Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Health and Safety Authority
11. To ask the Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment if he is satisfied with the level of funding allocated to his Department for its responsibilities regarding the welfare of workers, for example through the Health and Safety Authority, HSA; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30563/20]
Last year, the HSA had a budget of just €20 million, which is less than the budget for Deputies' secretaries. The Government allocated an extra €4 million for the HSA in this week's budget, but that is a drop in the ocean in the context of what is needed, as we have seen over the course of the last year. Is the Minister of State satisfied with this? Given the current pandemic, and in light of what we have seen in meat plants, in particular, but also in other workplaces, does he agree that we need serious investment in workplace inspections?
I will deal with the issue in the question and bring a focus to the resources from the budget. The HSA has a broad remit with responsibility for the enforcement of workplace health and safety legislation as well as chemicals safety, market surveillance of certain products and the national accreditation body. It is vital to prioritise the safety and health of all workers in a way that promotes and facilitates business growth and sustainability, aids competitiveness and protects workers, which is the key part of the Deputy's question. This is fundamental to a functioning economy and to reducing long-term costs to the State.
The overall 2021 budget allocation includes an additional €4 million for the HSA. This will enable it to continue to assist businesses to comply with workplace health and safety obligations as well as dealing with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19. It will assist businesses to plan for a changed regulatory landscape post Brexit especially in relation to chemical change, product safety, market surveillance and accreditation.
Covid-19 created unprecedented difficulties for employers and employees across all sectors of the economy and brought public health risks and dangers into workplaces that most of us could never have envisaged. The majority of employers and employees rose to the challenges and adapted to the new realities. It is clear that these challenges will remain for some time to come. The additional €4 million will enable the HSA to set up an occupational health division.
The establishment of this occupational health division will ensure that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, is in a stronger position to meet the demands being placed on it to provide supports to businesses, employers and employees to equip them to deal with the occupational and public health issues arising in workplaces, not just as a result of COVID-19 but as a longer-term investment in the safety, health and well-being of our workforce. It is accepted that much of the work in the months ahead will be around Covid and, as the lead agency, it is happy to lead in that and in co-ordinating other agencies also.
My Department will continue to work closely with the Health and Safety Authority to ensure that it is adequately resourced to fulfil its demanding and important remit. It is very committed to working across Departments to lead that charge.
Last year, there were fewer workplace inspectors than there were dog wardens in the country. There are roughly the same number of workplace inspectors as there are special advisers for the Government. The HSA is the body tasked with inspecting workplaces. It was the agency appointed in the pandemic to ensure that workers' lives and health were not being put at risk by penny-pinching bosses but all the indications are that the Government turned a blind eye to the meat factories and to workplaces generally. That is reflected in the guidelines issued yesterday. It is issuing a guideline in terms of households but it is not doing anything about workplaces, which is the main place the virus is spreading. How many new HSA workplace inspectors will be hired? Will there now be regular, unannounced inspections at the meat plants? Will there be inspections at offices and other workplaces to ensure that companies that can have their workers working from home are allowing their workers to work from home instead of forcing them to come in? What sanctions will there be for bosses who break the rules?
The HSA has an ongoing skills development programme. Its inspectors are very highly skilled across a range of functions and it has invested in that ongoing programme and not just for this year. The extra resources it is allocated builds on extra money, and extra places, that would have been allocated in terms of staff sanctioned during 2020. It strengthens our team to be able to deal with issues like Covid-19 and Brexit, which is also a major part of the work. It will be in a very strong position to do that and it is well supported by our Department. As a Department, we are responsive to needs and we responded to the extra needs the authority had in 2020. If the same needs arise down the line, we will be in a position to do that again.
The authority does engage in inspections, many of which are unannounced, in the sectors the Deputy identified and many others. In most cases, it is finding 92% compliance in workplaces, including in the meat sector. The Deputy might not agree with that but those are the facts in terms of what they would assess. It also engages with the sector. The total number of inspections co-ordinated by the HSA, in conjunction with inspectors from other Departments, is close on 17,000 with regard to compliance with the protocol for this year. That is a fair number.
There is no question about the skill or the dedication of the inspectors but the bottom line is that there simply is not enough of them. That was demonstrated towards the start of last year when the virus was running rampant through meat factories with no inspections for well over a month, after which the point was flagged. That should have been an extreme warning bell for the Government that there was a problem but we have allocated an extra €4 million. How many inspectors will that hire? We know now that there are countless companies bending and breaking the rules. They are forcing workers to come to work in unsafe conditions or in circumstances where the workers could be working from home. For the vast majority of workplaces it is statistically the case that there has been and will be no inspections by the HSA. If the Government is not willing to fund inspections itself, will it at least allow the trade union movement the right to carry out workplace inspections as exists in other countries? Ultimately, it is only by having a strong and fighting trade union movement that we can ensure workers' rights are protected.
I am glad the Deputy recognised the skills of the staff involved. He might also recognise their judgment, their work and their reporting to us. In most cases, they are coming across very high compliance rates with the Covid-19 protocol and other issues of their work also. In most cases, 92% are in line with Covid-19 measures. The Deputy might accept that that is the feedback we are getting from them and that includes quite good compliance in the meat sector also. There is general information coming back from the highly-skilled staff, which the Deputy has recognised. Much of the work the HSA does is not just in compliance checks. It is working with industry across all the sectors, and certainly vulnerable sectors, to make sure that there is compliance and recognition of the culture of health and safety. It is also driving clear guidelines around occupational health. The authority will have a strengthened team as a result of the budget, and rightly so, but it works with other sectors and other Departments. There is a high number of inspections and inspectors and any visit by any arm of the State, even when it comes to farm practices and so on, is an opportunity to reinforce the message around health and safety in general, occupational health but, importantly in these times, Covid-19.