2014 Conference Review

2014 Conference Review

President set the tone as conference hears safety is a mindset

Saying that health and safety is an ethical issue, President Michael D Higgins, who opened the joint National Irish Safety Organisation and Health and Safety Authority’s National Health and Safety Conference 2014, set the tone for a very successful two day conference at which speakers addressed the proposition that ‘Safety is a Mindset’. 

The President in an address which showed an instinctive understanding of the proposition, spoke about the changed landscape for health and safety since the HSA was established 25 years ago following the Barrington Commission Report and the enactment of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989 (SHWW Act 1989).

Drawing on his personal experience as a young sociologist he recalled that in 1969 he studied the work and lives of dockers, ‘people who had been badly injured in the loading and unloading of ships’. He spoke of how dockers subsidised the income of friends who were injured at work and about the casualisation of work.

Turning to the present he noted that today we ‘face a vastly changed landscape’. Significant and fundamental reformation of Irish health and safety law, proposed by Barrington, was brought into force by the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989. This Act, which also established the HSA, saw a new approach which had at its heart engagement involving key stakeholders and most importantly changing attitudes in order to achieve a long term change in behaviour.

Throughout its 25-year history, the HSA, alongside enforcement, has promoted health and safety, educated employers and employees, and provided information and guidance, President Higgins said, remarking that ‘the achievements of the Authority are impressive’. NISO, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2013, has a rich and varied history as leaders in the long journey to the vastly improved environment in which most workers operate today.

Returning to an issue he raised when he spoke of his study of dock workers, the President said the protection of the lives and health of workers are ‘issues of an ethical nature’. President Higgins, who referred to his ‘Ethics Initiative’, which aims to stimulate a national conversation about ethical values, said that ‘within a context of economic instability, casualisation of labour and the expansion of precarious employment, many workers remain vulnerable and your work remains vital’.

O’Halloran warns gains must not be lost

Taking his cue from the President, HSA chief executive Martin O’Halloran said the SHWW Act 1989 ‘started a process of improvement that has continued for 25 years’. Recalling the work of his predecessors Tom Walsh and Tom Beegan and their senior colleagues he said ‘the improvement was not easy nor a foregone conclusion, but it has happened’. Today, the work-related death rate is less than half of what it was in 1989 when the Authority was established.

Mr O’Halloran posed the question that, while the fatality rate has been halved, is half of what was then a very high death rate good enough? In the 25 years since the Authority was established over 1,400 workplace fatalities have been reported to the HSA. These incidents were foreseeable and preventable. Statistics cannot explain the pain, anguish and shattered hopes of victims, their families and friends. Only those who have suffered the life altering experience of a workplace fatality in a family or among friends can understand that anguish.

The Authority estimates that more that 350,000 people were injured or made ill by work over the last 25 years. We must not, he said lose sight of that enormous loss and suffering, but we must also look at the economic cost. Based on the Indecon report which estimated that poor health and safety cost the Irish economy €3.1bn in 2007, he applied the Indecon methodology saying if we recalculate on 2013 GNP the cost is €2,8bn, with 1.8m workdays lost arising from health and safety incidents, compared to 8,500 from workplace accidents and illnesses.

Setting out the Authority’s vision of a country where worker health and safety is central to successful enterprise, HE said the HSA has cut the cost of regulatory compliance, with tools such as BeSMART (which now has over 20,000 users). He called on safety practitioners to show leadership and give good advice grounded in the doctrine of reasonably practicable by: not over interpreting legislation; attacking at birth “myths”; and differentiating between industrial relations and safety and health. He praised the roles played by NISO and IOSH in promoting health and safety.

Saying that we must not lose sight of the gains made in reducing fatalities, injuries and illnesses he spoke of the Authority’s concerns for the future. One of the biggest risks of the upturn (which he welcomed) is a risk of increasing accident rates, with new recruits into an industry or workplace at increased risk of injury.

Adding to the risks for the future is the fact that the Authority’s staff has been reduced by 25% and its non-budget payroll by 40%. While the Authority is doing things more efficiently, there have, he said inevitably had to be reductions in the level of services provided and “inspection numbers have fallen” from over 18,000 at peak to 11,000. Expressing his concern that the Authority may not be able to continue to deliver on the sustained downward reduction in fatalities and injuries, he said research by Professor Simon Wilson and a colleague from Trinity College Dublin, which will be published soon (after peer review) has found a very strong correlation between HSA staffing levels and fatality levels. Research by the Economic and Social Research Council, which will also be published shortly (after peer review), found a very strong correlation between the levels of workplace inspections and the levels of accidents and illnesses in the workforce.

The future of H&S in Irish workplaces

An innovative and as it turned out welcomed initiative was the conference forum: a discussion with a member panel on the future of health and safety in Irish workplaces chaired by the broadcaster Keelin Shanley.

Opening the discussion, TEEU general secretary, Eamon Devoy said that the TEEU had been a member of NISO since NISO was formed in 1963. Saying that the union has 30,000 members who are highly risk aware, he said we “lose at least one a member a year” because of workplace health and safety failures.

Looking to the future, Mr Devoy said he is “more concerned than optimistic”. Citing ILO figures, he said 2.3m people die each year from occupational accidents and diseases. A report for the European Commission found that depression is costing €617m a year. None of this, he said “augers well” for the future of health and safety in Ireland. Saying that a lot had been done by the HSA, employers and trade unions, he said there are “no statistics on disease in Ireland”.

Attacking the cuts to the HSA’s budget grant – down from €24m to €17m – he said this was “driven by a neo-liberal agenda”. The Authority’s staff numbers have, he said, been reduced from 197 to 158 and inspections are down from 16,000 to 11,000. Expressing his concern at the fall in the number of inspections, Mr Devoy said “without inspection there would be no health and safety”.

Offering  vision for the future, Anne Drummond, a senior lecturer in health and safety at UCD, said she wanted to see health and safety fully integrated in the curriculum at all levels from junior infants upwards. She also suggested the need to rebrand health and safety so that it is not looked at as a problem.

Michael Gillen, a senior executive with the IBEC member organisation PharmaChemical Ireland said that instead of focusing on the negative, with health and safety been seen as a reason for not doing something, we need to focus on the positive”.

Rounding off the discussion, the chairman of the IOSH Ireland Branch, Liam Howe speaking from the safety practitioner’s perspective said safety needs to be integrated into the management of business, not looked on as an extra. He said professional safety managers have the ability to inspire.

New Minister for health and safety

Bringing the first day of the conference to a close, the new Minister for Business and Employment, Ged Nash, T.D., who is taking on responsibility for health and safety, spoke of his keen personal interest in health and safety. He is, he said, anxious to play a full role.

Praising the HSA and NISO for organising the conference, Minister Nash said the Authority is to be commended “for enforcing health and safety law effectively and efficiently”. Expressing concern that so far this year 39 people had died in work-related accidents (the Minister was speaking on October 2nd) he said that 23 of the deaths were in agriculture.

Looking ahead the Minister said he will be asking the HSA for advice on how best to mark Workers’ Memorial Day, which falls April 28th each year.

Policy perspectives

Speaking about the Northern View, Keith Morrison, the chief executive of the Health & Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) spoke about the challenges facing health and safety in Northern Ireland. The three big challenges are, he said

  • •Farming, waste and construction sectors
  • •Budget cuts: the HSENI is facing significant curs
  • •Economic recovery, with the warning signs already there.

Speaking on the first day of the conference Paula Gough, a programme manager with the HSA looked at the policy influences that will influence legislation over the years up to 2019. She said the EU programmes that will affect the landscape over the next five years are: the High Level Stoiber Group looking at how administrative burdens on small businesses can be reduced; the REFIT (Regulatory Fitness and Reform) programme, which is looking at how to “cut through red tape and simplify legislation”; and the Commission’s review of the implementation of health and safety legislation at national level.

The background to the approach of the Health & Safety Executive United Kingdom (HSEUK) to policy is, said Eddie Moreland, the chief executive of the Health & Safety Laboratory (the research arm of the HSEUK) “goal based”: it is progressive, proportionate, flexible and holistic. There are, he said the 4Ps: place, process, plant and people and safety is about the combination of these elements. Saying that goal based safety is working, he said “people make it happen”.

Safety is a mindset

On the second day of the conference Gavin Pattison, associated director of EHS and security with Alkermes Pharma Ireland spoke about how the company went about developing a sustainable culture of ‘CaRE”. The programme is built around the philosophy of “brother’s keeper”. A key element of the programme is the good save. Since the introduction of the programme there have been over 4,000 good saves.

Speaking after Mr Pattison, Michael Gillen said a mindset is “a fixed mental attitude or outlook that predetermines how people interpret situations and respond to them”. Mindsets, he said drive behaviours and “behaviour starts with one person” and it starts with “one step”.

John McCarthy, HSE manager with Phillips 66 Ireland, who run the Whitegate Oil Refinery spoke about emergency response management and the Irish Framework for Emergency Management.

Neil O’Carroll of Sandymount Resources Limited and a stalwart supporter of NISO over many years spoke about a career chasing zeros. Speaking about his 43 year career in the oil industry he told delegates “you all buy oil products because of their ability to burn”. In a refinery you deal with 10,000 tonnes of oil every day. He said in an industry where safety is the number one priority, “there is a great tradition of sharing knowledge”. Safety, he said, needs to be sustainable and it needs to be subject to regular review.

Kathleen Bonar, an accredited counsellor and EAP practitioner, spoke about employee assistance programmes (EAP) as a tool in the safety practitioner’s toolkit. The purpose of an EAP is to help resolve problems affecting work performance.

Kieran Devenish, director Dandelion Risk Management, who for a Master’s thesis carried out research to find out if better safety outcomes could be achieved if workers who flout workplace safety rules were held accountable for their wrongful behaviour, asked if “the policy of the HSA is not to prosecute workers”. Noting that over the three year period 2010-2012 there were 54,104 accidents, he said that over that period just one employee had been prosecuted. During the discussion that followed HSA chief executive, Martin O’Halloran responded saying that it is the Authority’s policy to prosecute duty holders (employers, employees or others) who breach health and safety regulations. He listed a number of prosecutions of employees during the period 2010-2012.

Delivering the concluding presentation Herbert Mulligan, the editor of Health & Safety Review, looked at the influence of employer liability claims and HSA prosecutions on the development of health and safety over the last 25 years. Saying that everyone would have their own list among the cases he mentioned were the prosecution of Zoe Developments, the prosecution of the Clare County Council engineer Michael Scully, the Shanley and Sligo County Council and the Quigley and Complex Tooling bullying cases, the Fletcher worried well asbestos case, the legal challenges taken against the HSA by the Cork and Donegal County Councils over road works and the P J Carey case on the reversal of the onus of proof.

Article courtesy of Herbert Mulligan, Editor, Health and Safety Review