Three in 10 union reps report Covid-19 safety inspections

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Three in 10 union representatives have had a regulator visit their workplace because of Covid-19 concerns.

A survey of 1,400 reps by the Unite union found that 78% had experienced more than one positive case of the coronavirus in their workplace. There were 148 reports of “clusters” of over 100 positive cases.

Covid-19 concerns prompted regulators to intervene, 30% of the reps said. Fifty-eight per cent of these said a visit was carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, or Health and Safety Authority in the Republic of Ireland; 30% by a local authority or government; and 19% said the inspection was carried out by a health authority.

However, union reps’ involvement in the regulators’ visits were limited: only 35% said the regulator had spoken to them when they carried out their inspection, despite Unite stating that speaking to reps should be a matter of course in such inspections.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “This means regulators are not getting a full and accurate picture of the environments they are visiting, which is potentially dangerous.

“Unite has raised this issue before with all the relevant regulators and health authorities, but it is clear it is not being addressed. Direction requiring them to publish records of speaking to reps during visits is now needed.”

However, the majority (75%) of respondents said their employer had behaved responsibly throughout the pandemic, including working with reps, carrying out proper risk assessments, facilitating home working, providing personal protective equipment and ensuring social distancing.

The same survey also identified a mental health “epidemic” among union members, with 83% of reps dealing with an increase in mental health-related problems among those they represent, up from 65% in 2020.

Cartmail said: “This survey shows there is an epidemic of mental health issues being suffered by workers across all sectors of the economy. April is Stress Awareness Month and employers need to be aware that there is a clear link between the explosion in mental ill-health and the stressors of the pandemic.

“During the week of International Workers’ Memorial Day, we should remember that many workers not only paid a physical price during the fight against Covid-19, but a psychological one too.

“Employers need to be aware of this and in partnership with trade unions implement mental health friendly policies to help prevent the psychological toll of the pandemic being carried forward longer than it needs to be.”

Meanwhile, Unite has called for action to halt the steep increase in deaths in the agriculture sector. In 2019/20 there were 20 fatalities, but in 2020/21 there have been 33 deaths – an increase of 61%.

National officer for agriculture Bev Clarkson said: “The increase of agricultural deaths is deeply disturbing and must not be ignored.

“One death is one too many and the mindset that death and serious injury is an occupational hazard in agriculture must be entirely eradicated.

“In order to ensure that the entire agricultural sector improves its safety record there needs to be a steep increase in inspections, enforcement activity and prosecutions. Unite has long championed the creation of accredited roving safety reps to vastly improve safety in the industry. The government and the HSE must bite the bullet and support such a scheme in order to improve safety.”

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