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.