The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Bill 2004 seeks to modernise health and safety laws. It is significant legislation which affirms the Government's commitment to upholding the protection of workers. The Bill updates and amends the provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, which was steered through the Oireachtas by the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Labour.
The Bill aims to consolidate safety, health and welfare primary legislation into one statute and includes provisions of Framework Directive 89/391 on safety and health and the directive on fixed term and temporary employees. The primary focus of the legislation is on prevention. It also provides for significant increased fines and penalties to deter the minority who flout health and safety laws. It includes a scheme for on-the-spot fines through regulations and provides that directors and managers can be held liable if complicit in deaths and accidents.
Taken with the Personal Injuries Assessment Board legislation, the Bill sets the scene for both prevention and compensation and will have beneficial effects on the economy, workers and employers. It includes additional new duties on employers and employees and strikes a balance between the interests of both groups. The Bill also provides for protection for employees against penalisation for exercising safety and health rights or duties, considerably strengthens safety consultation and safety representatives and recognises safety committees.
The Bill proposes to change the name of the National Authority for Occupational Safety and Health to the Health and Safety Authority, the name by which it is, in any event,de facto known. It also updates the rules on corporate governance in the authority.
I gave a commitment in the Dáil to commission an assessment of the impact of the legislation on competitiveness. Initial proposals were submitted to the Department at the end of last month by several economic consultants and we hope to be in a position to appoint someone to conduct this research in the near future.
Inspired by the tripartite commission of inquiry chaired by Mr. Justice Barrington, the 1989 Act applied safety and health laws for the first time to all employment. The latest figures from the Health and Safety Authority show that 50 people died arising from work activities in 2004. Although this constitutes a reduction of more than 25% in the rate of deaths at work since 1989, the figure remains unacceptable. The authority's figures for 2004 for non-fatal accidents at work show that the main cause of injury, accounting for almost one third of all such accidents, is manual handling which includes lifting or carrying, with loss of control of animals or machinery, at slightly more than 20%, accounting for the second highest number of non-fatal accidents.
In 2002, the latest year for which figures are available from the Central Statistics Office, the national estimate is that 117,800 people suffered injury at work or occupational illness arising from work activities. This resulted in the loss of 3.16 million work days among those in employment compared, for example, with 21,000 days lost to industrial disputes in 2002. Days lost to industrial accidents and illness in 2002 alone exceeded those lost through industrial dispute over the previous ten years. Between 1999 and 2002 the rate of injury and illness among those employed decreased by 15%, despite the growth in employment. Nevertheless, the human cost arising from death, pain and suffering undoubtedly makes the case for ensuring our social legislation in this area is relevant to changing conditions of work. Slightly more than 2 million people are employed compared to 1.2 million in 1989 when the original Bill was passed.
Injuries at work create costs for the economy, including direct costs to State health services, social insurance and costs to employers such as insurance. Injuries and ill health cost the economy approximately €1.6 billion per annum. Given that the absence of a key worker may have serious consequences for a small company and its workers, measures to reduce accidents and illnesses make good economic and business sense.
Safety and health policy is influenced by developments in the European Union such as the introduction of the framework directive of 1989 and a range of other directives. Ireland played a part in negotiating the principles at work in these directives. Since the introduction of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, many of the stakeholders have contributed and taken initiatives to underpin its success. Employer and trade unions bodies as well as the professional and education and training bodies have given it much support, as have non-governmental organisations such as the National Irish Safety Organisation. The Health and Safety Authority has also done a good job.
The Bill is a framework which focuses on broad general duties and the organisational and structural arrangements necessary to improve safety and health. The detail in many instances will continue to be included in regulations.
The Bill is organised in eight parts and seven Sschedules. Part 1 deals with preliminary and general matters and includes some important new definitions such as "competent person". It provides the basis for the repeal of older health and safety statutes, depending on review and possible replacement with regulations. It also provides limited exemptions as regards prisons and the Defence Forces and applies health and safety laws to self-employed persons.
Part 2 sets out a range of general duties on various stakeholders. It repeats the 1989 Act duties and requires employers to manage and conduct work activities so as to ensure safety, health and welfare and prevent any improper conduct or behaviour likely to endanger safety, health or welfare. Employers must also determine and implement the necessary safety, health and welfare measures, having identified hazards and carried out a risk assessment or when preparing a safety statement. In addition, they must report accidents and dangerous occurrences to the authority.
In compliance with Framework Directive 89/391, a number of sections elaborate on the requirements as regards information to be given to employees; the instruction, training and the supervision of employees as regards safety and health; and dealing with emergencies and serious and imminent dangers.
Chapter 2 of Part 2 sets out a number of general duties of employees and persons in control of places of work such as landlords. It imposes new requirements on employees which oblige them not to be under the influence of intoxicants to the extent that they put their safety or that of others in danger and to submit to tests for intoxicants if this is set out in regulations. I gave a commitment in the Dáil to bring a draft of these regulations before the Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and will do so as soon as it becomes available and following wide-ranging consultation.
Employees must also, if required by the employer or set out in regulations, undergo safety and health training and assessment. In addition, those seeking employment must not misrepresent themselves as having undergone training as may be required under regulations.
Chapter 3 of Part 2 places duties on several other stakeholders, including persons involved in construction work, specifically those who commission or procure construction work, design such work or carry it out. This provision will underpin the regulations which implement the EU directive on construction. Given that construction continues to be a high risk sector which accounts for a disproportionate number of accidents and deaths, it is appropriate to place special emphasis on the construction industry.
Part 3 places a special emphasis on protective and preventive measures and sets out the methodologies to be applied to reduce accidents and ill health at work. This is an important element of the Bill given that there will be a strong focus on prevention in future. Employers must identify hazards and assess the risks presented by any hazards in the place of work. Having done so, every employer must prepare a safety statement which also sets out the protective and preventive measures necessary.
The Bill provides for regulations which can require employers who contract for services with another employer to check that the service supplier has an up-to-date safety statement. Regulations will be likely to focus on large organisations, including those in the public sector which buy in services extensively.
Recognising the practical difficulties faced by many small employers in meeting the safety statement requirements, the Bill provides a basis whereby employers employing three persons or fewer can comply with the safety statement if they meet the requirements of a code of practice published by the Health and Safety Authority. Guidelines have already been published covering several low risk employment sectors.
Surveys conducted by the Health and Safety Authority in 2003 reveal that while 90% of companies employing 50 or more people had a safety statement, the figure fell to 56% in companies employing fewer than 50 people. The safety statement is the management tool for managing safety and health at work. Employers also have a duty to co-operate with each other when they share a workplace.
Health surveillance must be made available to workers by employers based on Framework Directive 89/391. Regulations can also be made requiring workers whose work presents critical risks to the safety and health of others to undergo an assessment by a doctor as regards fitness to carry out the work. Full consultation with employers, unions and other interests will take place before any such regulations are made to apply to particular work activities.
Part 3 includes an important new provision enabling employer organisations and trade unions to enter into joint safety and health agreements which will be recognised by the Health and Safety Authority. This will support agreements emerging under the social dialogue arrangements in the European Union.
Part 4 refers to consultations on worker health and safety and remains central to reducing accidents and illnesses at work. The first section in Part 4 is devoted to safety representatives, who need additional support in their challenging role. Several new provisions are included both here and throughout the Bill to strengthen the roles. Surveys conducted by the Health and Safety Authority in 2003 showed that in 74% of companies employing 50 or more people, workers had appointed safety representatives. In companies employing up to 15 workers, however, this fell to 15%.
Part 3 also re-enacts provisions on the consultation of workers and important new provisions whereby an employer cannot penalise an employee for acting in good faith in the interests of safety and health. An employee can make a complaint about penalisation to a rights commissioner who can direct the employer to take a specific course of action or to pay compensation. A decision of a rights commissioner can be appealed to the Labour Court and a determination of the Labour Court can be enforced in the Circuit Court.
Part 5 is devoted in two chapters to the Health and Safety Authority. The authority is to be renamed, there is provision for the establishment of subsidiaries, the board's membership is to increase from 11 to 12 persons and there are provisions on corporate governance arrangements for both board and staff. Chapter 2 of Part 5 covers staff matters within the authority.
Part 6 deals with legislative matters and enforcement. Chapter 1 covers the making of regulations and codes of practice and chapter 2 covers the appointment of inspectors by the authority and their enforcement powers, including the service of notices and applications for High Court orders closing down unsafe places of work. There is also a new provision whereby a person on whom a notice is served must bring it to the attention of any person affected and must also display the notice in a prominent place at the place of work. Latest figures show that the authority has sought nine High Court orders to date.
Part 7 covers offences and penalties. The Bill strikes a balance between encouraging the prevention of accidents and ill health at work, through structures and mechanisms such as the safety statement and safety consultation, offences and penalty provisions to deal with the few that insist on flouting health and safety laws.
There are two categories of offences. The first applies to less serious matters and the second covers all of the more serious offences under health and safety laws. The first category can be prosecuted in the District Court with a fine of up to €3,000. In the second category, on summary conviction in the District Court, a fine of €3,000 or imprisonment of up to six months or both can apply. On conviction on indictment in cases taken by the DPP with the support of the authority, the maximum fine is €3 million or imprisonment for up to two years or both. On-the-spot fines can also be introduced through regulations, not to exceed €1,000.
Company directors and managers carry significant social responsibility to protect safety and health. A provision in the 1989 Act has been highlighted in the Bill. Already directors and managers have been prosecuted. The Bill will alert directors and managers to their responsibilities and focus their minds on compliance and on engaging competent persons where necessary to advise them. Corporate manslaughter is another issue and the Government awaits the report of the Law Reform Commission.
Part 8 covers several miscellaneous matters. The opportunity is being taken in the Bill to amend the National Standards Authority of Ireland Act 1996 to rectify a legal deficiency that is preventing the Director of Consumer Affairs from enforcing a number of product safety orders, mainly made under the Industrial Research and Standards Act 1961.
There are seven schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 lists associated statutory provisions upon which the authority can comment. Schedule 2 lists remaining health and safety statutes and regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972. Schedule 3 sets out the general principles of prevention based on the EU framework directive on safety and health. Schedule 4 sets down conditions attaching to safety committees. Schedule 5 deals with appointments to and procedures for the board of the authority. Schedule 6 deals with the appointment and functions of the chief executive of the authority and Schedule 7 lists matters which can be covered in regulations.
This Bill provides a framework for prevention for the foreseeable future. I look forward to debating it with Senators on Committee Stage. The Health and Safety Authority will be committed to ensuring the highest possible standards of compliance. The system must be underpinned by competent safety representatives and safety practitioners and upheld by the highest standards. This will give greater ownership of the system to employees and employers. Companies developing corporate social responsibility will develop workplace performance indicators on absenteeism, accidents and ill health, complaints and compliance, and training and development.
Incentives are important and the insurance industry, as a major stakeholder, should look at health and safety performance as a criterion in the selection of sub-contractors and in the marketing of products. New risks need attention, including psycho-social problems, and it is critical to re-energise this sector.
I look forward to hearing Senators' comments and to a stronger health and safety regime.