Watchdog may gain greater powers on Covid workplace inspections

Employers not obliged to report diseases to the Health and Safety Authority

Fianna Fáil  TD James Lawless fears that some employers might try to avoid reporting a Covid-19 case in a bid to avoid adverse publicity. Photograph: Tom Honan

Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless fears that some employers might try to avoid reporting a Covid-19 case in a bid to avoid adverse publicity. Photograph: Tom Honan

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The Government is to examine giving greater legal powers to the health and safety watchdog in relation to Covid-19 inspections in the workplace, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

It comes after Government TDs called for a “loophole” to be closed whereby employers had no legal obligation to report cases of the disease in the workplace to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

Following a meeting with the HSA chief executive on Tuesday evening, a spokeswoman for Mr Varadkar said he had discussed “how the authority and other regulators and inspectorates could be given greater legal authority to be informed of, and carry out, Covid-related inspections where a cluster occurs in the workplace”.

The spokeswoman said this was Mr Varadkar’s “preferred approach”, over the current situation where the HSA “has to be asked to get involved by the HSE or the Department of Health”.

It comes after Fianna Fáil Kildare North TD James Lawless called for action to address what he said was a “loophole” meaning employers do not have a legal obligation to report the disease as an occupational illness.

Personal injuries

Under health and safety laws passed in 2005, employers were obliged to report diseases as “personal injuries” to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). However, regulations passed by the previous government in 2016 removed disease as a qualifying personal injury which needed to be notified to the watchdog.

Mr Lawless said he feared that some employers might try to avoid reporting a Covid-19 case in a bid to avoid adverse publicity.

Trips or falls in a factory must be reported to the HSA, said Mr Lawless, but if “a worker arrives in saying they don’t feel well, they have symptoms of Covid or, even worse, they have a diagnosis” there is no obligation to report the case.

The regulations should be changed to cover Covid-19 “at a minimum”, but also other infectious diseases, he said.

“Now the focus is coronavirus, but who’s to say there’s not going to be something else in two years?”

Mr Varadkar’s spokeswoman said while Covid is a reportable disease to the Government, it is not reportable as an occupational illness to the HSA “as coronavirus can be picked up anywhere and there is no reliable way of knowing whether a person picked it up at home, at work, at a social gathering or somewhere else”, making it different to a workplace injury.

She added that employers are not routinely told an employee has tested positive as it is considered to be private medical information. She said over 10,000 Covid compliance inspections had taken place since May and “most are unannounced or done at short notice”.