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Questions over virus spread at meat plants as 34 checks find 'high level of compliance'

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The Covid-19 testing centre, run by the National Ambulance Service, in Newbridge, Co Kildare

The Covid-19 testing centre, run by the National Ambulance Service, in Newbridge, Co Kildare

The Covid-19 testing centre, run by the National Ambulance Service, in Newbridge, Co Kildare

Health and safety inspectors have found a "high level of compliance" with measures to combat Covid-19 at meat plants during the pandemic.

Health and Safety Authority inspectors have carried out 34 inspections at meat and poultry processing plans since May 18.

A spokesperson revealed it sometimes gives employers advance notice of inspections.

The State watchdog's findings come following recent outbreaks at meat processing plants in the midlands.

They raise questions about how the virus spread at plants and the effectiveness of inspections in helping prevent outbreaks.

Siptu officials have called for unannounced inspections and mandatory testing of workers to combat Covid-19.

Manufacturing division organiser Greg Ennis said there are unacceptably high rates of infection of workers, which is running at approximately 10pc.

Satisfactory

The authority said in a statement that it did not issue any enforcement notices to meat processing employers because it found the level of compliance was satisfactory.

It said it was involved in reviewing matters relating to meat processing facilities as a member of a National Outbreak Control Team, which is chaired by the HSE.

"Further to its involvement in the National Outbreak Control Team, the authority undertook some 34 inspections which covered each of those meat processing facilities connected with a Covid-19 outbreak, along with a number of other meat processing facilities," it said.

It said a number of these inspections included follow-up visits.

"These inspections checked compliance against the interim guidance on Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants in Ireland published by the National Outbreak Control Team, the Return to Work Safely Protocol and general health and safety requirements.

"The authority has received a high level of cooperation from management, staff and contractors in plants inspected and has noted an overall responsiveness to guidance and advice issued both onsite and subsequently," it added.

The authority identified a generally high level of compliance with the recommended measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 in workplaces.

It said in the main authority inspections are unannounced, but in certain circumstances "limited advance notification may be required".

"For example, where it is essential for inspectors to meet with specific individuals at the place of work or to ensure a particular work activity is being undertaken so as to allow inspectors to observe," it said.

It said a limited number of inspections may also require the "coordination of resources" from State agencies or government departments.

This scenario could also lead to the employer being notified shortly before the inspection is due to take place, according to the authority.

Since the first phase of the Government's reopening plan to the end of last week, the authority has undertaken 3,820 inspections and investigations of workplaces across the economy.

Of these, a total of 2,844 inspections "addressed Covid-19".

A spokesperson for the authority declined to comment on whether complaints were received from workers at specific plants.

Meanwhile, the president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association, Edmond Phelan, has called for supermarkets and food retailers "to face up to the fact that cheap food policies and continuous discounting of basic food staples such as meat, dairy, bread, fruit and veg is unacceptable and unsustainable".

Pressure

"The current Covid crisis in meat and food processing plants is another example of how pressure for lower prices is being facilitated by processors on the back of appalling exploitation of farmers and workers," he claimed.

"Last year's beef factory protests and this year's focus on poor conditions of employment for meat plant workers are two sides of the same coin.

"People need to stop supporting supermarkets who regularly boast about cheaper food, but who have no problem charging €32 for a few replacement shaving blades."