The Trade Union movement in Ireland was instrumental in the setting up of the Barrington Commission in the 1980s, which arose from pressure from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to have a more comprehensive approach to health and safety in the workplace, at a time when only 20% of employments were covered by any legislation, such as the Factories Acts.
The Commission’s work (Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Safety Health and Welfare at Work) in 1983 and the EU Framework Directive (Safety and Health at Work Directive 89/391 EEC) were significant in determining the framework of legislation we have in Ireland.
The first general legislation, covering all workplaces, was introduced with the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act 1989. This Act set out the broad principles we still have today, including the fact that the legal responsibility for ensuring safe workplaces was that of the employer and that employees had a right to be consulted. It also established the Health & Safety Authority, with a tripartite board consisting of nominees of the government, employers and Unions. The legislation was updated in 2005 with the current act (Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005).
In 2020 we now find ourselves living through a pandemic which is having a profound effect on workers’ health. If ever we needed reminding, this should serve to emphasise that we should be as concerned with health issues as much as with what is traditionally thought of as “safety”. The often-ignored welfare aspects of facilities at work have also been highlighted by the arrival of Covid-19. We believe we must now rededicate ourselves to the principles and values that saw the Trade Union movement take a leading role in Occupational Health & Safety (OSH) in the past.
In recent years, we have become far more conscious of the suffering and consequences of stress and mental illness in the workplace.
We know that good OSH management policies and practices actually work in making workplaces safer and healthier. A critical part of that good management is having genuine consultative mechanisms and having workers involved in creating a safety culture in our enterprises and organisations.
The role of the Safety Representative (SR) is crucial to achieving this. Uniquely among workplace representatives in Ireland, SRs have a statutory basis with functions, entitlements, and protections defined in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. Unlike other jurisdictions, including the UK, we do not in Ireland have a specific “Trade Union Safety Representative”. However, all workers are entitled to select a SR and this has traditionally been done under the auspices of the Union represented in the workplace.
Regrettably, we lost many SRs during the years of austerity and recession and there are now many sectors where having a Safety Representative is far from the norm. We are aware of confusion over the role in that many employees assume that they become responsible for safety and health within their workplaces if they take on the SR role, which is not the case.
We think the time has come to reinforce this important role and for Trade Unions to again take a lead in selecting and supporting representatives to take it on, while also emphasising the importance of OSH as a Trade Union issue.
The adoption of the “Return to Work Safely Protocol” is a hugely significant event. The protocol goes beyond the current provisions of the SHWW 2005 Act in insisting on a Covid-19 Worker representative being appointed in every workplace, rather than this being a discretionary decision only if workers request it. The Lead Worker Representative is an important role. There may, in this, be a unique opportunity to leverage wider acceptance and take-up of the Safety Representative function.
IFUT through Congress (ICTU) therefore commits itself to the following principles:
- At the end of a working day, workers have the right to return home free from physical or psychological injury or illness.
- All workers have the right to disconnect from work and to not receive or answer any work-related e-mails, calls, or messages outside of normal working hours.
- Trade Unions, as the representatives of workers, see OSH as a Trade Union issue in the workplace and recognise that organised workplaces are safer workplaces. The Trade Union movement commits itself to engaging with the issue at organisational, sectoral and national level
- Trade Unions see OSH as an area where democracy at work should be manifest, and preventive measures must be implemented by securing the active participation of workers.
- Trade Unions believe workplace health and safety representatives and committees are key to effective implementation and these must be properly resourced and supported.
- Trade Unions support accredited training for Safety Representatives as a prerequisite to their being able to undertaking the role effectively.
- Trade Unions support a strong and properly resourced Health & Safety Authority and see high levels of inspection, alongside other tools, as a critical part of compliance.
- Trade Unions believe that organisations and their employees must regard workplace health, safety and welfare as an on-going, proactive process and not just an exercise in paper-based compliance.