Reports have been heard by the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of incidents involving employees turning up to work despite a positive Covid-19 test or with symptoms of the virus.
obert Kidd said he has also heard anecdotal reports of staff feeling pressured to come into work despite believing they could work from home or be furloughed.
Northern Ireland is currently under a raft of tough restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the virus under a general stay at home message.
“We see workers disregarding advice to social distance or wash hands. Like a failure to wear a mask in a shop, these situations can happen in an instant and are impossible for any regulator to police effectively,” Mr Kidd told MLAs.
“The employer’s approach, the employee’s attitude and peer pressure from colleagues are much more effective tools in achieving compliance in all aspects of life.”
Mr Kidd said the coronavirus pandemic has taken over the HSE’s operational activity.
He said staff are deployed to sites – mostly unannounced – following complaints or reports of infection clusters.
More than 150 clusters of the virus were reported to the HSE by the Public Health Agency.
HSE deputy chief Dr Bryan Monson said many result in an unannounced site inspection, as well as checks to ensure recommended measures have been put in place.
“Those are quite intensive, they take a lot of staff time but we feel they are very worthwhile in terms of reducing the risk to people at some of these sites where outbreaks are occurring,” he said.
Sinn Fein Upper Bann MLA John O’Dowd raised concerns over high infection rates in the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council area, where a large number of factories employ many members of ethnic minority communities.
“That’s not to blame that community for that infection rate… the reality is when you look at many of their working conditions and living conditions and communications barriers, it presents certain difficulties for members of that community,” he said.
“Many of the food processing plants that exist in that area have a high percentage of minority ethnic communities in them.”
Mr Kidd said staff are looking at targeting specific issues including communication.
“That’s something that is being actively looked at, at the minute, to see how we can get at various ethnic groups within specific communities,” he said.
The employer’s approach, the employee’s attitude and peer pressure from colleagues are much more effective tools in achieving compliance in all aspects of lifeRobert Kidd, HSE
“We don’t have control over people travelling together in a private vehicle, and unfortunately because of income pressures, there is a lot of car pooling within certain workplaces.”
Mr Kidd also voiced concern over reports of overcrowded living conditions in some areas and the impact on community transmission.
“It’s a very challenging issue and one that we are aware of but in terms of how we address it, I’m not quite so sure,” he said.
Mr Kidd outlined nine workplace deaths – unconnected to Covid-19 – across 2020, up from seven in 2019.
Most (three) were in agriculture, two in the construction sector, two in the manufacturing sector, one was in healthcare and one in the electricity supply sector.
However, the number of serious injuries in the workplace dropped from 17 in 2019 to six in 2020.
Mr Kidd said this may be due to some businesses being closed or operating on a reduced capacity due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the HSE is recruiting 11 new staff to contend with Brexit demands.
The HSE has responsibility for chemical, product safety and the underpinning legislation for both under annex two of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The scoping and planning of this work has been challenging given the uncertainties that persisted throughout 2020 as some issues remain unresolved for our work in this area and we face some considerable challenges,” he said.