Health and Safety in Ireland

The implementation of health and safety policies and procedures has a legal base.

In Ireland, the Barrington Commission (Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Safety Health and Welfare at Work) in 1983 and the EU Framework Directive (Safety and Health at Work Directive 89/391 EEC) were significant in determining the framework of legislation. The setting up of the Barrington Commission arose from pressure from Congress to have a more comprehensive approach to health and safety in the workplace; only 20% of employments were covered by any legislation, such as the Factories Acts, at the time. The first general legislation, covering all workplaces, was introduced with the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act 1989. This Act set out the broad principles we still have today, including the fact that the legal responsibility for ensuring safe workplaces was that of the employer and that employees had a right to be consulted. It also established the Health & Safety Authority, with a tripartite board consisting of nominees of the government, employers and unions. The legislation was updated in 2005 with the current act (Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005).

While the 2005 Act is the principal piece of legislation, there are actually 16 Acts constituting an extensive body of law in this area. There are also over 200 statutary instruments, regulations and Codes of Practice. There is a good overview of the legislative framework on the HSA's website, and the Safety Representatives Resource Book has a comprehensive but very accessible section on this.

The essential approach of a health and safety management system in all workplaces is to identify hazards, assess risk, and implement control measures to avoid or mitigate the risk. Section 8 of the 2005 Act requires every employer to ensure, in so far as reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of his/her employees. In doing so, an employer is required to inform and consult with employees. Employees also have the right to make representations to their employer about safety, health and welfare at work. A key part of this consultation involves the role of the Safety Representative.

Under the legislation, employees in any workplace have the right to select a safety representative from among their number. It is important to be clear that the safety rep is selected by workers, and not appointed by the employer or management. There can sometimes be confusion between the role of a safety rep and that of a "Safety Officer" or "Safety Manager". The latter is someone who is appointed by the employer to be responsible for implementing health and safety systems. The Safety Rep however is essentially the representative of employees in the workplaces and has certain rights under law. There is further detail on this in our Safety Representative pages.

Why is it a trade union issue?

Trade Unions regard health and safety as a key issue because there is no more fundamental a right than the entitlement to return home from your work safe and well.

While traditionally, "health and safety" has been perceived by some as preventing accidents, there has been a far greater emphasis in recent years on health aspects.

Unions see the prevention of illness - both physical and psychosocial - as being a key part of our work. This is why there is now far more emphasis on areas like exposure to carcinogens, which can have long-term health effects, and the impact of stress and bullying in the workplace on workers' mental health.