Health and Safety in Small Businesses: Presentation.

The committee meets to discuss with the National Irish Safety Organisation the issue of health and safety among small businesses. I welcome Mr. John O'Shaughnessy, president of NISO, Mr. Niall Doyle and Mr. Brian Whelan also from NISO. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that while members of the joint committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. John O’Shaughnessy

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee. I am the current president of the National Irish Safety Organisation. I hail from Galway. I happen to be the first person from Connacht to head the organisation. I am accompanied by Mr. Niall Doyle from the Irish Insurance Federation who is a member of our executive board and Mr. Brian Whelan, our public relations adviser.

I will set out what we propose to cover in our presentation. We wish to let the committee know what we are and what we are not, what we do and what we do not do, and, most importantly, what we would like the committee to do and what we do not expect from today's meeting. We are not here to look for money but to seek support, perhaps now and in the future.

I would like to give a brief background to the National Irish Safety Organisation, NISO. Founded in 1963 as a not-for-profit voluntary organisation, it is today one of the largest and most comprehensive providers of health and safety training and advice in Ireland. Our 16-member executive board includes nominees from the Health and Safety Authority, IBEC, ICTU and the Irish Insurance Federation. The central aim of our national organisation is to create the conditions whereby Irish workplaces are among the safest and healthiest in Europe. We accomplish this through our board, our national network of eight regional committees, our 300 volunteers and tutors from the health and safety business and academic communities, our nominated representatives on external health and safety advisory committees and boards, our collaborations with other organisations in delivering improved workplace health and safety, our professional secretariat, our 1,700 corporate members and our extensive annual programme of events, talks, regional and national safety quizzes, seminars and training.

This year we embarked on a new strategy that aims to broaden the reach of our regional networks and training as it impacts on the small enterprise and business sector and to raise the national profile of our achievements in workplace health and safety. To progress our strategy we are in receipt of subventions from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Irish Insurance Federation. For a voluntary not-for-profit organisation, I cannot over-emphasise the importance of the role these subventions play in enabling us to reach the new challenges we have set for our volunteer networks and for national health and safety performance improvement in our workplaces.

Returning to the services we provide, the highlight of our events calendar is our annual conference and national safety awards ceremony held in October of each year. Opening this year's national safety awards, the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, paid tribute to the successful all-island partnership that the awards represent between the National Irish Safety Organisation and its sister organisation, the Northern Ireland Safety Group.

This year's conference and safety awards programme, held in Galway, was attended by more than 1,000 delegates from North and South. Its theme was the important role of management leadership, with particular emphasis on owner managers of small businesses, in delivering safe and healthy Irish workplaces. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Jukka Takala, the new director of the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work, had an important message for our business leaders and owners, based on EU and international research. This research shows that companies which see health and safety as an investment, not a cost, deliver higher year-on-year productivity and more successful business models with long-term natures. This is in line with the findings of the Indecon research study commissioned earlier this year by the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, whose personal leadership in bringing forward the new 2005 Act and whose ongoing work on new regulations we wish to commend.

I will now hand over to my executive board colleague, Mr. Niall Doyle, who will briefly outline the occupational health and safety issues faced by small businesses in their workplaces and what our organisation is doing to assist these businesses in improving their health and safety performance.

Mr. Niall Doyle

As a member of the executive board and the nominee of the Irish Insurance Federation, I am delighted to be part of NISO's delegation. Our involvement with NISO goes back approximately 20 years and we are extremely proud of that relationship, as the committee will know, given our relationship with the National Safety Council, the Road Safety Authority, the high level group on road safety and the financial education steering group. These are the types of organisations in which we like to become involved. The National Irish Safety Organisation is unique in accessing small indigenous businesses in local towns and rural settings. One of the key issues is that there is often no health and safety expertise in small and medium enterprises. In some cases, there is absolutely no awareness or perception of risk. Many engage in dangerous work activities, yet are unaware they are doing so. In addition, they may have no health and safety budget. Unfortunately, as committee members well know, the owner-manager quite often believes that health and safety is a cost and not a bureaucratic burden.

Mr. Mark Fielding attended our annual conference this year. He is leading an incredibly important sector and we were trying to persuade him that it is not all about over-regulation. We can interpret this in a practical way for him, so that he will become a stalwart supporter of NISO — a person we can reply upon and with whom we can engage. We are still working on him, as the committee can imagine.

You are making progress.

Mr. Doyle

We are making progress.

Mr. Doyle

It is like chipping away at a stone with Mr. Fielding.

He is made of strong stuff.

Mr. Doyle

I agree with the Senator.

This committee has had the benefit of his expertise and we are grateful for it.

Mr. Doyle

Indeed.

I am mindful of the time because I want to get to the Senators before the Order of Business in the House. We are anxious to hear Mr. Doyle's contribution.

Mr. Doyle

I will move on as rapidly as possible.

There is no rush.

Mr. Doyle

The most common causes of workplace accidents are slips, trips and falls. To this must be added the sizeable rate of work-related illnesses. According to the CSO, this involves 60,000 cases, half of which are attributable to small business workplaces. Many of these are triggered from causes across the spectrum, from using solvents and other chemicals to bullying and stress. There are deterrents and enforcement procedures but we are trying to promote a culture of good safety practice, which is good for business.

Through a network of volunteers and tutors, we are responsible for delivering training and awareness courses throughout the region. Over the past six years we have delivered 11,000 training places on the health and safety foundation course in institutes of technology, universities, VECs and other venues. All our regions are covered and we offer practical advice on health and safety issues. We promote good health and safety practices and tailor that advice. We do not run generic courses, we tailor them to a specific business or an individual company we may visit. We have telephone lines and a web-based advisory service, in addition to the national awards ceremony. We get large companies with recognised achievements in the way they manage health and safety, to seek similar commitments along their value chain. This is important and amounts to saying "If you want to do business with us, you need to be safe as well".

The new strategy we are embarking upon, which was referred to previously by Mr. O'Shaughnessy, will double the impact of health and safety training and awareness programmes on small business workplaces, and will possibly treble it in 2008. We are also looking to treble our membership over the next five years and that is only the beginning. We have embarked on a new strategic direction and believe the way to go is through voluntary organisations such as ours. We are not seeking to make a profit, but believe that the country will get behind this organisation in some sense. If the Irish Insurance Federation did not believe this was possible, we would not continue to support NISO.

As Mr. O'Shaughnessy said so eloquently at the beginning, we are not asking for money. NISO operates through the Irish Insurance Federation in terms of sponsorship and through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The goal of this organisation is to be self-funding and not reliant upon anybody. That is an admirable goal for a voluntary organisation. It is starting to get the housekeeping right and to inform and strengthen the structures so that it can expand this network into the regions. We will be working in the regions to develop networks and expand the organisation in order to promote health and safety. We are asking this committee, individually and collectively, to heed our call and support us in our laudable goal throughout Ireland.

I thank Mr. Doyle for his presentation. This is the first time representatives of the National Irish Safety Organisation have appeared before the joint committee. I do not know the reason for this but the delegation is most welcome.

As Mr. Doyle indicated, promoting a culture of good safety practice is good for business. I have observed major improvements in this area in the past three years. I assure the delegation it has our full support in the area of insurance, a most difficult industry. I am mindful that business is about to commence in the Seanad and the Dáil.

I thank Mr. Doyle for his positive presentation. The joint committee wants progress made on the type of work being done by the National Irish Safety Organisation. Apart from providing moral support for NISO, members can do little else for the organisation. It would be useful if NISO provided the joint committee with details of its local support structure so we can communicate this information to all Members of the Houses.

Members were not aware of the existence of the NISO before it requested a meeting. I am pleased such an important organisation has come before the joint committee. It is four years since we rolled up our sleeves and started work on the insurance industry. We can act as a conduit from NISO to the Government andvice versa.

I had never heard of NISO's national awards ceremony. Marketing experts suggest that television delivers 70% market penetration. If the awards ceremony were broadcast on television members would be willing to participate in some shape or form. As a former Minister of State, Senator Leyden has extensive experience in this area.

The Chairman is correct but I have not had contact with the National Irish Safety Organisation. I thought I was one of a minority of members who were not aware of the organisation. People are more familiar with the Health and Safety Authority.

I welcome the delegation. The advantage of making its presentation is that the proceedings of this meeting are broadcast live on the Internet. I presume NISO has a website on which it will be able to upload a telecast of this meeting. I placed a telecast of a committee meeting I attended last week on my website.

Farm safety is of paramount importance. Does NISO work with the Irish Farmers Association and other farming organisations? Are farmers represented on its board?

The Chairman and I recall a period in the 1960s when timber frame scaffolding was used by workers in the construction industry. At that time the level of ignorance about health and safety issues was frightening. Nowadays, however, health and safety awareness is much stronger and construction workers wear hard hats, protective clothing, gloves and so forth. I commend the National Irish Safety Organisation's work in this area.

I suggest NISO examine the number of accidents that have occurred on lifts. Workers need to be trained in their use. A young Polish man was killed on the main street in Roscommon when a lift, which had not been erected in the correct manner, collapsed. Another man was killed in Cork the other day when the sides of a three foot deep trench caved in on top of him. Lifts used in construction have resulted in a number of fatalities. How safe are they?

I am pleased Mr. O'Shaughnessy, a Galway man, is from the west. As the Chairman indicated, the joint committee will support and promote NISO's work. I also share Senator O'Toole's view that Members of both Houses could meet local members of the organisation if we had their details.

I welcome the delegation and congratulate the National Irish Safety Organisation on the great work it is doing. Many non-national employees are being injured at work. Is this caused by poor communication between employers and employees? Does NISO offer training in this area? I do not know how best to address the unfortunate increase in the number of accidents involving non-national workers. What is NISO doing to overcome this problem?

Mr. Doyle

On the question of communicating with non-nationals, we run training courses in Polish. The course, Safe Pass, is delivered monthly in English and translated into Polish by an interpreter. We are working on having interpreters available as the need arises to translate into other languages. We have a panel of 150 tutors which we are expanding all the time. We are working on getting the appropriate persons to the sites of employment to solve the problem. There are regular courses on the height of scaffolding. The culture was to show somebody a machine and leave him to figure out how it worked. Now employees must do and pass a course before being allowed to use the machine. This is an issue for the National Irish Safety Organisation.

Does NISO collaborate with FÁS and does FÁS promote the work it does? Is it a condition of planning permission for a site that a safety certificate must be issued before work on site can commence? That is where the conditions in respect of safety should be put in place. Senator Leyden referred to the fatality which occurred when a trench collapsed on a man when laying water or sewage pipes. As I have a great deal of experience in this area, it is necessary to ensure the person in charge has a certificate of competence in dealing with safety issues on site and will be held responsible for the safety inspections twice a week. I acknowledge that significant improvements have been achieved in the past three to four years, but owing to the high level of activity in Ireland, we should be one of the leaders in the construction industry. I would be interested in listening to Mr. O'Shaughnessy's and Mr. Doyle's views on the matter.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy

The main contractor is charged with responsibility for ensuring safety on a construction site. It is incumbent on him or her to provide the necessary training for all staff brought on site, whether for machine work or otherwise. The National Irish Safety Organisation provides the mechanism to raise awareness of health and safety issues. Its input is to provide such training. However, the main contractor carries ultimate responsibility for ensuring safety on site.

The contractor may have no expertise in this field.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy

The law states the main contractor must ensure he or she employs people with expertise.

Therefore, it is the law.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy

Absolutely.

Must the contractor have a safety certificate before commencing work, similar to the way one cannot commence work before receiving the final document from the corporation or county council granting planning permission? As contractors appoint subcontractors to do specialist work such as the provision of steel, block laying and so on, is Mr. O'Shaughnessy stating it is the law of the land that the main contractor has ultimate responsibility for ensuring safety on site?

Mr. O’Shaughnessy

Yes.

Mr. Doyle

The Chairman is probing to see whether NISO will support a policy on the requirement to procure a safety certificate before the commencement of construction work.

The committee has decided that it is impossible to determine the value of a life. Our job is to counsel the Government on the basis of advice received from various industries, since they are the experts. I ask the delegates whether they seek legislation from the Government that would assist them in making building sites safer. They may contact the clerk to the committee at a convenient time early in the new year. We were successful in persuading the Government to introduce four Bills to assist the insurance industry, as a result of which insurance premia have fallen by 45% to 50%. As I said before the arrival of Deputy Quinn whom I welcome, this should be the leading country in Europe regarding health and safety issues, since there is so much construction work taking place. This is a buoyant economy and a good time to raise those issues that experts believe should be addressed. I look forward to rendering further assistance. Unfortunately, we will reach the end of our term next May, but, at least, we have six more months to assist business with whatever line it is pursuing. I have asked whether there is a need for stronger legislation to ensure health and safety issues are brought to the fore and that SMEs are also aware of their priorities.

Did Deputy Quinn wish to ask any questions?

I have no questions. I was inadvertently delayed, but I will read the presentations.

We were not that familiar with the organisation. It has won national awards and does extremely good work on a not-for-profit basis. Its priority is the safety of the workforce, in which regard the name "National Irish Safety Organisation" says it all. We would certainly like to assist it and play a part in any way we can. Mr. Doyle was with us during our deliberations on the insurance industry. Mr. O'Shaughnessy is most welcome and we thank him for attending.

We look forward to further contact early in January — certainly in the new year — in determining how we might advance and enhance the delegates' work. The Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, has been a tower of strength and shown great efficiency in this area. I record our acknowledgement of his great efforts and work in the short space of time since his appointment to assist in every way possible. That his determination has been acknowledged by the delegates is extremely gratifying and I thank them for their attendance.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy

On behalf of my colleagues, I express our thanks to the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to attend and their willingness to assist us and schedule further discussions for the new year. I thank Members of the Oireachtas as a whole for providing us with such a successful economy, of which we are very proud. I also wish everyone and their families a very happy and peaceful Christmas and a safe and prosperous new year.

I thank Mr. O'Shaughnessy.

Sitting suspended at 2.34 p.m. and resumed in private session at 2.35 p.m. The joint committee adjourned at 2.40 p.m. sine die.