‘Crude numbers exercise’ putting workplace safety under threat

€50bn exports threatened as support to pharma and tech industries compromised

Thursday May 9th 2013

Staff reductions at the Health & Safety Authority (HSA) are putting workplace safety at risk, an IMPACT conference has heard. Inspection officer Amanda Richards told delegates, at the union’s Services & Enterprises biennial conference in Portlaoise, that the inspection regime that has helped to improve workplace safety in Ireland is now under threat due to what she described as a crude numbers exercise which has sharply reduced the number of inspection staff.

Ms Richards added that the current high level of support to the Irish pharma, high tech and medical devices sectors, which between them account for more than €50bn in exports, cannot be maintained at current staffing levels either. She said there is an increased risk that production could be moved to other countries as a direct result.

Ms Richards told delegates that 54 workplace fatalities were reported to the Health & Safety Authority in 2011. “It was the second year in a row that there was an increase after the lowest recorded figure of 43 fatalities in 2009. Workplace fatalities are thankfully rare, and with proper oversight and a good inspection regime, they can be minimised. That’s what our work is all about. Last year the number of people killed at work was 47. A welcome reduction on the previous year’s figure – but still too high, and in spite of a reduction in the number of people at work. On top of this, there is a cumulative cost of €3.5 billion as a result of occupational injuries.”

She added that workplace inspector numbers in Ireland, per head of working population, are already lower than those of any other EU state and well below International Labour Organisation recommendations. “We’ve been instructed to reduce our staffing numbers to 151, down from 170 in 2012. When I started work with the Authority in 2007, there were 200 inspectors. The requirement for us to further reduce staff is not based on any cost benefit analysis. It’s a crude numbers exercise. 

“Inspection activity will be 30% lower in 2013 than it was in 2009. Last year the number of inspections fell from 16,000 to 13,700.  Staff numbers were last at this current level in the late 1990s, at a time when there was approximately 1.6m people in employment. Now there are 1.8m people in employment, while the HSA has taken on additional roles, including supports to pharmaceutical and high tech industries” she said.

Ms Richards said that feedback from the field suggests that health and safety compliance is generally slipping, and a reduction in inspections will exacerbate this trend. She said that formal enforcement action was required in 7% of inspections during 2011. Five hundred enforcement notices were served, while 32 prosecution cases were heard during 2011. Of these, five individuals received prison sentences.

Ms Richards told delegates, “There comes a point in the process of forced staff reductions when someone must shout ‘stop’. State agencies have suffered a disproportionate cull in recent years, compared to our parent departments. I note with interest that another conference motion highlights the same effect in Ordnance Survey Ireland, where they have identified the very serious loss of expertise and knowledge from their ranks. It has had the same effect on us. Our work is about protecting life and limb, as well as the health of the economy.”