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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 15 Jun 1993

Vol. 136 No. 14

Adjournment Matters. - Health and Safety in the Army.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter this evening and I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment, Deputy O'Rourke, to the House as I know she has an interest in this issue.

I call on the Minister for Enterprise and Employment to immediately review the regulations governing health and safety in the Army. In February of this year, the Minister signed regulations governing health and safety in the workplace for the Army which ignored recommendations by the statutory authority set up to implement the provisions of the Health and Safety Act. This is a vote of no confidence by the Minister in his own statutory body, the National Authority for Occupational Safety and Health. The authority, which consulted all trade associations and PDFORRA, agreed and approved a section of the regulations governing limited exemptions for the Defence Forces. However, following this agreement a meeting took place between the Department of Defence and the Department of Labour after which new regulations were inserted without any consultation. The Department of Defence apparently called the shots and ignored the views of the Department of Labour on the matter.

The health and safety of soldiers is the issue we are addressing tonight. The new regulations stripped away virtually all the protection afforded to soldiers which had been embodied in the previously negotiated and agreed regulations. It is appalling that a Labour Party Minister, responsible for enterprise and employment, would arbitrarily ignore a negotiated agreement between two statutory bodies who had engaged in a process of consultation and negotiation. The effect of the Minister's decision is to undermine completely the confidence which PDFORRA had in the health and safety authority, and poses a serious question as to the continued existence of the authority as an advisory body. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, has robbed the soldiers going about their daily work of the right to the protection of the law regarding their health by giving the military authorities a blank cheque on exemptions.

Following detailed discussion for a period of two years, a wording was agreed on regulation 3 of the regulations. In the course of those discussions every opportunity was afforded to the military authorities to be involved and advise on the wording agreed. Their views were taken on board by both PDFORRA and the health and safety authority, and I would like to quote the agreed wording where it says:

3. Application to Certain Public Service Activities.

The relevant statutory provisions shall not apply in the case of activities in which members of the Defence Forces subject to military law are engaged where such activities relate to armed engagement or civil emergencies and where any such activity prevents compliance with the relevant statutory provisions.

However, this agreement was ignored and the following wording was inserted by the Minister for Enterprise and Employment, apparently on the instructions of the Department of Defence:

3. Application to Certain Public Service Activities.

The relevant statutory provisions shall apply to members of the Defence Forces except where they are:

(a) On active service as defined in section 5 of the Defence Act, 1954, (No. 18 of 1954) or deemed to be on active service, as defined in section 4 (1) of the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act, 1960, (No. 44 of 1960);

(b) Engaged in action in the course of operational duties at sea;

(c) Engaged in operations in aid to the civil power; or

(d) Engaged in training directly associated with any of the above mentioned activities.

Effectively this wording denies the application of the Health and Safety Act Regulations for between 75 per cent and 85 per cent of soldiers' activities. I will give a few examples of this. Daily cash escorts by military personnel in aid of the civil power are exempted by the Minister's insertion. Normal safety standards applying to the use of vehicles and equipment do not apply. This exemption was quoted to justify the use of Army vehicles that were defective causing nausea and illness from smoke inhalation among personnel using these vehicles. Another example, quoted by the media, reported injuries sustained by apprentices during training exercises at Baldonnel Two apprentices received injuries in riot control training. If the agreed safety wording was in place proper precautions would have been taken on the day, otherwise the Army would have been ignoring the regulations.

Soldiers must engage in range practices and work in environments with high noise levels, for example, in ships' engine rooms or aircraft maintenance workshops. A high level of attention needs to be paid to safety procedures in these areas and now the authorities are exempted from applying proper procedures to control noise levels or give adequate hearing protection. Too many soldiers have been discharged over the years because of hearing defects developed due to their working environment. The Health and Safety Act was designed to change this. Why can the Act not apply to military personnel whose health and employment remain in jeopardy because of its non-compliance?

I understand that a recent EC Directive introduced a maximum of a 48 hour working week. This will be implemented under the Health and Safety Act regulations. I see the Minister of State nodding to confirm that. Soldiers working in the areas, which I have outlined, as aids to the civil powers and in training and other cases, will not be protected under the legislation. The appalling and unacceptable situation of soldiers at Border areas working up to 96 hours per week and naval personnel working up to 116 hours per week is, therefore, set to continue.

All PDFORRA seek in this area is reasonable cover under this legislation to ensure the health of their members. Soldiers fully accept that once their activities involve the use of live ammunition for armed engagement, regulations should not apply. The Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations has made repeated representations to the Government and the National Authority for Occupational Safety and Health on this issue. Its views to date have been ignored. I now ask the Minister to listen to the ICPCA, PDFORRA and the Health and Safety Authority, to review the situation and let common sense and justice prevail.

I thank Senator Neville for bringing this issue to the House. I share many of his concerns. I come from a town which has a strong Army base; I grew up 50 yards from Custume Barracks. I have known soldiers serving in the Western Command all my life. I was very glad when PDFORRA was set up. This was due to the tenacity not only of the people concerned and their legitimate right to have their views heard, but also of the Minister of Defence at the time, Deputy Lenihan, and the way they worked together to get that important representative group established.

The Senator is referring to regulation 3 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulation, 1993, which came into operation in the middle of last February. The general election delayed it for a number of months.

The regulations implement the framework directive and six other EC directives, all governing standards of safety and health in the workplace. In addition, the regulations revised and updated legal requirements concerning the safe use of electricity in the workplace, the provision of first aid facilities and the procedures governing the notification to the Health and Safety Authority of accidents and dangerous occurrences.

Provision was included in the framework directive for the exemption of certain specific public service activities, such as those carried out by the armed forces, from the requirements of the legislation. Discussions took place, as Senator Neville said, over an extended period towards the end of 1992 between the then Department of Labour, the Department of Defence and the Health and Safety Authority in an effort to draw up a suitable limited exemption clause for the regulations which would provide adequate protection for the Irish Defence Forces while taking into account the security needs of the State and the operational requirements of those forces.

Under the 1989 Act, the Health and Safety Authority is required, before submitting proposals for regulations to the Minister, to consult with such Ministers of Government, persons or bodies as appear to be appropriate in the particular circumstances. Those requirements were designed to ensure that the authority's proposals are as broadly based as possible and take account of whatever views are made by interested parties on proposals for legislation. It was in this context that the consultations between the authority and PDFORRA and other bodies took place. Senator Neville referred to this matter at length; yes, there were consultations. The text of the exemption proposal suggested by PDFORRA to the Health and Safety Authority in the course of their discussions would have created serious operational difficulties for the Defence Forces and was consequently unacceptable to the Minister for Defence.

I am satisfied that the wording finally arrived at by my Department, which represents a compromise of the proposals put forward by the Department of Defence and the Health and Safety Authority, provides a satisfactory balance of the objectives to be achieved. This is particularly so since the limited exemption is qualified by a further regulation — regulation 5 (e) — which states that when this exemption is in place an employer must protect the health and safety of his or her employees as far as is possible. The Defence Forces continue to enjoy the full protection of health and safety legislation for the bulk of their day-to-day activities and the exemption will only apply in certain clearly defined circumstances — the four Senator Neville mentioned and with which I am acquainted. In the event of any reported abuse of the exemption regulation, the Health and Safety Authority is empowered to investigate the matter under the 1989 Act and to take whatever action it considers necessary to rectify the position.

In the meantime the Health and Safety Authority proposes to establish an advisory committee, as provided for under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989, to examine and report on the operation of safety and health legislation in the Defence Forces. As Senator Neville and Senator O'Toole, who has an interest in this matter, are aware the Health and Safety Authority allows for the setting up of such an advisory committee. I have accepted the reports of some of those advisory committees and the way they have gone about their business has been admirable. The authority intends that the membership of this committee will be broadly based and will include representation for each of the interested parties, including the Department of Defence and PDFORRA. The advisory committee will be asked to report back to the authority later this year.

I wish to point out that the remit and work of the Health and Safety Authority comes under my aegis within the Department. I intend to monitor the consultations of this proposed committee and follow through on its activities. I hope the end result of the consultation process will be agreeable to all concerned. I know we all share the concerns expressed by Senator Neville this evening that the men and women of our Defence Forces should enjoy the best of care and attention. Their well being should be highly regarded and constantly scrutinised. It is my wish that within the operational context of the Defence Forces every regard will be had for the health and safety of members. I hope the proposed committee will bear in mind the fine record of the Defence Forces and the need for enforcement of health and safety measures. I hope the outcome will be fruitful.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The present wording of regulation 3 is totally unacceptable to Army representatives. Will the proposed advisory committee be in a position to advise on changes of regulation 3 on the Health and Safety Act regulations?

It would be wrong of me to state what such a committee should do; I think Senator Neville recognises that. The Health and Safety Authority is proposing to establish an advisory committee. I have given examples of the work of those advisory committees which resulted in what I consider to be very fine reports which were far reaching in their importance.

Including changes in regulations?

I am not here to pre-empt the work of that committee.

Minister, reply to the question.

That is what I am doing.

Acting Chairman

I gave the Minister latitude.

It would be wrong of me to pre-empt what is a proposal of the Health and Safety Authority. I hope it will be a representative committee. I am sure we can trust the good sense of those involved and that they will attend to their work with diligence and produce a report of clarity.

I look forward to the Minister receiving the report of the educational advisory committee on health and safety and that she will return to the House.