Coronavirus: Unions call for unannounced inspections of meat plants

HSA should shut down meat processing facilities where appropriate, groups say

Carroll’s Cuisine meat plant in Tullamore, Co Offaly, has had a number of positive Covid-19 tests. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Carroll’s Cuisine meat plant in Tullamore, Co Offaly, has had a number of positive Covid-19 tests. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) should conduct random and unannounced inspections of all meat processing facilities and they should use their extensive powers of enforcement to close these down if it is appropriate, the trade union movement has said.

In an opening statement to the Oireachtas committee on Covid-19, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) Patricia King said regular testing of all workers in the meat processing sector should be introduced as well as a re-assessment of the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in meat plants.

She said Ictu believed workers should be paid where they had tested positive and were on sick leave, where they were self-isolating or in circumstances where they were laid off temporarily from their job.

Ms King criticised the HSA and said the organisation appeared to view Covid-19 “as a public health matter and not a safety, health and welfare at work issue”.

The HSA told the committee that since the economy and society started reopening, it had conducted 3,820 inspections/investigations, of which 2,844 addressed Covid-19 measures in the Government’s return-to-work protocol, across a wide range of workplaces and industry sectors, including meat processing plants.

HSA chief executive Sharon McGuinness said inspection visits to meat processing facilities with known outbreaks “were pre-advised at short notice to ensure that relevant management and other key personnel were available to facilitate a thorough inspection of the plants”.

“In the main, authority inspections are unannounced. However, in certain circumstances, limited advance notification may be required for operational reasons. For example, where it is essential for inspectors to meet with specific individuals at the place of work or to ensure a particular work activity is being undertaken so as to allow inspectors to observe.”

Ms McGuinness said the Department of Agriculture had a constant presence in meat processing plants and was the lead agency for this sector. She said it was responsible for checking such plants continued to implement the guidance and prevention measures advised by the National Outbreak Control Team as well as checking compliance with the protocol.

‘Major flaw’

Ms King said there was “a major flaw” in current regulations which the Government should swiftly rectify to classify Covid-19 as an occupational injury. She said this would provide statutory protection to workers in the face of Covid-19.

“The effect of its exclusion from the scope of current regulations is that the employer is not obliged to notify the HSA of incidents of employees having contracted the disease in the course of their employment.

“Consequently, the HSA cannot undertake an investigation so as to establish how it may have occurred. Nor can it advise or give instructions on the prevention of similar occurrences.”

She said Ictu was “very dissatisfied that the HSA seems not to be supportive of this remedy”.

The trade union Siptu told the committee that the absence of sick pay was “forcing vulnerable workers to go into work, even if they are feeling unwell with possible Covid symptoms”.

It maintained in an opening statement “circa 90 per cent of workers within the industry do not have sick pay”.

“This is a significant contributory factor to the spread of Covid-19 within the workplace.”

Siptu divisional organiser Greg Ennis called for improved sick pay terms, including for employers to top up the pandemic unemployment payment to the same level as a worker’s normal earnings.

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