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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland's health and safety chief defends approach amid surge in complaints from workers

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Health and Safety Executive boss Robert Kidd said he had the "full backing" of the Economy Minister.

Health and Safety Executive boss Robert Kidd said he had the "full backing" of the Economy Minister.

Health and Safety Executive boss Robert Kidd said he had the "full backing" of the Economy Minister.

The chief executive of Northern Ireland's Health and Safety Executive has defended his organisation's approach to complaints against firms on social distancing measures after a surge in complaints from concerned workers.

It has so far not drawn up codes of practice to require business to follow government guidelines on coronavirus measures.

The organisation has said it has seen a 1,800% increase in calls from concerned workers about employer practices in the workplace during the outbreak. Its chief Executive said the vast majority of complaints concerned social distancing.

Robert Kidd said it was not every individual in companies expressing a concern and for some it was a case of "personal perception" of the health authority guidance.

His staff are not visiting businesses but instead asking for emails or pictures. It said visiting was not efficient as it provided only a snap shot of time and they could contact employers in days as opposed to visit them in weeks.

We need to negotiate and that is what we are doing. We are working on getting a compromise which works to keep workers safe and key businesses functioning Robert Kidd

Mr Kidd told the BBC Stephen Nolan show in these unprecedented times his organisation needed to "negotiate and compromise" with companies. He said no firms had yet been sanctioned over their work practices during the virus outbreak and there was so far no complaint that warranted a visit.

"We can not underestimate the situation that we are dealing with here," he said, "we are dealing with an enormous pressure."

He paid tribute to his staff saying they had changed work methods "overnight" and they had been working "flat out".

He said: "We are an enforcement organisation, we are also an adviser and a regulator. We have a number of roles.

"Enforcement should be seen as the last step. We need to protect key workers, we need to protect businesses and enforcement is not going to do that for either of these groups.

"We need to negotiate and that is what we are doing. We are working on getting a compromise which works to keep workers safe and key businesses functioning."

This is something which three to four weeks ago was completely unheard of. Our people have no experience and we are all working and learning Robert Kidd

He stressed there was a difference between enforcing laws and public health guidance and the move his organisation have made have the "full backing" of Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

He said the guidance stated social distancing should be done "where possible" and the "interpretation of 'where possible' was a hugely challenging issue". He said inspectors would have already visited many employers before the outbreak and would be aware of their workplaces and they would be working with employers on what mitigating circumstances could be in place.

"This is predominantly about social distancing," he said.

"This is something which three to four weeks ago was completely unheard of. Our people have no experience and we are all working and learning.

"There is a legal responsibility on every single person - be they an employer or member of staff - [to ensure health and safety].

"We have said at this moment we will not do visits as this is the best time to get to people and contact those individuals."

This is not plain health and safety Robert Kidd

He said there was little point in staff travelling to firms when they could gather information over the phone - not just from the employer but also from workers and unions - and work with companies to determine what can be done.

"We have not resolved all the issues, I'll make that very clear. And I don't underestimate the challenge," he said.

"We are trying to address all these issues, this is not plain health and safety."

The Health and Safety Executive has the ability to draw up codes of practice which can then be used to require companies to take action within a specific set of time.

Mr Kidd said they were working with risk assessments and under Public Health Agency guidance.

"This is not a enforcement issues under the health and safety at work order. We want compliance we do not want to go down the road of enforcement except as a last resort.

"We are operating in extraordinary circumstances.. we have to try and address these things. We could spend a lot of time on agreeing codes of practice. The reality is every business and every industry is unique - some are working quicker than others and we are trying to work with every single partner.

"There is a legal duty on every employer and every member of staff and that is why we are working with as many people as possible."

Trade Union Unite said the organisation had to work to determine which businesses should be classed as essential and to carry out risk assessments.

Regional organiser Susan Fitzgerald said some firms had ramped up production and workers were concerned at safety measures. She said there was "huge concern" in the manufacturing sector.

Belfast Telegraph