ESB Networks is investigating an allegation from a whistleblower that up to a quarter of its staff may have been working more than the average 48-hour week allowed under law.
The claim is one of 10 separate protected disclosures alleging safety and management failings at the company which were submitted by a whistleblower to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in January of this year.
The protected disclosures were submitted after Seamus O’Loughlin became frustrated at the company’s response when he raised the issues internally.
The disclosures were referred by the Minister to ESB Networks (ESBN) – a subsidiary of ESB Group – for investigation. The utility said it expected to complete its inquiries by end of June but it is unclear whether this deadline has been met.
In his disclosure to the Minister dealing with ESBN staff overtime, O’Loughlin, an ESBN engineer with more than 25 years’ experience with the company, refers to internal company documents which, according to O’Loughlin, appear to show that during the six months to May 2018, 546 staff (28 per cent of the total) worked in excess of 48 hours per week on average.
If correct, this could mean the company may be in breach of the Organisation of Working Time Act (1997) which states the maximum average working week for an employee cannot exceed 48 hours.
The law does allow for an exceptionally long working week, for example in ESBN’s case, to deal with severe service disruption after a storm, but it requires the average to remain below 48 hours.
The law also allows for derogations for either by ministerial order or for emergency staff.
Constructing and maintaining Ireland's electricity network 24/7 posed challenges to ESB Networks and our staff
However, O’Loughlin notes in his disclosure it is unclear if these derogations apply to ESBN staff, and he said many staff working over 48 hours on average are involved in capital projects, rather than in emergency work.
O’Loughlin says since some of his concerns emerged in the media last month, he had been contacted by colleagues who blamed him for a significant change earlier this year by ESBN in the amount of overtime available.
In response to questions from The Irish Times about staff overtime, the ESB said “constructing and maintaining Ireland’s electricity network 24/7 posed challenges to ESB Networks and our staff”.
“Severe weather events, emergency and out-of hour call-outs necessitate ESB Networks crews working extended hours, at times in difficult conditions, to maintain the network and restore power to customers.”
It said allegations that a number of ESB Networks staff may have recorded working hours in excess of the maximum allowed by the Act were being investigated as part of wider inquiry into allegations made in a series of protected disclosures.
It added that a detailed internal analysis had not shown any link between hours worked and either road crashes or operational incidents involving ESBN staff.
The company declined to comment on whether it changed its overtime arrangements this year.
The ESB group’s overtime bill in 2018 was €44 million which, with social welfare and other payroll benefits, brought the ESB’s payroll to €635.5 million.
In a separate disclosure, O’Loughlin alleges a significant proportion of the ESBN repair vehicles may be overloaded once all required equipment and crew are on board.
O’Loughlin claims this could be a contributory factor in road crashes and increased damage to vehicles over their lifetime.
As an example, O’Loughlin states in his disclosure that a VW Transporter van, the workhorse of the on-call ESB technicians, had a weight of up to 3.8 tonnes during tests, for a vehicle with a recommended operating weight of 3.2 tonnes.
Part of the reason for this, O’Loughlin says in his disclosure, is these technicians cover large geographical areas and carry a large amount of spare equipment to avoid having to return to their base frequently for supplies.
In response, ESB said its vehicles are regularly checked for weight and many other aspects of road safety, both on a statutory basis and as part of regular assurance. ESB said it has weighing facilities in its major depots and arrangements with over 70 independent weighbridge facilities. It said if any issues are found they are rectified before the vehicle leaves the depot.
Another disclosure deals with the alleged lack of a coherent approach to laundering work clothes of ESBN staff working with hazardous substances including creosote and lead at work. O’Loughlin claims a significant number wash their work clothes at home which creates a cross-contamination risk.
ESB says this claim has been investigated and it found “no occupational exposure limit breaches”.
The ESB said many of the issues raised in the disclosures were already being addressed but that the company had begun a number of specific additional investigations on foot of the disclosures.
No one set out in ESB to do a bad job. It was just bad habits that allowed some of these situations to develop
ESB said it had a “speak up” culture which encouraged staff to identify and report “near misses, good catches, potential deficiencies and opportunities for improvement across all aspects of our operations”.
The company said it could not comment on a HR matter concerning an employee. It said it sought to ensure employees are treated with respect and dignity.
O’Loughlin told The Irish Times he contacted the Minister because he was astounded by the scale of some of the issues, such as the fluid leakage, and at the fact that these had not been adequately dealt with for more than 20 years.
“There was just no urgency to address these issues. No one set out in ESB to do a bad job. It was just bad habits that allowed some of these situations to develop.”
He was also critical of the ESB’s regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU), and the EPA, which, he claimed, lack the technical expertise to be able to properly hold a huge company like the ESB to account.
The CRU will appear before the Oireachtas committee on Tuesday. The regulator reports directly to this committee, rather than the department or Minister.
Since 2006, the ESB has reported to the CRU on environmental performance, including insulating fluid leaks from underground cables in Dublin.
In a statement, the CRU said its role was to ensure efficient delivery of capital expenditure by ESB Networks and ensure positive outcomes for consumers.
“The CRU does not specifically measure or incentivise ESBN performance in relation to environmental outcomes. The environmental reports provided by ESBN to CRU enable us to ensure that sufficient funding is allocated to ESBN to meet its environmental obligations.”
O’Loughlin was appointed technical development manager at ESBN in 2016, a role that involved supplying tools and equipment for ESBN front line staff and talking to them about safety issues they faced.
The 10 protected disclosures submitted to the Minister by ESB whistleblower Seamus O’Loughlin
1. Oil leak: Whistleblower claims more than 1 million litres of insulating oil from underground power cables in Dublin has leaked into the ground over the last 20 years due to age and cables being struck during building works. One such strike allegedly happened in a popular Dublin nightclub during extension works.
ESB response: "A review of our records indicates that between 1998 and 2014 the average annual [leakage] rate was in the order of 40,000 litres." The leakage rate is on course to reduce this year to 8,000 litres, in line with "international peers in other countries (measured on a litres per kilometre basis)". The ESB said it was also "important to note that the cable insulating fluid is readily biodegradable".
2. Working time breaches: Whistleblower claims a significant number of ESB staff allegedly work more than the 48 hours per week on average allowed by the Organisation of Working Time Act.
ESB response: Assertions that a number of ESB Networks staff may have recorded working hours in excess of the maximum permitted by the Act were made in the disclosure together with a suggestion that this has been a contributor to road traffic and lost time incidents. This disclosure is being investigated.
3. 'Overloaded' fleet: Whistleblower claims a significant proportion of the ESB "yellow fleet" are allegedly overloaded, which the whistleblower believes could be a contributory factor in crashes, vehicles overturning and damage to vehicles over their lifetime.
ESB response: A specific investigation was carried out in 2018 in response to the raising of this matter, and actions to resolve this have been put in place. Following the protected disclosure, an additional investigation has been carried out as to whether there was any correlation between road crashes and drivers' hours worked under the Working Time Directive. This concluded there was no such correlation. The latest audits confirm extremely high levels of compliance with vehicle weight limits.
4. 'Flexible earths': Whistleblower claims there are issues around the use of "flexible earths", used to allow staff work on equipment where the power has been cut. He claims there is a lack of management of this equipment and a lack of internal documentation on best practice.
ESB response: Over the last six years ESB Network s has reviewed and revised its procedures for safely earthing the network during maintenance. These revised procedures have been reviewed by international experts who have confirmed they comparable with those employed by UK network companies.
5. Propane gas training: Whistleblower claims not all ESBN staff have sufficient training in the use of propane gas equipment – used to fit or remove insulation equipment. A case in April 2015 is cited when two ESBN staff were injured when works near a gas mains allegedly caused an explosion.
ESBN response: The gas main explosion in 2015 in Knocklyon is subject to legal proceedings and ESBN cannot comment on this incident. A number of incidents relating to propane-fuelled hand torches have been recorded by employees in accordance with ESB Networks' "speak up" culture. As a result these propane hand torches have been replaced with new equipment, and additional training has been provided.
6: Clothing hazards: Whistleblower claims there is an alleged lack of a coherent approach to laundering work clothes of ESBN staff working with hazardous substances including creosote and lead at work. Whistleblower claims a significant number of staff wash their work clothes at home.
ESB response: Concerns raised in the disclosure in relation to hazardous substances have been investigated by an expert firm in this area, who have concluded that ESB Networks has appropriate controls in place to protect employees and contractors from harm and that there are no occupational exposure limit breaches.
7. Greenhouse gases: Whistleblower claims there is an alleged lack of an effective management system for SF6 (sulfur hexafluoride gas), the most damaging greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential 23,900 times greater than CO2. He further claims the ESB's handling of this substance would not stand up to external scrutiny.
ESB response: ESB says its annual usage of SF6 is reported to the EPA in line with EU regulations, and it has also reported on SF6 usage annually to the CRU since 2006. The vast majority of ESB's SF6 usage in recent years is attributable to the transmission switchgear at Moneypoint transmission substation, which accounted for around 600kg of ESB Networks' usage of circa 750kg of SF6. It said a €100 million upgrade to the switchgear was completed last month which will "significantly reduce ESB Networks' usage of SF6 gas".
8. Financial issues: Whistleblower claims "financial imperatives" took precedence over safety concerns when it came to the provision of tools, equipment and fleet equipment.
ESB response: Standardised and approved personal protection equipment is available for all staff. Any non-standard materials are disposed of. There are a range of governance processes in place to manage procurement. These are reviewed and updated regularly and no material breaches have been identified. The allegations in respect of regulatory funding have been shared with the CRU. The initial investigation has found no evidence to support the allegation.
9. Safety management: Whistleblower claims there is an inadequate safety management system within ESB. This includes staff hoarding unsafe legacy equipment, no coherent repair and calibration regime, untrained staff using high-risk equipment, and a high level of unapproved tools and equipment.
ESB response: ESB Networks has a rolling programme of continuous improvement, recognising that legislation, safety standards and best utility practice change. ESB Networks has seven risk and compliance managers who help to record and track safety and environment issues across ESB, and 70 employees dedicated full-time to the management of safety, health and environment. The ESB Networks safety management system is audited and has recently been accredited to the highest international standards.
10. Internal procedures: Whistleblower has outlined his concerns about how he was treated after he tried to raise some of the above issues with management within ESBN, including having an internal disciplinary charge lodged against him for failing to use correct internal procedures.
ESB response: ESB Networks cannot comment in detail on a HR issue. We are satisfied ESBN has complied at all times with the Protected Disclosures Act 2014. ESBN has also sought at all times to meet our responsibilities to all of our employees and to ensure that they are all treated with respect and dignity in the workplace.