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Coronavirus: Police action urged after Northern Ireland workers complain firms aren't putting safety first


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Police patrol Castle Street in Belfast on lockdown day 7 as the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland continues on March 30th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Police patrol Castle Street in Belfast on lockdown day 7 as the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland continues on March 30th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Police patrol Castle Street in Belfast on lockdown day 7 as the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland continues on March 30th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

The PSNI should carry out coronavirus control compliance at workplaces after the Health and Safety Executive (HSENI) said it couldn't, a Foyle MLA has said.

In a statement, HSENI said it had received "more than a 1,800% increase in complaints and requests for information and advice" due to the coronavirus outbreak.

It said the majority of the allegations concerned Covid-19 and social distancing measures in the workplace. However, it revealed that inspectors were not visiting workplaces.

"Inspectors require employers to provide evidence of the measures being taken. Visits to premises provide only a snapshot in time and are therefore not the most effective use of resources when dealing with issues such as social distancing which is often dependent on human behaviour," it said in a statement.

"In addition it should be noted that HSENI does not have the power to close down a business."

SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan MLA said he was concerned about the lack of inspections to make sure staff are being kept safe.

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Concerned: Mark H Durkan

Concerned: Mark H Durkan

PA

Concerned: Mark H Durkan

The Foyle MLA said: "I have been inundated with calls from people who work in various manufacturing premises across the constituency and beyond who question the necessity of the items they are manufacturing. They are concerned about their own health and the impact on the health of their loved ones when they go home from work who are often vulnerable - people who are living with older parents or people with underlying health conditions.

"If the Health and Safety Executive are saying they won't carry out inspections of workplaces, well then you have to wonder if there is a role there for law enforcement - because if there is a law saying a workplace has to be compliant, it is a breach of the law if employers are not.

"In these circumstances, there is a role for the police to ensure the safety of workers."

Mr Durkan said business owners who insist on staying open must be able to show how they are providing an essential service. He continued: "Businesses should have to be able to demonstrate that what they are dragging people to do day after day, at this crucial time, is indeed essential -if it isn't, then it is pure and simple greed.

"There is no second chance at getting this right.

"People are anxious and rightfully so; they want their livelihood guaranteed but not at the expense of their own and their family's health and wellbeing. We cannot allow companies to put their wealth before our health."

His call comes after a number of factory workers in the North West expressed fears that their lives and those of their families are at risk.

Among them is a father-of-two, working for a large manufacturing company, who feels under extreme pressure to turn up for his shifts.

He said: "I know there are men who work in the same place as I do that are off with suspected coronavirus and the managers here know that too, but there has been no deep clean.

"We haven't been sent home so a lot of us feel we are risking our lives turning up for work.

"We have been threatened that if we go to the media we will be sacked and that is a big fear for so many of us because we have mortgages and bills.

"If the Government forced this place to close at least we would be safe and we would have enough money to cover all the essentials until this passes.

"My wife suffers from really bad asthma and one of my children has it as well only not as bad so I am terrified that I will bring coronavirus into the house to them."

HSENI told BBC NI's Stephen Nolan Show it will not be visiting businesses to see what measures have been put in place and if social distancing is taking place.

It said should allegations be made they will instead ask employers to prove compliance by email, verbal assurance, or sending in a picture. It said this was the most efficient way to handle the matter.

Trade union Unite said the approach was "not good enough".

"This can't go on... as a body it is failing workers in Northern Ireland," regional organiser Susan Fitzgerald said.

Over the past week workers have staged walkouts over safety concerns during the crisis. The statement added: "HSENI's approach to this unprecedented situation has the support of Economy Minister, Manufacturing NI and Unite. Companies who are still working must operate in compliance with the UK Government and Public Health Agency guidelines. We will continue to provide help and assistance to companies to ensure this is the case."

The PSNI did not respond to a request for comment.


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