofits. That is one of the ways forward. We are going to need stimulus. There will be a green agenda regardless of who forms the Government. That will be highly labour-intensive. If the physical distancing requirements continue, retrofitting will be a challenge. It will probably involve much smaller teams. Retrofitting cannot be done off-site. Workers have to move into the house to do the work.
I will take five minutes and Deputy McGuinness will take two and a half.
Many of my questions have already been asked. I thank the witnesses. I would like some clarification. Does each construction site have sufficient personal protective equipment, PPE?
This question is for Dr. McGuinness. Are the guidelines sufficiently clear? It is important that there is good communication with workers. Is there guidance in place to help those whose first language is not English?
It is important that the HSA be better resourced. That is an issue that has been raised today and it is one of my concerns. I believe there will be a cross-body approach with the WRC, environmental health and the Garda all pitching in. Will all of the information be in a database setting out what will happen? What will be the outcome from everyone pitching in together? That would be good, but I would like clarification on that.
What happens when a site, factory or shop is found to be in breach of safety standards? I heard the steps that were set out, but what is the reality? The Covid-19 protocol is a living document and it can change. Is there room for manoeuvre before a written warning is issued or a site shut down and healthy workers are put out of work? What can we do to help ensure total compliance on sites so that they are not shut down? That question is also for Dr. McGuinness.
My next question is for Ms King. I agree that workers need a statutory right to representation. However, I believe there is a missing link in workers' rights in Ireland, namely, the right to raise concerns without penalisation. While the emergency legislation and the protocols provide workers with the ability to raise issues of health and safety without suffering, that is not the reality on the ground. In the meantime, we need to put a statutory framework in place. I agree that something definitely must be done in that regard.
Does Ms King think there is fairness in the system whereby a worker is put in charge of his or her employment location safety rules? It is well established in the construction industry, but it might be new to a hardware store or garden centre. Are workers consulted on who the person should be? It is very important that the representative should be fair, trusted and look after the needs of workers.
The following question is for Mr. Parlon. The CIF designed a standard operating protocol for the return to work process. As part of that, it created an online safety induction programme for workers returning to work. I was informed by the federation that more than 130,000 workers employed in the industry have completed the induction and are continuing to complete the programme and receiving digital cards so that they can return to sites. I wonder whether oversight is robust. How does anyone know if the workers are fully engaged with this process? I would like to think it is not just a box-ticking exercise and that during the inspections, Mr. Parlon's organisation will check that workers understand the protocol and that there are no language or computer literacy issues, which are major concerns. We must support workers.
Dr. Sharon McGuinness:
I will try to take the Deputy's questions in the order she asked them. There is already a requirement on employers in all workplaces to provide PPE if it is required. It is provided in accordance with the hazard facing the worker and the worker must be trained in how to use it properly and how to remove it. That is a general health and safety requirement. It is up to the employer in each workplace to ensure adequate supplies of PPE are available, as required.
The language issue has been raised in certain areas. It is something we have addressed in the past and it is something that could be considered. That is something we could bring back to the consultative forum, which will meet later this week. The forum's resources and its cross-body nature are fundamental, as we need such a cross-body effort. We will bring all of the findings together. The consultative forum will not only take account of any changing health measures but also anything we find on the ground, including if particular sectors are at issue or we feel some of the advice needs to be modified. All those issues will be raised and taken into account at the consultative forum. We get an input from the various bodies that are involved in inspections.
In terms of a breach of safety, as I stated, we have improvement notices and prohibition notices. The latter, in particular, stops work activity, which is a deterrent. It can also stop part of a work activity so it may not close down an entire site. There are different steps involved. In general, the steps in any inspection very much involve advice and support and ensuring people can comply and know how to bring about compliance. We can give advice in written form following an inspection and give general guidance on when issues need to be addressed.
That needs to be done. Improvement and prohibition notices have more legal basis and can be followed up appropriately within a legal context. As I have said, these should allow employers to put measures in place to rectify matters as quickly as possible.
I very much welcome the return to work. I live in a town that produces a lot of cement. We have a cement factory in the town and we are delighted that business is beginning again and that people are getting back to work. Seeing more lorries and people involved in construction on the road down here and back is very welcome. I accept and acknowledge that this will only work properly if the unions, workers and employers can work together and reach sensible consensus on issues. Where the HSA has to get involved, it will have to have a defining role with regard to safety, which must be paramount.
The State has provided many subsidies to get businesses going again, in addition to wage and income supports. While I accept that costs are increasing, the headline run by one of our national papers - and I appreciate the Mr. Parlon did not say this - that there could be a 40% increase in the cost of the national children's hospital is an appalling vista. It is entirely unacceptable, particularly to the taxpayer. I am very unhappy with that.
I accept that costs are increasing but I am not happy about the implications for our construction industry and for people who need housing, including social housing. Mr. Parlon will obviously want to give his arguments but I believe it is wrong that the first point of departure today is that everything is going up. I am particularly concerned for young people. I know many young couples who want to buy their own houses. They were expecting a stabilisation, if not a fall, in house prices. It is not good enough that they would face a 15% to 20% increase.
What alternatives are there? Deputy Burke spoke about a different type of construction and different ways of doing things. Why do people always have to pay more and why do they have to pay more to the builder? Why does the taxpayer have to pay more for all of these hospitals and other construction projects? It is a mantra that we must challenge.
Mr. Tom Parlon:
To clarify, I did not make that suggestion with regard to the children's hospital. That will be subject to many negotiations. The Deputy mentioned the hospital but I referred to complex sites that will involve a great deal of fitting out. I am sure the children's hospital will fit into that category. Some of our industry professionals have suggested the increase in cost for such projects could be as high as 40%. I am sure that is negotiable. That will all be worked out. The Deputy can laugh but unfortunately-----
Mr. Tom Parlon:
If it is being suggested in the House that workers can only stay together for a maximum of two hours on a major complex that will involve millions of work hours, the project will extend over years, which will have cost implications. It is going to be a challenge. There is no question about it. Under the rules laid out under the protocol, finishing off complex sites such as the children's hospital, data centres or the new pharmaceutical plants will be a major challenge. A two-year programme could well end up being a four or five-year programme, which is bound to have cost implications. I do not suggest for a minute that it is a good idea, but it is the factual situation at the moment. We all appreciate that if house prices come under pressure, the potential buyers of those houses will have fewer resources and less chance of getting a house. That is something with which we will have to deal. While the industry has to work to the letter of the law in meeting the protocol, we will have to find innovative ways of doing so more cheaply. It is to be hoped that some of the restrictions under the protocol can be loosened over time as we make progress with the pandemic.
Mr. Parlon is correct to put on the record that there will be substantial increases to existing contracts, and the delivery of houses and other major projects. It is no harm to mention the children's hospital because of its size. The Government needs to understand the major implications for cost. There is also an issue with insurance, which Mr. Parlon did not cover adequately. Most of the insurance companies are running from anything to do with Covid-19 claims and will do anything not to pay those who are insured.
I also ask him about the collapse in funds relative to US or other international funders of the massive projects being undertaken across Dublin and other centres. That must also be a concern. If that happens, we will be left with major problems for the employees on those sites and for reopening those sites and avoiding an economic crash relative to the sites.
I would like the committee to recommend a Government-led forum or a place where issues like this can be worked out without it going to court. From what Mr. Parlon has said and based on the reality on the ground, it seems that there will be major legal issues with insurance claims for the sites themselves. The costs will need to be dealt with in that kind of forum. I ask him to press these measures so that we do not end up being confronted with this overnight. Now is the time to plan for it.
The point I was making about small contractors was that they need support and encouragement; I was not saying that they were less diligent. I was saying that they are very diligent, but they are coping with an entirely new scenario now. Rather than just looking at the big contractor, we need to embrace all those smaller contractors who are giving fair employment and doing their best. This is something that has not been dealt with by them previously.
I say this to Dr. McGuinness on the meat factories and so on. Someone fell down on that job. Ms King referred to employers who are responsible, acknowledge the workforce and so on. They were not and that is why they got into trouble. While we expect so much from them, greater vigilance on the part of the HSA and other Government agencies needs to be put in place. I encourage the committee to look at the alarming figure of 40% and other issues relating to insurance and funding on these major sites. We need to deal with it and plan ahead for what will be a serious legal quagmire. The Dáil needs to confront that at an early stage, otherwise the taxpayer will pay substantially more in costs, and court appearances and challenges.
I thank the three witnesses for coming here today and answering all the questions so fully.
Before the next meeting, I will be in extensive contact with members to agree our work programme. Deputy Shanahan made the point that it would make sense for us to look at the extension of the private hospital contract before that extension is decided rather than afterwards, but we can only have a finite number of sessions in a week.