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Speech by Minister Ged Nash TD at the first joint national event to mark Workers’ Memorial Day Ireland

Hugh Lane Gallery, Parnell Square North, Dublin 1

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I’d like to express my thanks to Congress and Patricia, and to Ibec and Danny and to Martin O’Halloran and the Board of the Health and Safety Authority for lending the support of their respective organisations to today’s event.

From the time I came into office as Minister for Business and Employment, I have expressed my keen interest in seeing our trade union, employer and Government bodies come together to mark Workers’ Memorial Day as a national event in Ireland.

This day, 28th April, is recognised by the International Labour Organisation as an International Day of Action for Safety and Health at Work and an important platform for promoting safe, healthy and decent work around the globe.

I welcome the common purpose demonstrated by Congress, Ibec and the HSA in jointly marking Workers’ Memorial Day Ireland for the first time and their commitment to jointly promoting safety and health at work by doing so on a recurring annual basis.

I was pleased to see the tri-spiral logo which features on the invitation and the publicity for this event.

It recalls the three interlocking circles that feature on the entrance portal stone at Newgrange.

The design engraved on the stone leading to the main chamber of Newgrange is probably the most famous Irish Megalithic symbol.

One interpretation is that the triple circle symbol was intended to combine reverence for the dead with a forward-looking perspective on affirming values for the living.

This goes to the heart of the call by the famous labour activist Mary Harris or “Mother” Jones whose message was “Pray for the Dead, Fight like Hell for the Living”.

We are gathered here close to the Garden of Remembrance, where those who fell in the fight for Irish independence are remembered.

Many of those who fought for Irish freedom also wished to see an advance in rights of workers.

The most basic of worker’s rights is the right to come home safe from your day’s work.

Today is the day we pay our respects to those who were unable to return home.

Preventing and reducing the incidence of fatalities and injuries requires everyone engaged in working life to place their personal safety, health and welfare, and that of their fellow workers, actively at the centre of their thinking and organisational culture.

This must also be supported by their employers in compliance with best practice.

The dignity at work agenda which I have been promoting is one that seeks to have government, employers and workers actively engage together in securing a safe and healthy working environment through a system of defined rights, responsibilities and duties.

We must ensure that the highest priority is accorded to the principle of prevention.

Poor practice and standards must be challenged through the combined and mutual effort of workers and employers to build a culture of prevention – that is the forward-looking theme this year for this world-wide day of commemoration.

I look forward to seeing this day honoured each year through similar national events involving the main representative organisations of employers and workers.

This is a very worthwhile beginning.

But we can also go further in exploring how we can encourage enterprises and workers to mark Workers’ Memorial Day in an appropriate way at workplace level.

It would be interesting to see practical awareness-raising projects developed on a joint basis at enterprise and workplace level that might also attract the support of local authorities and community groups.

Employers, both large and small, must ensure that health and safety is not treated as an afterthought but that it becomes a central part of all aspects of business planning.

The message for all businesses, but especially the SME sector, is that good health and safety management is actually good business management.

A lax approach to health and safety and a failure to prioritise prevention can have a devastating impact on any business.

But still more devastating is the personal impact where the consequence of poor occupational health and safety may be the loss of a colleague, a friend or perhaps even a family member.

Similarly, workers have responsibilities to their employers, to their place of work but perhaps most importantly to their fellow workers.

Workers should feel free to speak up when they see hazards that could be a danger to themselves or to others.

This is why special protections have been written into health and safety legislation to enable workers to make their concerns known.

As our economy continues in recovery mode, and the green shoots begin to take firm hold, we must ensure that we do not lose focus on the need to build a culture of prevention.

As more people return to work, we all have a shared responsibility to ensure that the workplaces to which they return can guarantee them a safe working environment.

On an international scale, the statistics relating to workplace fatalities and accidents are frightening, the ILO estimates that occupational accidents and work-related diseases cause over 6,300 deaths every day or 6.3 million fatalities a year.

Our statistics for last year show that of the 56 recorded workplace deaths, 30 occurred in the farming sector.

Sadly we have lost 10 more individuals so far this year in workplace fatalities, of which 4 have come from the farming community.

This is evidence that, despite a clear determination amongst all those present to provide safer workplaces, a large portion of workers continue to be exposed or expose themselves to potentially fatal, but in most cases completely avoidable, hazards.

The Health and Safety Authority is continuing to focus its safety campaigns on those areas where there is evidence of the highest risks, and ultimately the highest incidence of accidents occurring.

We have gathered together this morning not just in a national context, but as part of a wider international day of remembrance for workers killed in incidents at work, or by diseases caused by work.

We should also recall that last Friday was the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

That should serve to remind us that adequate basic legal frameworks specifying minimum requirements are an essential foundation for achieving safe and healthy workplaces.

And that is why the choice of this very day has a particular historic significance, as it commemorates the date on which the Occupational Safety and Health Act was adopted by the United States Congress, forty four (44) years ago today, on 28th April 1971.

The National Plan on Corporate Social Responsibility, adopted in April of last year, highlights the importance of proactive and strategic HR policies which go beyond compliance and incorporate a focus on employee participation, wellbeing, training and career development opportunities.

The Government’s Healthy Ireland initiative is also promoting a whole-of-society approach to improving health and wellbeing and the quality of people’s lives.

It includes a commitment that all public sector organisations and workplaces will be required to promote and protect the health and wellbeing of their workforce and that these commitments must be set out in their corporate and strategic business plans.

In my opening remarks, I said that our focus today should combine remembrance of the dead with a forward-looking perspective on affirming and cherishing the dignity of working lives.

I have pleasure therefore in formally launching the “SAFETY REPRESENTATIVES RESOURCE BOOK” on behalf of the Health and Safety Authority.

I share their aim to see this material become an easily accessible “go to” resource for all safety representatives throughout all business sectors in Ireland. Theirs is an important role in Irish workplaces.

It is through the trust of their fellow workers that these representatives are appointed.

And it is through the trust of their employers that they are able to properly carry out their functions.

I hope that the availability of this resource book will be made known to all current and future Safety Representatives.

I hope that this new resource will encourage more workers to step forward and take on the role of Safety Representative so as to help to make their workplaces safety for themselves and the colleagues.

My thanks to the organisers for their work in enabling us to mark Workers Memorial Day as a jointly supported national event and one that will become an annual event in the Irish calendar – something that has been a personal goal of mine for many years.

I would also like to thank the curator of the Hugh Lane gallery for letting us have this splendid venue this morning.

Thank you.

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