Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements


10:10 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)

The Covid-19 pandemic will continue to present a challenge on many fronts, not least in the workplace. At the launch of the national return to work safely protocol, I emphasised the overriding need for collaboration and co-operation at all levels between State agencies, employers and employees, as well as representative bodies.

We saw this in the development of the protocol. The same collaboration and co-operation remain the key to success in the workplace. I know there is a strong desire for employers and employees to get back to work and do so safely. The vast majority of businesses want to protect their staff and customers. Many even closed early to do this. They have adhered to the public health guidance so far and there is no reason to believe this will change. Similarly, the vast majority of employees want to go back to work and the steps and measures outlined in the protocol provide the framework for every workplace.

Compliance with the protocol is being led by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, which has overall responsibility for ensuring the health and safety and welfare at work of all workers. It is there to provide advice and support to employers and employees on how they implement Covid-19 measures in the workplace. Its approach is to work with businesses collaboratively to iron out any issues. However, where needed, HSA inspectors will be able to take appropriate enforcement action. The HSA is deploying all of its available inspectors across sectors to carry out spot checks and other inspections to check compliance with the protocol. The HSA inspectors will be supplemented significantly by deploying, under the authority of the HSA, other inspectors who already have environmental health, agricultural or other workplace and business inspection responsibilities. The number of additional resources working with the HSA will be in the hundreds from throughout the system. Compliance with the return to work safely protocol will become part of their normal inspection regime. It will start shortly, with approximately 200 officers from the environmental health service. This number will increase steadily as officials from other parts of the system, with varying sectoral inspection and oversight responsibilities, are brought on board in line with the Government road map. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has given a commitment that inspectors from his Department will work with the HSA to ensure the implementation of the protocol in workplaces. Clearly, the Government will not be found wanting in resourcing the important role.

With regard to outbreaks of Covid-19 in meat processing plants, this is first and foremost a public health matter and has been led by the HSE. As a result, a HSE-led national outbreak control team for Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants is in place and is reporting to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. The national outbreak control team has input from professionals in public health, environmental health, occupational health, health and safety and animal welfare. The HSA is a member of this team and up to 20 May had participated in three national outbreak control team meetings.

In accordance with the HSA's role in ensuring compliance with the return to work safely protocol, inspectors from the HSA are undertaking inspections in a wide range of workplaces and industry sectors. Between Monday and Wednesday evening, more than 240 on-site compliance inspections were carried out. While the HSA does not give details of individual inspections, I can confirm that meat processing plants are included in these numbers. I can also confirm that Covid-19 complaints have been received about meat processing plants and these are being responded to as appropriate, including by on-site inspection where required.

I remind the House that the national return to work safely protocol is a living document. It reflects public health advice about measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in the community issued by the National Public Health Emergency Team. As this advice evolves over time, the protocol will be updated. A stakeholder forum has been established through the Labour Employment Economic Forum, LEEF, to oversee the implementation of the protocol, including any changes that have to be integrated. It will meet tomorrow for the first time to review progress so far.


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