HSA says meat plants were warned of inspections in advance

Additional reporting by Vivienne Clarke.

UPDATED: 3.40pm

Thirty out of 39 recent inspections of meat plants were announced to factory owners in advance.

The Health and Safety Authority told the Óireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response it informed management either the evening before, or the morning of a planned visit.

The Committee has been hearing from unions, meat plant owners and state agencies about the recent increase in coronavirus cases in meat plants.

Earlier, the committee also heard that meat factory employees are "petrified" of contracting Covid-19 with 40 employees sharing accommodation in one case.

Siptu’s Greg Ennis spoke of the toll the situation has taken on meat factory employees: “The emergence of Covid-19 within the Irish meat processing industry has been extremely difficult for our members.

We’ve had many cheerleaders trumpeting the essential nature of meat processing at both Government and employer level, it’s now time that these entities put their money where their mouth is.

“All remain petrified, petrified of contracting the disease but feel that they must walk that tightrope every day, and in many cases attend work even if they are unwell.

“We’ve had many cheerleaders trumpeting the essential nature of meat processing at both Government and employer level, it’s now time that these entities put their money where their mouth is.”

The union, representing meat factory workers, has claimed that 40 employees are sharing accommodation at one location in the Midlands.

It also says that 90 per cent of workers do not have sick pay and are forced to work, even if they have symptoms of the virus.

If the latest information I was given is reliable, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, where there’s upwards of 40 people sharing a house in Co Offaly, well that is really disturbing information.

Mr Ennis says the testing of workers and inspections of factories are consequently not the only issues that need to be tackled: “It’s as important what we do inside the plant as outside the plant.

“If the latest information I was given is reliable, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, where there’s upwards of 40 people sharing a house in Co Offaly, well that is really disturbing information.”

Inspections

This comes as focus has remained on calls for more unannounced inspections of meat processing plants to be carried out.

Committee member and Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane says the number now conducted by the HSA has reduced dramatically: “The figures I got back was that in very early July, there was an average of 400 to 500 examinations that were taking place on a weekly basis and site inspections, and that was right across all industries.

“That tapered off to about an average of 220 towards the end of July. Now for me, that’s not enough, and they should be unannounced because to give notice I think defeats the purpose.”

The chairperson of the Covid-19 committee, Independent TD Michael McNamara, has also called for improved implementation of Covid-19 regulations and health and safety standards.

Speaking to RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland earlier today, he pointed out that the gardaí did not alert pubs when checking if guidelines were being observed, so it did not make sense that the HSA alerted meat factories before inspections.

He said the committee wanted meat industry representatives to tell today’s meeting what had changed since last month, when they last appeared before the group.

He said the issue of sick pay for workers in the sector still remained an issue, and that when representatives appeared before the committee last month they were unable to provide a response despite being asked four times what proportion of workers get sick pay.

Ireland had a long history of treating the meat industry differently to other industries and giving it “a large degree of latitude,” he added.

The chairperson said he was also concerned at the situation of "serfdom" for some workers at meat plants and the Siptu information on crowded houses.