Safety watchdog has inspected 13 meat plants with Covid-19 outbreaks
Health and Safety Authority expects to check all 20 outbreak plants by end of next week
There had been 'huge challenges' in managing meat plant outbreaks because of language difficulties and large numbers of workers living in shared accommodation
The State’s workplace safety watchdog has inspected 13 of the 20 meat processing plants that have been affected by outbreaks of coronavirus amongst workers.
The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) said it had inspected the “highest impact sites”, and that it anticipated that all 20 outbreak sites would be inspected by the end of next week.
It has also inspected another three meat plants that have not been identified by the State health officials on the National Outbreak Control Team, which was set up to manage workplace clusters.
Among the settings most at risk to the spread of the virus, meat plants have this week accounted for a large number of new confirmed Covid-19 cases.
A further 123 cases of the diseases were reported across 20 meat processing plants – or 42 per cent half of the country’s 47 meat plants – during the week.
This brought the total number of known cases of the virus in the plants to 1,048. A total of 27 people have been hospitalised, an increase of eight in a week.
The authority was criticised last month after its chief executive, Dr Sharon McGuinness, told the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee that the HSA had not carried out any inspections of meat factories despite receiving seven complaints about four operators at that stage.
Dr McGuinness said that this was due to the HSE taking the lead in controlling outbreaks in meat plants to prevent a spread of the virus to communities.
Greg Ennis, divisional organiser with the trade union Siptu, criticised the delayed response in carrying out workplace inspections. “It is too little, too late. The horse has already bolted where you have gone from having five or six clusters and a few hundred cases to 20 clusters and more than 1,000 cases.”
He called for workers’ representatives to be appointed to national outbreak teams so they could engage with workers who were fearful about speaking out about concerns in workplaces.
Minister for Health Simon Harris told the Dáil on Thursday night that up to 40 per cent of close contacts of meat plant workers may not have been identified in contact tracing.
The HSE’s chief clinical officer, Dr Colm Henry, said there had been “huge challenges” in managing meat plant outbreaks because of language difficulties given the number of foreign workers, along with the number who lived together in shared accommodation.
He said meat plant workers were younger so this has meant that only a small number had been hospitalised, and an even smaller number have been admitted to intensive care units.
He said interpreters were on site to help manage outbreaks, and there had been mass testing of some factory workers. In some cases workers have been provided with alternative accommodation to isolate them in order to prevent the further spread of infection.
Close proximity working, the increased spread of droplets through shouting in noisy plants and the reliance of lower-paid workers on car pooling and house- and room-sharing outside of work have been cited as contributory factors in the spread of the virus.