Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to provide for a definition of fresh air based on CO2 levels in the workplace as an emergency Covid-19 prevention measure; to provide for health and safety inspectors to take CO2 measurements and issue improvement or prohibition notices; to provide for employees to request inspections; and to provide for related matters.

The People Before Profit Workplace Ventilation Bill is a very straightforward measure to give workers the right to fresh air at work and require bosses to ensure that there is proper ventilation. We have seen with Covid-19 just how important this is. The need for proper ventilation was there long before Covid, however, and will continue when Covid hopefully passes.

Poorly ventilated workplaces not only expose workers to many viruses and illnesses but poor air quality can also lead to drowsiness, headaches and fatigue. The Bill sets clear limits for CO2 levels in the air above which bosses must take action to improve ventilation or face prohibition notices and other penalties. These are very basic issues of workers' rights and health and safety and it is long overdue.

For more than a year, we in people Before Profit have raised repeatedly the shocking lack of effort being put into ventilation in our schools, offices, bars and restaurants. For more than 18 months now, the Government has been burying its head in the sand. There are still no legally enforceable standards in respect of workplace air quality.

We have long known that Covid-19 is airborne and that proper ventilation can dramatically reduce the chances of it spreading. Still, however, as things reopen, as winter returns and as people move indoors, we have not taken action to ensure proper ventilation in workplaces. When I questioned the Tánaiste about this at a committee meeting in July, he initially tried to claim that there were standards for workplace air quality before finally admitting that he was "not sure there is any legal standard on ventilation". There is not.

In September 2020, I raised on Leaders' Questions the shocking lack of proper ventilation in our schools. Five out of every six schools reported inadequate ventilation at that stage. One year on, we still do not even have air quality monitors in every classroom. We do not have a plan for air quality monitors in every classroom, never mind proper high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters. The state of Victoria in Australia is installing air purifiers in every classroom, yet we cannot even provide €70 CO2 monitors in classrooms here. Along with this Bill, we need to put the investment in now to provide every classroom with an air monitor and require all bars, restaurants and offices to have air monitors in order to ensure that workers are not forced to work in unsafe environments.

Our Bill effectively follows the example of Belgium in establishing minimum standards for air quality. Workers are empowered to request an inspection by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. If air quality is found to be lacking, the HSA will issue rapid enforcement orders to improve ventilation, and, in extreme cases, can close a workplace until proper ventilation or air filtration is put in place. In line with Belgian law, our Bill sets two limits on CO2 levels above 900 parts per million. If the latter is exceeded, HSA would issue an improvement notice that gives the company involved 24 hours to improve the situation. If, however, the levels are above 1,500 and present an immediate danger to people, then a prohibition order would be issued until the levels can be addressed. The Bill also allows for the rare cases where CO2 levels may be above 900 parts per million but other air filtration measures such as HEPA filters would be in place, which would make it relatively safe. To explain, CO2 monitoring effectively acts as a very useful proxy for air quality and ventilation in general.

If one has proper ventilation, one's CO2 levels will be relatively low and viruses such as Covid cannot build up in the air. That is why it is used as the relevant proxy. We need to pass this legislation. It is vital for workers' health and safety, but, ultimately, what we need - and we saw this in the meat factories in particular - is strong workplace organisation and trade unions fighting to ensure the health and safety of people at work.

Our Bill should be seen as part of a whole series of proposals from People Before Profit, including our trade union recognition Bill and our call for unions to have full rights to inspect workplaces and meet workers on-site.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.