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Meat plants will no longer be warned in advance of health-and-safety inspections

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The majority of meat-plant inspections in future will be unannounced, after controversy erupted yesterday over official tip-offs that visits were imminent.

Thirty of 39 Health and Safety Authority (HSA) inspections were pre-announced to meat plants, with only nine made without advance notice, the Dáil coronavirus committee was told.

And not one improvement or prohibition notice had been served on production plants, admitted Mark Cullen, HSA assistant chief executive, despite union complaints on behalf of workers about overcrowding and other conditions.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said it was "unbelievable" not a single order to improve aspects of individual plants had been issued.

Sharon McGuinness, HSA chief executive, said her authority had responsibility for workplace safety, but public health issues were outside its remit.

Where workers lived was not its concern either, she said, and nor was transport to and from work. The authority dealt only with "work activity".

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‘Thorough’: HSA chief executive Sharon McGuinness. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

‘Thorough’: HSA chief executive Sharon McGuinness. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

‘Thorough’: HSA chief executive Sharon McGuinness. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Ms McGuinness said the advance notice of inspections came "the night before" a team turned up the following morning. "If it's an eight o'clock start, we would say it [to a management] at 4.30pm, 5pm" on the afternoon before.

If inspectors planned on going to a second plant nearby in the afternoon, that workplace would be rung with the news before lunch, she said.

Fine Gael TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill said the plants were not getting "three weeks' notice", but only a matter of hours.

Ms McGuinness said two inspectors would visit a plant for "three or four hours" and they were very thorough.

But Greg Ennis of Siptu said: "There should be no more announced inspections. They should all be unannounced.

"The vast proportion so far have been announced. The unannounced are in single figures."

Mr Cullinane said later: "We have known for more than four months that meat plants are hotbeds for the virus and transmission. There are 149 meat plants. Only 39 of them have been inspected.

"The vast majority of inspections should be unannounced, rather than the minority. Improvement or prohibition notices are served if a breach is found, so we are asked to believe that the HSA didn't detect any breaches at all. Clearly, more could have been done."

The Department of Agriculture has a permanent presence at 49 plants, and conducted inspections in 91 of the 100 others.

But Mr Cullinane said these examinations focused on the product and not the workers: "The remit does not expand to occupational welfare."

Ms McGuinness said the level of compliance with protocols had been very high. She said there had been two inspections within the three restricted counties in total, both "in recent weeks".

"Covid is a public health-led matter," she said.

"It's very important that public health take the lead on this."

Ms McGuinness also said there had been 21 public complaints received by the HSA, relating to 12 separate employments in the meat and food processing area.

They were of a wide range, including the danger of fogging on visors when working with knives in a boning area.

But she insisted the 39 inspections, 30 of which involved forewarning, had found "generally high levels of compliance."

The HSA had found the plants "willing to engage and co-operate".

"We will take enforcement action when and where needed," she said.

Workforce representation does not exist in meat plants and when a worker contracts Covid-19 the Health and Safety Authority is not notified, the committee was also told.

"All the indicators to me are that they (the HSA) don't want to be notified," claimed Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Patricia King. "They don't want this task. I am blue in the face with this."

Greg Ennis, divisional organiser of Siptu, declared: "I believe we need Covid compliance inspectors. If we have to beef it up, then beef it up - no pun intended."

There was "little choice but to shine a light like never before on this industry and address it once and for all", Mr Ennis said.

Irish Independent


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