How safety in the workplace has evolved

Ged Nash, the business and employment minister, served for many years as a trade-union official and it is perhaps no coincidence that he was on hand recently to launch The Safety Representative Resource Book, which deals in some detail with aspects of health and safety. It is to some extent modelled on a recent publication issued by the Trade Union Congress in Britain.

The book covers the evolution of the law, detailing the Safety, Health, and Welfare at Work Act, 2005, which replaced a 1989 Act, the first piece of legislation to deal comprehensively with the topic. There are sections devoted to enforcement, consultation, and varying occupational safety roles.

The book deals with hazards in the workplace, which range from asbestos to chemicals and hazardous substances, electricity, ‘explosive atmospheres’. It also discusses ‘falls from heights, work at heights, and falling objects’, and ‘slips, trips, falls on the same level’.

Lone working is a recognised health and safety hazard. Last year, 30 people died on farms, many of whom were working alone. However, many others could also be at risk.

The book alludes to the work carried out by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust which was established in memory of a young auctioneer who went missing in the late 1980s while showing a prospective purchaser , a mysterious ‘Mr Kipper’, the presumed murderer, around a house. The Lamplugh tragedy re-emerged during the course of the Graham Dwyer trial.

Another section is devoted to vulnerable workers, with separate chapters on construction, education, healthcare, wholesale/retail, industrial manufacturing, mines and quarries, agriculture, hospitality, and offices.

The short chapter on agriculture is arguably the most poignant. More than 100,000 work in the area and, between 2010 and 2014, 104 people died in farm accidents, a number of whom were children.

Victims included Dermot Hogan, manager of the Offaly U21 team. A couple of years back, an Ulster player, Nevin Spence, died in a tragic accident at a slurry pit, along with his father and brother, after the men, one by one, sought to rescue the family dog before becoming overcome by fumes.

The Health and Safety Authority has identified three areas of concern in relation to farm safety:

  • Farmers working with unguarded equipment;
  • Working on machinery carrying children aged aged under 7;
  • and unprotected slurry pits.

Of the 198 who died between 2005 and 2014, 30% died in accidents involving tractors and other farm vehicles; 19% died in other machinery; and 13% died in accidents involving livestock. Some 11% perished as a result of contact with slurry pits, 9% succumbed to falls, and 7% were killed by falling objects, with timber-related accidents accounting for a similar number.

The book also deals with non-physical damage to workers due to stress, while aggression and violence in the workplace is also covered.

The Health and Safety Authority was established in 1989, bringing a much broader yet more focused approach to such issues. Previously, safety matters received attention in manufacturing, though rates of inspection were pretty low. Ireland only got its first Factories Act in 1955, though in the UK a Factory Act was first passed into law in 1833. One of Ireland’s great 19th century leaders, Michael Davitt, the land agitator, lost an arm in an accident in a mill as a young man.

Since 1989, the fatal workplace accident rate has fallen from around 6 per 100,000 to about 2.5, a testament to the efforts of the Health and Safety Authority, and to a greater sense of awareness and education within workplaces.

However, the recent surge in farm accidents, related to the growing number of one-person farms, an ageing farmer population, and the greater prevalence of machinery, is a source of great concern. Farmer bodies are active in prevention, but clearly more needs to be done at all levels to reduce the death toll.

The 2005 Act now applies to all workplaces from Apple and Bausch & Lomb to tradespeople such as plumbers and even the person working from home. The likelihood of an inspection is once every 15 years or so, on average, but it should occur more frequently in the case of naturally hazardous occupations The core of our heath and safety legislation follows similar laws put in place in Britain.

The 1989 Act here drew on the recommendations of a commission under Mr Justice Donal Barrington which in turn drew on the UK commission under Lord Robens, former head of the National Coal Board. The concept of health and safety has become much more broad, with areas such as stress and asthma now seen as of interest. A recent case at the Employment Appeals Tribunal revealed that up to 300 An Post employees have been out on stress-related leave.

The book deals with standout prosecutions such as a circuit court case involving Zoe Developments, a large scale builder of apartments in Dublin. This resulted in a big increase in the level of fines for breaches of the law.

Bus Éireann was fined €2m after proceedings in the wake of the death of five schoolgirls in an accident 10 years ago.

A fireman, a Mr Shanley, received a payout of over €80,000 from Sligo Corporation after a ruling that he was systematically abused and belittled at work over an eight-year period.

This serves as a reminder that health and safety is about more than securing physical objects and ensuring that employees avoid accidents or long-term damage.

The law continues to evolve. Apart from the 2005 Act, a 2003 Act established the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. There is also the Civil Liability and Courts Act, 2004. These should be read together as the procedures set out are intermingled. The Acts are designed to reduce the costs associated with legal actions in personal injury cases. It is worth noting that just one third of accidents result in claims, even fewer in the case of employees affected by work related illnesses. It is also worth noting that the High Court has the power to close down operations deemed unsafe, as has happened at a number of building sites.

For more on The Safety Representative Resource Book go to


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