The purpose of the Bill is to create a comprehensive legal and structured system as regards safety and health at work. The Bill has one clear objective which is to help reduce accidents and ill-health at work which give rise to human loss and suffering and which create costs for both individual workers and for the economy.
This Bill, in broad terms, sets down a preventive approach as regards avoiding accidents and ill-health in the workplace. Employers will have to identify the hazards in the workplace and set them out, along with the protective measures, in a written safety statement. The Bill places general duties and responsibilities on all employers, workers and the self-employed. These general duties can be fleshed out as necessary in regulations or codes of practice. The Bill covers all workers and trainees. It provides a basis for employers to inform, train and consult their employees on safety and health. It also provides for the establishment of a tripartite National Authority for Occupational Safety and Health. Employers and workers representatives on this Authority will share a major responsibility for developing and implementing safety and health policies. Decision on general policy will remain in my hands as Minister for Labour.
The Bill fulfils an important commitment by the Government in the Programme for National Recovery. It is based closely on the main recommendations of the Barrington Commission of Inquiry on Safety, Health and Welfare at Work, on which both sides of industry as well as Government were represented. The Bill has been drafted following extensive consultation with the two sides of industry on the Interim Board for Occupational Safety and Health. I can, with confidence, say that there is overall acceptance of the legislation amongst those to whom it will apply. I wish to place on the record the Government's appreciation of the work carried out by the commission and also by the interim baord.
The Barrington Commission's examination of occupational safety and health was the first such comprehensive study conducted in Ireland. Its investigations were timely, coinciding with a period of rapid and sustained technological change at the place of work. The commission found that existing safety legislation was severely limited both in its scope and in its ability to help overcome the safety and health hazards which can arise in the modern workplace.
The commission described its report as a "negotiated consensus". It set down several considerations in its report which I would like to recall and endorse at this stage. These points illustrate very clearly the philosophy underlying our future approach to safety and health at work in this country as expressed in the Bill.
The commission was convinced that a system which does not clarify who is responsible for what will fail to provide for the safety and health of workers. A major objective of the system proposed by the commission was to restore a sense of responsibility and to assign responsibilities where they belong. It emphasised that responsibility for safety and health at work flows from the highest level of management through the supervisor and rests also on the worker, who, too, has a direct responsibility. Safety must be a built-in feature of the organisation of work. A proper preventive strategy is essential, starting at the design and planning stage of production. Safe production is the direct responsibility of management which should have adequate expertise. If management does not have the necessary expertise, outside help must be called upon. While the services of safety and health specialists as well as consultation with the workers can be valuable, they are no substitute for the discharge by management of their overall responsibility for safety and health at work.
On the proposition that the main emphasis would be on enterprises themselves solving their own problems, the role of the State would be to provide the basic legal and organisational structures to facilitate this. The State would also ensure coherence to unify the contributions of a wide variety of institutions. Minimum legal standards would need to be laid down in the case of serious hazards. The ideal system would consist of a careful balance between compliance by employers with established standards and a selective, permissive process of advice, inspection and enforcement. The system should be dynamic, not static, and mechanisms for review and appraisal are necessary at the national level and in the workplace.
The commission considered it essential that at the level of the State there should be a single national body responsible for overall policy, co-ordination and control.
In a competitive world, it will have the task of persuading management that, apart from statutory duty, it is very much in their own interests to give time and attention to safety and health.
The present system is geared almost exclusively to factories, mines and quarries and the construction sector. It covers about 20 per cent of the workforce. The commission was concerned that areas such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, transport, laboratories and hospitals were not covered. Also many self-employed persons in construction, commerce, agriculture, forestry and fishing were outside the system. The commission argued that the new system should, as a matter of principle, cover all workers. I feel that our approach is justified by the obligation laid down in Article 45.4.2 of the Constitution to "endeavour to ensure that the strength and health of workers shall not be abused". Our safety and health legislation should apply therefore to all workers.
The knowledge, goodwill and commitment already existing in the community is the best foundation on which to build a system more attuned to the needs of a society undergoing rapid technological change in many occupations. Such a system is more appropriate for a young population with changing attitudes to authority and, also, more responsive to a society with a rising level of concern about the hazards of the working environment.
Owing to the limited scope of the existing legal system, overall data are not available on occupational accidents generally, whether fatal or non-fatal. An indication of the extent of the problem, however, may be got from the limited data available.
For example, the total number of accidents reported to my Department in respect of factories and mines and quarries is still over 3,000 per year. These do not include accidents resulting in less than three days absence from work. In the case of occupations outside the scope of existing legislation, there are no reliable systems to show the number of accidents occurring annually. While there are no figures available on the total number of accidents at work in the agricultural sector, a recent survey by Dr. Yvonne Doyle concluded that there may be as many as three farming deaths for every fatality in industry. Non-fatal injuries on farms are comparable with those in all other industries even though there are fewer workers in farming.
The Barrington Commission estimated that each year there occurs between 200,000 and 400,000 "damage-only" accidents, between 150,000 and 250,000 "first-aid" accidents and between 4,000 and 36,000 accidents involving slight injury causing one to three days absence from work.
In addition to the serious consequences which accidents at work can have in human terms for the victims and their dependants, they also give rise to heavy financial costs for the individual, the enterprise and the economy as a whole.
As a member of the European Community, many of our activities and policies on safety and health are influenced by Community directives and developments. The creation of the single European market by 1992 will provide an enormous opportunity for economic development provided that we are properly prepared for it. While the focus of the single market is the elimination throughout member states of various restrictions which up to now acted as barriers to trade, the process also involves a crucial social dimension. The European Commission has proposed six new directives on safety and health at work which are aimed at protecting the safety and health of workers in the context of increasing economic activity.
Those proposals include a draft framework directive which sets down general duties on employers and workers and which includes requirements as regards consultation and training of workers very much along the lines of the general provisions in the Bill. The Council has reached a common position on the draft framewiork directive and it will now be considered in a second reading by the European Parliament. Discussions have also commenced on the other proposals. These proposals, together with a range of other directives already adopted or awaiting formal adoption, apply to all forms of employment in contrast to existing Irish safety legislation. Our existing safety and health legislation is totally inadequate to implement many of the European Community proposals as they stand. However, the Bill which I have introduced provides a basis for meeting the requirements of those proposals.
I come now to a general outline of the legislation. The Bill represents the most radical initiative as regards safety and health at work since the foundation of the State. As I have already mentioned, the new legislation will apply to all persons engaged in work activities of any description — whether those persons are employees, employers or the self-employed. In a further departure from the traditional approach, employers and the self-employed will be required under the legislation to have regard also to the safety and health of non-employees who may be affected by work activities.
Legislation such as this must be dynamic and capable of adapting to new circumstances and to changes in technology. The Bill avoids therefore any hard and fast definitions of the terms safety, health and welfare at work. These concepts are not new. Based on the earlier legislation, the courts, employers and workers understand them. The essential criterion is that they are work related. The Bill does not apply, therefore, to accidents outside the course of work, to general health problems nor as regards the provision of recreational facilities.
In contrast with existing safety legislation, the Bill does not set out a detailed series of specific requirements and prohibitions as regards safety and health to be observed at each place of work. Instead, it sets out broad general duties of care for all employers, employees and the self-employed. Broadly speaking, those general duties of care involve the provision of a safe place of work, safe plant and equipment and a safe system of work. Other requirements include adequate training and information for those at risk about the relevant hazards and the steps taken to deal with them. The Bill also places broad general duties of care on those who design, manufacture, import, supply, install, etc. articles and substances for use at work.
The general duties in the Bill may be supplemented or amplified, as necessary, by regulations and codes of practice developed under the Bill covering an extensive and diverse range of issues. The Fourth Schedule sets out a detailed list of matters which can be covered in regulations. A code of practice under the Bill will mean any standard, specification, or other written or illustrated code providing practical guidance as regards observance of the legislation. It is anticipated that there will be frequent recourse to the use of codes of practice under the new system. It is likely that such codes can be better attuned to the needs of those at the place of work than detailed sets of statutory regulations.
Regulations, by their nature, may not be easily understood by those who are affected by them. It should be possible to indicate in simpler terms in codes of practice possible ways of compliance with the relevant statutory provisions. Failure to observe a code of practice will not in itself render any person liable to civil or criminal proceedings but the observance or failure to observe a code which relates to any of the relevant statutory provisions may be admissible in evidence in the courts in criminal proceedings.
As I have said earlier, the overall thrust of the new approach to safety and health is that the primary responsibility for implementing and observing appropriate standards will rest with those who create and manage the risks at the place of work. The role of the State will be to provide appropriate advice and guidance and to ensure that an adequate supervisory and enforcement system exists.
Each employer and self-employed person will be required to identify and assess the hazards which exist at his place of work and to prepare a written safety policy statement which will specify the manner in which the safety, health and welfare of persons at the place of work is to be secured.
Co-operation between employers and workers will be a key feature of the new system to enable it to operate effectively. Employers will be required to consult their employees on matters relating to safety, health and welfare and employees will have the right to choose the type of consultative mechanism best suited for those purposes. The Bill specifically enables employees to appoint safety representatives to represent them in consultations with their employer and to carry out a range of other functions provided for in the Bill, including the carrying out of inspections, and the investigation of accidents and dangerous occurrences at the place of work.
The Bill allows for a flexible approach to safety consultation more suited to the special characteristics and needs of each particular place of work than was possible, for example, under the corresponding provisions of the Safety in Industry Acts. The Barrington Commission also regarded adequate consultation between employers and workers as a key feature of the new system and said that the rigid prescription in the Safety in Industry Acts as regards the size and type of safety committees required could discourage effective dialogue. I believe that the formula provided for in the Bill meets those criticisms.
The conditions applying in the various sectors of employment can be examined and decisions taken on the most appropriate format for consultation in each sector. The arrangements can then be set out in codes of practice or regulation, if necessary. It needs to be stressed, however, that where safety committees established under the Safety in Industry Acts function adequately to the satisfaction of the employer and the workers, they may continue to operate under the formula set out in the Bill. I know that much good work has been carried out in recent years as regards training in the operation of safety committees and the Bill is not intended to undermine those where they are operating satisfactorily and meeting the consultation needs of both workers and employers.
While the main thrust of the Bill is directed towards employers, employees and the self-employed, it also provides for the safety and health of non-employees affected by work activities. However, the authority being established under the Bill will be expected to concentrate its efforts on worker protection. In areas where the predominant risk is to the public, it would not be for the authority to be involved in safeguarding the public against that risk. The Bill does not cover matters such as general environmental issues which are properly the responsibility of other Government Departments and institutions.
At national level one of the major changes under the Bill will be the establishment of a National Authority for Occupational Safety and Health. The authority will have a clear, identifiable and undisputed responsibility for issues relating to occupational safety and health at all places of work. It will be responsible for the general administration of the new system and it will be required to provide an expert centre of advice and information for employers and workers to assist them in meeting their obligations. It will also be responsible for the enforcement of the relevant statutory provisions except to the extent that other bodies may be prescribed by regulations to enforce the provisions in certain specified cases or areas.
As I have pointed out, the Barrington Commission was very clear in its report that the new system of safety and health, in which a major responsibility would be shared by both sides of industry, depended on the establishment of a tripartite body with executive powers and power to recruit its own staff. The authority, accordingly, will be a State-sponsored body, with a board comprising a chairman, three employers' representatives, three workers' representatives and four representatives of the State or other appropriate bodies. The board of the authority is so balanced that employers' and workers' representatives will have a major share in responsibility for the development and implementation of overall policy on safety and health at work at national level. Provision for employee participation at sub-board level in the authority should be made in line with the provisions applying to a large number of State bodies under the Worker Participation (State Enterprises) Act, 1988.
In developing its policies the authority will be able to avail of the advice of advisory committees representatives of sectoral and other expert interests. The committees will provide an advisory mechanism through which the authority can obtain the valuable inputs of many organisations which have expressed a wish to contribute to the evolution of occupational safety and health arrangements.
The authority will be able to recruit its own staff subject to the usual controls that apply in the case of public sector bodies. Initially the authority will be staffed by civil servants designated by the Minister for Labour for employment by the authority. The Bill contains the usual provisions regarding preservation of pay and conditions of employment of transferred civil servants.
The authority will be financed by the Exchequer and it will be subject to all the standard accounting and reporting controls that apply to public sector bodies. The authority will be required to keep under review the various statutory provisions relating to safety and health at work and, from time to time, to make poposals to the Minister for Labour or to other appropriate Ministers for making or revoking regulations, orders or codes of practice under those provisions. The Bill effectively provides for gradual review, replacement and revocation of the existing safety and health laws in keeping with the objective of establishing a unified comprehensive system. Before making any such proposals to the Minister the authority will be required under the Bill to consult relevant interests. The Bill also requires the Minister to consult the authority before making regulations under the relevant statutory provisions.
The existing enactments on safety and health at work, including the Safety in Industry Acts, the Mines and Quarries Act, the Office Premises Act and the Dangerous Substances Acts and their various regulations and orders, will initially stay in place alongside the new general provisions of the Bill. A number of repeals of provisions of those enactments are being effected through the Bill in order to avoid overlapping or duplication when corresponding or related provisions of the Bill are brought into operation. The Bill also contains provisions enabling the repeal of the remaining provisions of the existing enactments to be made effective in whole or part by orders of the Minister.
The Barrington Commission's proposals highlighted the need to develop an effective preventive approach to safety and health hazards. It follows, therefore, that the authority will have a prime role in providing appropriate advice and information to employers and workers on the prevention of accidents and diseases at work. This will be an important aspect of the work of the authority, particularly in the early stages of its development as regards sectors and workplaces coming within the statutory system for the first time.
The Authority will have overall responsibility for enforcing the new legislation and the existing enactments on safety and health. However, other bodies such as local authorities may be prescribed in regulation under the Bill as "enforcing agencies" to enforce the provisions in lieu of the authority in specified cases or areas. The possibility also exists for the authority to enter into agreements with Government Departments or other bodies for those bodies to discharge functions on behalf of the authority in specific areas or cases.
Although the persuasive or advisory approach to safety and health issues is a strong feature of the new provisions, it is recognised that, where that approach fails or is likely to fail, the possibility must exist of applying appropriate controls and of imposing realistic sanctions likely to act as deterrents.
Inspectors of the Authority and enforcing agencies will have a standard set of general enforcement powers under the legislation, such as the power to enter places of work and to carry out examinations of the place of work or articles and substances found there. Those powers largely reflect the powers currently exercised by industrial inspectors under the existing safety enactments. Some modifications and additional general powers are, however, incorporated in the Bill. The Bill also provides for a range of new or modified specific enforcement measures which may be used by inspectors, including improvement directions and plans, improvement notices and prohibition notices.
If an inspector is of the opinion that a work activity involves or will involve a risk to the safety or health of persons he may direct that an "improvement plan" be submitted to him, specifying the remedial action proposed to be taken as regards the risk concerned. This particular provision is aimed at encouraging a dialogue between the inspector and employer in which the employer is encouraged to develop preventive steps in the case of identified risks over a given period of time.
If a person fails to submit or implement an "improvement plan" or if the inspector is of the opinion that a person has contravened any of the relevant statutory provisions, he may serve an "improvement notice" on that person requiring him to remedy the contravention within a specified period.
There will be occasions however, in which an inspector will encounter an immediate and serious risk to workers. If an inspector is of the opinion that a work activity involves or is likely to involve a risk of serious personal injury he may serve a "prohibition notice" prohibiting the carrying on of that activity until the matters specified in the notice have been remedied.
The Bill provides for an appeal procedure through the courts for persons on whom an improvement notice or prohibition notice is served. Finally, the authority or an enforcing agency may apply ex-parte to the High Court for an order prohibiting or restricting the use of any place of work or any part of it where there is a serious risk to the safety or health of persons. Any such order will have effect despite any permission under any other enactment for the use of that place.
The Bill empowers officers of customs and excise to detain articles and substances for use at work at the point of import. This is in order to ensure that workers are provided with the same protection from imported articles and substances for use at work as would apply under the Bill in the case of articles and substances produced in Ireland. Such detention may not exceed two days and its purpose is to enable an inspector to exercise any of the powers or duties conferred on him under the Bill or any of the existing enactments in relation to that article or substance.
Where the enforcement measures referred to earlier do not have the desired effect or where there are serious or persistent contraventions of the legislation, the possibility of prosecution is essential. The Bill provides for a comprehensive range of offences which may be tried either summarily or on indictment. The Barrington Commission said that penalties needed to be re-examined, all the more so since, by expanding the range of mechanisms available to the inspector, prosecutions will be restricted to the more serious cases.
The Bill provides, therefore, for a range of penalties which are designed to act as real deterrents. Most offences under the Bill are liable to attract fines of up to £1,000 on summary conviction. A fine of up to £15,000 can be imposed for conviction on indictment. In the case of a limited number of offences, including breach of a prohibition notice, a person convicted on indictment may be liable, together with or instead of the fine, to imprisonment for up to two years. The Bill also updates the levels of penalties in the existing enactments to bring them generally into line with the penalties set down in the Bill.
If the authority is to function effectively it will be essential for it to have access to necessary information on safety and health at company level.
The Bill contains provisions regarding the obtaining of information from enterprises relating to safety and health at work. It also includes safeguards in relation to information so obtained, including the circumstances in which it may be disclosed by or on behalf of the authority and for what purposes.
As regards any accident, disease, occurrence or other matter related to the general purposes of the Bill, the legislation provides that the authority may arrange for the carrying out of an investigation and the production of a special report. The authority is also empowered by the Bill, with the consent of the Minister, to direct a formal tribunal to hold an inquiry into any such matter.
At present premises to which the Safety in Industry Acts apply are outside the scope of the Fire Services Act, 1981. An amendment being effected through the Bill will remove this anomaly and such premises will be subject to the provisions of fire prevention legislation like all other commercial premises. The enactment of that Act brought about a comprehensive approach to tackling fire safety in this country and it is appropriate now to bring industrial premises within that system. Certain premises to which the Dangerous Substances Acts apply including oil jetties, on account of the types of fire risk present, will continue to remain outside the scope of the Fire Services Act.
The Minister for Labour may, through regulations, prescribe work activities which will be subject to licensing requirements. Such work activities may only be carried on in accordance with the terms of a licence issued by the authority. The Bill provides for an appeal against a refusal to issue any such licence or against the conditions attached to a licence.
Having regard to the general nature of the duties set down in the Bill and since it does not prescribe detailed specific requirements in the traditional manner, it is impossible to quantify exactly the costs likely to arise at company or at national level in its implementation. However, it can be said that enterprises which already have a safe place of work and a safe system of work will not incur significant additional costs in complying with the requirements of the Bill.
Good safety and health practices are not necessarily costly. The accidents in industry reported to my Department indicate that many are caused by such mundane factors as objects or persons falling, handling equipment or goods and stepping on or striking objects. The elimination of these risks does not necessarily involve expenditure on protective equipment and devices. I am convinced that most low technology accidents can be eliminated if a clear priority is given to safety and health in the workplace, if there is better training and supervision, if good housekeeping practices are followed, if the hazards are identified and the necessary information given to workers and if problems are sorted out between the employer and workers through the consultative process. Above all, employers must shed the notion that accidents are inevitable. They must recognise that most often accidents are a human rather than a technical problem. They must be convinced that efforts expended by them, as employers, will be rewarded by a reduction in accidents.
As far as costs to the State are concerned arising from the Bill, the Barrington Commission made it clear that the large task of ensuring the safety and health of all workers will have to be tackled on a phased basis. The new authority will need to decide its strategy for achieving this and to make proposals as regards its resource needs. The Government will consider those proposals from the standpoint of seeking to achieve efficiently and effectively the objectives of this legislation.
An increased awareness of safety and health at work amongst many employers and workers has developed from the public debate on the issue since the report of the Barrington Commission was published some years ago. As a result several initiatives have been taken, even in advance of this legislation, in the voluntary, private and public sectors, particularly in the crucial areas of information, education and training. Employer organisations, trade unions and private enterprise provide necessary training. Under the aegis of my Department, a multidiciplinary course in occupational safety and health was instituted at third level in education. NISO, the National Industrial Safety Organisation, a voluntary body in safety and health, broadened its horizons and its range of activities. Initiatives such as those are welcome. Not alone will they contribute towards overall public awareness and expertise, but they will also help to relieve the direct burden on the State and on employment as regards achieving the objectives of the new system.
I look forward to a constructive debate and I will consider carefully all reasonable proposals which the House may have to improve the Bill.
Before I sit down I should like to say that it was originally thought that we would not start the debate until later in the day. The party Whips have devoted the entire day to this Bill, and I am not aware of how many speakers there will be, but if we reach the end of the Second Stage debate, could we proceed to the other Stages? No other business is ordered; I was asked by the Whips to mention this.