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Low reporting of occupational Covid-19 by healthcare employers

By Mindo - 19th Feb 2021

Doctor taking throat swab test from male patient. Medical worker is in protective workwear. They are at hospital during epidemic.

Only 285 occupational cases of Covid-19 were reported to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) by health and long-term care settings between 24 November 2020 – when a legal reporting requirement came into place – and 29 January 2021.

This figure is substantially lower than the 5,325 healthcare worker infections reported as workplace-acquired, according to data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), covering broadly the same period (22 November-6 February).

By press time, the HSE had not commented on the figures.

SARS-CoV-2 was included in the EU biological agents directive on 3 June 2020. The HSA held a public consultation on the directive, in line with its procedures, and a legal requirement on employers to report workplace infections came into effect on 24 November.

The previous May, Congress had advocated for a legal amendment to ensure employers were required to report occupational cases, but this was not instigated.

A Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation spokesperson said the HPSC provides the HSA with weekly information, which allows the Authority “to focus its inspections on particular sectors and outbreaks”.

The HSA also receives reports as a member of national and local outbreak control teams. A regulatory impact assessment is underway on whether Covid-19 should be reportable as a workplace accident, added the spokesperson.

Speaking to the Medical Independent (MI), Mr Tony Fitzpatrick, Industrial Relations Director, Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), said it believed the HSA “should have had a much stronger role with regard to overseeing the protection of frontline healthcare workers”.

In spring 2020, the INMO “had to fight very hard for members to be allowed to wear facemasks, when they were giving direct care to patients and indeed we had some members who wore masks and were sent home because they wore masks”.

“And then, again, this time in January, we had to fight very hard to get the minimum standard of mask at FFP2, because the UK variant is more transmissible.”

The HSA informed MI it had conducted inspections throughout the pandemic and engaged with the HSE on its infection prevention and control guidance. From 22 November 2020 to 12 February 2021, it recorded 59 inspections in the health and social care sector.

The biological agents regulations oblige employers to make vaccinations available to employees where an agent poses a risk to their health and safety.

MI asked the HSA if it had issued any advisory to the HSE on the roll-out of vaccination to healthcare workers. The Authority said oversight of the programme was a matter for Government and the high-level vaccination taskforce.

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