Welcome to the April 8 edition of SafetyNet, the VTHC's weekly OHS journal. We will continue to bring you the journal each week - hopefully a short-ish version next Wednesday after the Easter public holidays.
Unfortunately another worker was killed in Victoria in the past week.
We wish you all a safe Easter - please stay at home and do not go out unless necessary. Our messages remain: "We're all in this together" and "No worker left behind". Take the necessary precautions to stay safe and not panic. Social distancing is now a must. Many of you will have questions - we can be reached via the Ask Renata facility on the website or through the closed OHS Network Facebook page.
Please remember that everyone at the VTHC is still available to answer queries and help in any way we can. This includes the OHS Unit, the Young Workers Centre, the Migrant Workers Centre, the Women's and Equity Team and everyone else.
To keep up to date and informed between editions of the journal, go to our We Are Union: OHS Reps Facebook page.
Farmer killed by livestock
Notification of this fatality reached us late last week. A man died after he was crushed by a cow and bullock at a Carrajung Lower farm in Gippsland on Monday March 23. The 78-year-old was airlifted to hospital where he died on Friday March 27. It is believed he was loading the livestock onto a truck at the time of the incident.
The VTHC sends our condolences to the man's family, friends and colleagues.
The death brings the official number of workplaces fatalities this year to 15, which is nine more than at the same time last year. We believe it is the 18th fatality this year.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update
It looks as though the measures introduced by federal and state governments are starting to affect the rate of infection, with increases now at under 5 per cent, compared to 18 per cent just a couple of weeks ago. At the time of posting, there had been 5919 cases of infection and Australia had recorded its 48th death.
However, our front line workers are clearly at increased risk and will continue to be while carrying out essential work to keep our society going: health care, childcare, emergency services, retail, cleaning, transport and logistics. (Check out some of the stories below) For more information make sure to take a look at our Coronavirus Disease Hazard Information page.
7pm tonight! Live show: Coronavirus in the Workplace, Part 2
A lot has changed since our last instalment of the OHS Live Show, which is why we though we should revisit the issue of handling COVID-19 in the workplace.
Join us tonight at 7pm on the We Are Union: OHS reps Facebook page, as Sam and Luke broadcast from three separate home studios (using that term very loosely) to discuss safety measures for those workers who are still at work and considered essential.
Their guest will be Kathy Chrisfield lead OHS Officer from the ANMF Vic Branch talking about her experience with the healthcare industry, but workers in all industries will find something useful.
UWU calls for more action in early childhood education
The union covering child care education and care says the sector needs urgent & tough coronavirus rules and has come up with a 6-point plan. Helen Gibbons, director of early childhood education at United Workers Union says, “Staff, parents and the community must have confidence that centres are doing everything they can to have safe and healthy centres that are actively limiting the spread of Covid-19.
“Early childhood education is the only place where young children can receive care while health workers save lives, cleaners and council workers keep our homes and cities clean, and retail staff work hard to make sure we have everything we need to get through this crisis.
“Educators cannot practice social distancing with very young children. For example, when a young child falls over and hurts themselves, educators offer care and comfort. Australia’s educators need to be confident that everything possible has been done to prevent any infection getting into their environment. The union’s 6 point plan gives confidence to educators and parents that early education is as safe as possible for everyone during the current crisis."
A centre director said, “As a centre owner and educator I have a duty of care to my families and children attending our service. Whilst the Federal Government is telling us that children are safe in early education, we know that children are affected by this virus...There has just been no clear policy for the sector. We are not schools. We are working with very young children where the recommendations that have been put in place about social distancing don’t apply..."
The UWU plan for ECEC includes:
- Pre-entry Screening
- Adequate PPE
- Adequate cleaning
- Adequate staffing
- Staggered times
It also covers what should happen if a COVID-19 infection does occur in a centre. To read more details about the plan, go to the UWU media release.
TWU: SA baggage handlers COVID-19 infections
The TWU has requested that Qantas provide information and documents under workplace health and safety laws regarding the infection of six baggage handlers at Adelaide Airport. The union has also written to Adelaide Airport and Safe Work SA, since up to 100 workers from various companies were potentially exposed.
The TWU has said Qantas breached the WHS Act by not taking precautions to protect its workers, not having procedures in place to minimise transmission and failing to provide workers with equipment to protect themselves.
TWU SA Branch Secretary Ian Smith said there was worrying evidence that the infection was allowed to spread because of lax systems in place. “We are informed that following an initial infection not enough protections were put in place to stop the spread. This is very serious as it means Qantas allowed its workers and workers in other companies to become exposed through its own negligence,” he said.
Qantas has repeatedly down-played the risk of exposure to its workers, including cabin crew, cleaners, caterers and baggage handlers. In several correspondence it has described the risk of exposure as “negligible”. Read more: TWU media release
TWU: HSR who stood up for safety stood down by Qantas
SafeWork NSW, the NSW workplace safety authority, is investigating Qantas and CEO Alan Joyce for suspending an health and safety representative who raised concerns about workers being exposed to the coronavirus when cleaning an aircraft that had returned from China. The company stood down the cleaner on February 2 after he advised colleagues it was unsafe to clean the jet arriving from Shanghai.
Qantas had said this was "against the advice of health authorities and despite additional safety equipment being provided to employees". The Transport Workers Union says the worker was vindicated three weeks after being stood down when SafeWork NSW issued Qantas with an improvement notice after finding it had inadequate practices in place to protect staff and passengers from coronavirus. Its inspectors had seen Qantas cleaners wiping over multiple tray tables with the same cloth without using disinfectant, and handling used tissues, face masks and nappies without having to wear protective equipment.
SafeWork NSW confirmed last week that it was investigating Qantas for alleged discriminatory conduct against the HSR, and has written to the airline to inform it the investigation is underway.
TWU NSW Branch Secretary Richard Olsen said it was vital that workplace health and safety representatives had the full backing of the law and the regulator to ensure workers got the protections they need. “If safety reps at Qantas can’t stand up to unsafe work practices, then no worker is safe. The TWU believes there is ample evidence to prove that Qantas engaged in discriminatory and prohibited behaviour,” said Mr Olsen. Source: TWU media release; The Age
Flight crew test positive for COVID-19
Four Qantas flight crew have tested positive for coronavirus after being exempt from hotel quarantine measures when they returned from a 'mercy flight' originating in Chile. The crew had travelled from Santiago to Sydney on March 29, but unlike the passengers, they did not go into mandatory 14-day quarantine. Currently, airline crew are exempted from mandatory isolation by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. There are now concerns that they may have spread the virus to their families, other Qantas or the public.
The news comes as Qantas and Virgin Australia prepare to resume international services with government subsidised flights to London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland to bring stranded Australians home.
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist who is a member of the World Health Organisation's COVID-19 expert advisory panel, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the exemption for airline crew was “illogical” and "a hole in the system". “For cabin crew it makes no logical sense to give them an exemption when they are having close contact with passengers who are then required to go into isolation under supervision,” Professor McLaws said. “While the cabin crew don't go on holiday while they’re there, they are exposed for many hours in small confined spaces. Anybody that’s a traveller is a risk and that remains a risk for spread in Australia, be they the captain, the crew or the passengers.”
Read more: Qantas crew exempt from quarantine have tested positive for COVID-19 The Sydney Morning Herald
Building unions work to keep jobs going
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) is working closely with companies to make sure construction sites are safe from coronavirus so work could continue during the pandemic.
A Melbourne construction worker tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month after returning from overseas prior to self-isolation policies being enacted, the CFMEU said. The union has developed COVID-19 guidelines which provide direction to employers and workers for the steps required to be taken to best provide a safe and healthy environment, and the actions available in the event of interruption to building and construction work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines can be downloaded here.
And this week Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews delivered a message of reassurance to the construction industry: not only is it safe to keep working, but we should expect plenty more work in the pipeline. In an interview with ABC News about the state’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Victorian Premier made it clear that the necessary precautions are being taken to keep workers in our industry safe, healthy and employed. Read more: COVID-19: Construction is safe and vital for recovery, Premier says. CFMEU media release
In other words, as long as it could be shown that it was not the result of contact between family/friends or in their own time. This may sound difficult, but currently the Health Department is investigating each case and identifying contacts and so on. Go to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) hazard information page on our website as well as the ACTU's COVID-19 resource page.
The Guardian yesterday reported that supermarkets like starting to look like nightclubs! Long lines have formed outside supermarkets after Coles, Woolworths and IGA began limiting the number of customers inside stores in an effort to allow physical distancing and keep flattening the curve of Covid-19 infections during the Easter rush.
The Thursday before Easter is traditionally one of the busiest days for supermarkets, as people stock up for the weekend. However, in an attempt to avoid overcrowding, a number of Australian supermarkets have instituted “one in one out” policies.
Environment Victoria: hints on keeping bills down
Most of us are spending much more time at home - the lucky ones who can work from home and of course the many who due to the restrictions have either lost their jobs or had hours severely reduced. Unfortunately, it looks like this may continue for quite a while. As the weather cools down, this could mean an increase in our energy bills - an extra expense we could all do without.
James Conlan, Sustainable Homes Project & Policy Officer with Environment Victoria, has provided a number of hints on how to reduce our energy bills - from some very quick and cheap things to do straight away, to more long-term and larger projects. Read more: How to save energy at home during COVID-19
New arrangements for HSR training
With the lock down and physical distancing rules, the Trades Hall has suspended all face to face HSR training until it is once again safe to do so. In the meantime however, we have received WorkSafe to run Refresher Training online! For those many HSRs who haven't yet done their annual Refresher Course, this may be the perfect time to do so if they are working from home, and still ensure they are complying with the need to social distance. Go to this page for more information and to enrol.
April 28: International Workers Memorial Day
International Workers’ Memorial Day or Workers’ Mourning Day is April 28. This is the international day of remembrance and action for workers killed, disabled, injured or made unwell by their work. Not surprisingly, the international focus this year is the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It is planned that 'virtual events' will take place all over the world in support of all the courageous workers who are putting their own health at risk by working with the ill, the elderly, providing essential goods and services, and in remembrance of the people who have died or become sick or injured while doing their job.
The VTHC has begun organising a virtual event and we will let you know as soon as possible what this will look like - so keep your eyes on the journal and our We Are Union OHS Facebook pages for updates. ITUC 28 April Campaign website
With the escalation of the COVID-19 crisis over the past few weeks, the amount of media coverage regarding asbestos issues has reduced considerably - consequently there have not been many stories posted.
Indonesia: Bandung Expands Asbestos Ban
Union Aid Abroad APHEDA had some great news this week: In a major breakthrough in the campaign to ban asbestos, the Indonesian city of Bandung has announced that they will be expanding their asbestos ban to include all new private houses!
This goes even further than Bandung’s 2018 decision to ban asbestos in new commercial buildings. In practice, it will mean that the city won’t approve planning applications with asbestos products. The ban is a huge win for the campaign to end asbestos use in Indonesia.
Indonesia imports over 100,000 tonnes of raw asbestos each year. There are around twenty-six asbestos product factories, most of which are located on the island of Java. The majority of the imported raw asbestos goes to manufacturing roof sheets that are used in construction. There are estimates that up to 50% of the roofs in Jakarta are made of asbestos sheeting.
The next steps in Indonesia will be to use the success in Bandung to pressure more local and regional governments to take steps to ban asbestos products in their cities. Read more: APHEDA media release
International Union News
UK: Unions call for urgent government action on PPE
The UK government must ensure essential workers get access to live-saving protective equipment, an open letter to ministers from unions has said. The letter, signed by the TUC, UNISON, RCM, GMB, Unite, BDA and CSP, notes:
“Our members care for the sick and the elderly, they look after our children and keep them safe, they make sure there is food on the supermarket shelves, they keep the lights on and the water running. We are weeks into fighting Covid-19. It is now clear that the lack of personal protective equipment for frontline workers has become a crisis within a crisis.”
The letter adds: “Workers are being exposed to unreasonable and unnecessary risk by the ongoing failure to provide key workers with adequate PPE. Every day we hear from our members that despite repeated assurances from government, people are being asked to work with inadequate or out of date protective equipment – and that is where PPE is being provided at all.”
The letter states starkly the risks faced by key workers. “They are risking their own health and safety for us. We must be clear what that means, those who are subject to prolonged and direct exposure to the virus – such as health and social care professionals – are risking their lives.” Workers in many essential areas in Australia are facing similar shortages, with some even making their own masks and gowns.
Read more: TUC news release Source: Risks 941
Hand-arm vibration test found
Researchers from Sweden's Orebro University and the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health have identified a way to detect whether workers could suffer harmful effects from exposure to hand-arm vibrations before it's too late to minimise their harm.
The researchers found the metabolic profile of vibration-exposed workers with vibration-induced white fingers (VWF) were different from those without the occupational disease, both before and after vibration exposure.
They studied 38 metalworkers whose work involved grinding metal products, and found blood sampling could provide a method for evaluating whether workers are at risk of developing VWF. The study found a "different profile of low molecular organic metabolites in serum for workers with VWF versus workers without VWF, both before and after exposure to vibrations during work".
According to the researchers, 30 per cent of work-related injuries causing medical disability in the Swedish workforce are suspected to be related to hand-arm vibrations. VWF, or secondary Raynaud's phenomenon, is the "vascular part in hand-arm vibration syndrome", causing workers fingers to become white and feel "severe" pain when exposed to cold. According to the researchers, workers who develop the disease find it difficult to participate in outdoor leisure activities and other events. "By the time the syndrome has manifested it is too late to perform technical measures at the workplace to minimise the workers' exposure to vibrations," they say.
Read more: Per Vihlborg, et al, Serum Metabolites in Hand-Arm Vibration Exposed Workers. [Pdf of full article can be downloaded] Journal of Occupational and environmental Medicine, online first March 2020, doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000001864. Source: OHSAlert
Keep dust levels low to prevent asthma deaths
Occupational medicine researchers from Sweden's University of Gothenburg and other bodies have warned that occupational exposure to soft paper dust must be limited to below 5mg per cubic metre to prevent fatal consequences. The researchers say their results "underscore the importance of keeping the exposure to dust and other irritants low".
The study involved 7,870 workers from three Swedish soft paper mills, and found exposure to levels above 5mg per cubic metre was associated with a significant increased risk of death from obstructive lung disease like asthma. The researchers theorise that the increased asthma mortality could mean exposure to soft paper dust or related irritants can trigger fatal asthma attacks without being the underlying cause of the disease: that is, causing "severe asthma exacerbations".
Soft paper is used for producing toilet paper, paper towels and serviettes, with dust in mills consisting mainly of cellulose fibres and inorganic additives like kaolin and talc, the researchers say.
Of concern to Australian workers, the Safe Work Australia's workplace exposure standard for cellulose (paper fibre) is an eight-hour time-weighted average of 10mg per cubic metre.
The researchers say their study is the first to link exposure to soft paper dust with increased asthma mortality, although dust exposure is increasingly associated with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Their results are also consistent with previous studies that show exposures of more than 5mg per cubic metre are associated with impaired lung function, exhibited through decreased forced expiratory volume and forced vital capacity, they say.
Read more: Kjell Torén, et al, Occupational exposure to soft paper dust and mortality. [Abstract and Full text] Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first April 2020, doi: 10.1136/oemed-2019-106394. Source: OHSAlert
WorkSafe Victoria news
High level of coronavirus-related queries
According to the ABC, as of last week, WorkSafe Victoria had received 647 calls requesting information about coronavirus in the workplace and 299 service requests. The calls included workers concerned about inadequate infection controls and employers asking for advice on enforcing physical distancing requirements.
WorkSafe Victoria has also conducted 347 coronavirus-specific workplace visits and issued 11 compliance notices as of last week. The compliance notices related to workplaces not meeting physical distancing protocols, as well as having inadequate screening, hygiene and cleaning. From the editor's point of view, this number seems surprisingly low: however, it is heartening to know that notices are being issued.
A WorkSafe spokesperson said employees who had concerns about workplace health or safety should call WorkSafe's advisory line on 1800 136 089. United Workers Union (UWU) national secretary Tim Kennedy said calling WorkSafe was not enough and urged employees to contact their unions if their workplace was not safe. He said employers needed to be providing the appropriate equipment, adhering to social distancing guidelines, and providing resources for handwashing. HSRs who have concerns should contact their union or send a query in to Ask Renata. Read more: ABC online
Free accommodation for hospital workers and paramedics self-isolation needed
The Victorian Government has announced that hospital workers and paramedics will get access to free accommodation if they need to self-isolate. A few days later the NSW government announced a similar scheme.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos announced on Sunday that hospital workers who test positive for coronavirus, and those that have had unanticipated and unprotected contract with a person suspected of having coronavirus will be put up in hotels or apartments to self-isolate free of charge - if they so wish. This will allow health workers to self-isolate while keeping their families or housemates safe.
Healthcare workers are more likely to be diagnosed with the virus than any other workforce and are at greater risk of coming into close contact with someone infected with coronavirus.
The accommodation will be offered to clinical and non-clinical staff including cooks and cleaners at public and private hospitals that directly engage with patients, as well as frontline paramedics and patient transport staff.
Read more: Victorian Government media release
New Safety Alert following fatality in paddock
WorkSafe Victoria has issued a Safety Alert following the death of a arm worker after he was struck and killed by a lunch trailer. The freak incident occurred while the trailer was being moved closer to workers in a paddock. The Alert provides advice on what employers need to do in order to reduce the risks to health and safety when operating heavy equipment on farms.
Read more: Farm worker killed by reversing trailer in a paddock
Safe Work Australia news
Safe Work Australia is continually adding more materials on the COVID-19 situation. We reported on some last week, but here are more:
- Workplace checklist – to help employers identify what to do in the workplace
- How to keep workers safe – a fact sheet overview of what employers need to do
- 5 things to do in your workplace – infographic with practical steps employers can take
New industry-specific information on minimising the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is also available:
- Early childhood education and care
- In-house services – this includes child minding, domestic cleaning, garden and home maintenance, dog walking and minding, and trades entering a client’s home
- Food processing and manufacturing
- Warehousing and logistics
- Public transport
- Fly-in fly out (FIFO) and drive-in drive-out (DIDO) workers
- Health and aged care providers
- NDIS providers
- Marine and airline workers
A range of resources, fact sheets and infographics are also available to download in the new Business resource kit.
Safe Work Australia has also issued a Statement of Regulatory Intent for COVID-19. This statement sets out the enforcement approach that Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulators (excluding Victoria) will take to ensure compliance with Australian WHS laws during the COVID-19 pandemic.
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia has not updated its statistics since last week. As of 26 March there had been 43 worker fatalities notified to the national body - five more since the previous update on 12 March. Four of these were in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries.
The fatalities this year have come from the following industries:
- 17 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 9 in Construction
- 6 in Agriculture, forestry and fishing
- 5 in Public administration & safety
- 3 in Mining
- 2 in Manufacturing
- 1 in Arts & recreation services
Company fined $300,000 for gas bottle explosion
A Bayswater maintenance firm was this week convicted and fined $300,000 after a worker was permanently disabled in a gas bottle explosion in December, 2017. The injured worker now requires a wheelchair and has memory loss as a result of multiple traumatic, physical and mental injuries.
New Sector Engineering Pty Ltd pleaded guilty in the Melbourne County Court to failing to provide a work environment that was safe and without risks to health, and failing to ensure persons other than employees were not exposed to risks to their health and safety.
The court heard a New Sector Engineering ute caught on fire when gas bottles containing acetylene and oxygen, which were being transported from a supplier, exploded in the vehicle’s fully enclosed toolbox. The two gas bottles were unsecured and on their side as the ute’s enclosed canopy was too low to allow the worker to place them in an upright position. This allowed acetylene vapour and air to mix and explode.
A witness to the incident on the Mountain Highway at Bayswater said the fire damaged overhead powerlines and nearby cars, while other gas bottles in the ute also ignited. About 12 people attended the scene and attempted to put the fire out and rescue the driver from the vehicle.
WorkSafe Executive Director of Healthy and Safety Julie Nielsen said procedures for handling highly flammable chemicals like acetylene gas could not be left to chance. "A worker will be dealing with horrific physical and mental injuries from this incident for the rest of their lives," Ms Nielsen said. "This incident should serve as a reminder to all employers, contractors and tradies that they need to ensure dangerous goods are handled with care."
Read more, including advice to employers: WorkSafe media release
Sole trader fined $15k after employee falls 3.2m
Kevin Evans, a sole trader who does roofing works in construction projects, was engaged by CSR Building Limited to install roof tiles and battens for a single storey residential dwelling in Mount Duneed.
On 8 May 2018, one of his employees who was installing roof battens fell about 3.2 metres onto the concrete slab below. Though the Safe Work Method Statement ('SWMS') that had been prepared for the roofing work stipulated the use of the 'progressive batten technique' to control the risk of a fall from height, this was not being used at the time.
Evans failed to undertake the work in accordance with the prepared high risk construction work SWMS (as required by regulation 327). It was reasonably practicable for Evans to reduce or eliminate the risk by ensuring that work was carried out in accordance with the SWMS specific to the work.
He pleaded guilty to one charge and was without conviction, fined $15,000 (plust the VWA's costs of $5,751.59).
To find our more details, and to keep up to date with new prosecutions, check WorkSafe Prosecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
NSW: Officer fined over worker death
A NSW company officer who did little to ensure workers could recognise and control risks has been convicted and fined heavily over the crush death of a worker at a client site. Richard Wayne Simmons was fined $90,000, from a maximum available penalty of $300,000, for breaching his duties as an individual PCBU or officer under the WHS Act.
Simmons and his wife’s partnership, RW&LM Simmons, operated four coal haulage trucks at Bloomfield Collieries Pty Ltd's open cut coal mine at Rix's Creek.
In December 2016, one of his truck drivers, Stephen Norman, told him that a Bloomfield worker said they were no longer permitted to use the mine's wash bay to clean the inside of trucks because coal was getting into the sump. Simmons told his workers that to remove the coal build-up in trailers, one worker had to climb inside to dig it out while two co-workers held the propped-up 322kg tailgate.
On the day of the incident, Norman was trying to wedge a handmade tool between the rear of a trailer and its tailgate. One of the workers holding up the tailgate released it without warning and the second worker, struggling under its weight, let it go too. It swung closed and struck Norman's head with 1.24 tonnes of force. He sustained serious injuries and died in hospital two days later.
In lieu of prosecution Bloomfield entered a $507,705 enforceable undertaking with the NSW Resources Regulator. If the truck had been in the mine's wash bay, there would have been little risk of the incident occurring, but there was no evidence Bloomfield had directed the partnership not to use the wash bay. However, there were failings in how Bloomfield implemented, supervised and enforced its safety management system (SMS) for contractors.
"The partnership took minimal, if any steps, to provide for the health and safety of its workers at the mine," NSW District Court Judge Andrew Scotting found. "Most of the training they were given was delivered by Bloomfield." The partnership's workers weren't properly trained to recognise health and safety risks for themselves or how to control those risks, so they weren't able to respond safely when there was a change in the method for cleaning the trucks.
Simmons should have communicated with Bloomfield to check if the partnership was in fact prohibited from using the wash bay, and directed workers not to clean the trailers until this was clarified.
"If the partnership was prohibited from using the wash bay, [Simmons] should have conducted a risk assessment of alternate methods for cleaning the trailers, developed a safe work procedure for doing so and provided adequate supervision of the workers," said Judge Scotting, finding an appropriate fine was $120,000, before reducing it by 25 per cent for his guilty plea. Source: OHSAlert