Welcome to the April 22 edition of your weekly OHS e-journal, SafetyNet.
The big event in the coming week is International Workers Memorial Day on April 28. While it will not be possible to run our usual event at the Trades Hall, we urge you all to tune in to our live stream - see the details below.
We hope you are all keeping well. We want to remind you 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. If you have any questions or need any advice, we can be reached via the Ask Renata facility on the website or through the closed OHS Network Facebook page.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update
Over the past week and a bit, Australia's infection rate has been under 1 per cent, demonstrating that the strict physical distancing rules are generally being adhered to and achieving results. In some states there have been no new cases in a couple of days. At the time of posting, there had been a total of 6647 cases of infection (an increase of just 247 since the last edition). Of these, 4685 had recovered, and 74 people had died.
The numbers of infections and fatalities could have been much higher had our governments not introduced measures quickly. This has been demonstrated by the appalling numbers in both the UK and the USA where governments were slow to introduce controls (see items, below). While there is some level of frustration that physical isolation measures are still in place despite the infection rate decreasing, it's extremely important that we maintain these so as to ensure that we don't end up having a second round of infections as has happened in countries such as Singapore and South Korea.
For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.
International Workers’ Memorial Day or Workers’ Mourning Day is April 28 - next Tuesday. 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.
'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 will be live streaming the event through our We Are Union OHS Reps Facebook page which will be a combination of short speeches and videos to remember those killed in Victoria over the past year. The speakers at the event will be:
- Mr Luke Hilakari - Secretary, Victorian Trades Hall Council
- The Hon. Daniel Andrews - Premier, State of Victoria
- The Hon. Jill Hennessey - Minister for Workplace Safety
- Mr Colin Radford - CEO, WorkSafe Victoria
- Dr Lana Cormie - Industrial Manslaughter legislation activist, and widow of Charles Howkins, who with Jack Brownlee, was killed when a trench collapsed in Delacombe in March 2018
The speeches will be followed by a video of union officials and activists reading the details of the 35 workers killed at work in the past year and lighting a candle, and wreath laying at the Trades Hall and at other locations. Those participating in the live stream will be asked to put their boots out to remember the workers who have lost their lives, to take a photo and post this to the FB memorial service page.
Please join us on the 28th of April at 10:30, to remember those who have died as a result of work, but fight like hell for the living. The event should wrap up at about 11.15 am.
New OHS job at the VTHC
The Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) is looking for someone who wants to make a difference.
We are seeking to employ a WorkWell Project Organiser on a short-term contract (until July 2022) to work in our Carlton office and/or remotely as part of our OHS Team. The WorkWell Organiser will be responsible for working with the ACTU and partner unions to deliver a new project increasing mental health safety and awareness for workers in Victoria. The WorkWell Project Organiser will provide outreach and support to unions, mental health advocates and OHS delegates in over 100 workplaces as they learn how to identify and manage psychosocial hazards.
Applications close 5pm AEST, May 1, 2020. To find out more regarding duties and job requirements, go to this page on the Ethical Jobs website.
- are there adequate numbers of fire wardens in place?
- is the organisation clear on how many workers (and others) are on site at any given time, and where they are (if workplace arrangements have been changed)?
- are the normal evacuation routes accessible and how will the employer ensure physical distancing can be maintained during evacuation?
- are the locations where people need to rally adequate and how will the employer ensure physical distancing can be maintained while people rally there?
- are all the workers aware of any changes that have had to be made to the evacuation/emergency response plan?
USA: Victims’ Verdict in NY Appeal
On April 9, 2020, for the first time a verdict awarded by a New York jury in a case over toxic exposure to asbestos-contaminated talc was upheld by a panel of the First Department of New York’s Supreme Court, Appellate Division in a case brought on behalf of mesothelioma victim Florence Nemeth and her husband. Between 1960 and 1971, Mrs. Nemeth had been “exposed to billions or trillions of asbestos fibers” contained in Desert Flower Dusting Powder on a daily basis. She was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in November, 2012 and died in March, 2016. On August 22, 2017, the jury had awarded the Nemeths a total of $16.5 million, of which the defendant in that case was ordered to pay ~$3m; the panel increased this amount to $3.3m. See: Nemeth v Brenntag North America et al. Source: IBAS
Colombia: Sibaté's asbestos legacy
A newly published paper details a study conducted in the Colombian town of Sibaté; the Colombian and Italian authors of this text identified a cluster of mesothelioma cases in Sibaté, the location of an asbestos-cement factory which had been operational since 1942. This study was, said the authors, the first to analyse the potential impact of asbestos at the population level and could inform discussions about the hazard posed by asbestos to other Colombian communities where asbestos plants had been sited. The dangerous use of industrial asbestos cement waste within urban areas was discussed. Read more: Commentary Epidemiological research as a driver of prevention: the Sibaté study. Source: IBAS
Italy: Supreme Court verdict
On April 15, 2020, the fourth criminal section of Italy’s Supreme Court convicted the defendant, a former employer, of manslaughter over occupational asbestos exposure. The Court said that even though the asbestos was at “very low doses”, the exposure led to the death from pleural mesothelioma of a worker who had been employed in dismantling railway carriages. The first judgment in this case had been handed down by the Court of Vercelli and was subsequently confirmed by the Turin Court of Appeal. Read more: Sentenza: l’amianto è cancerogeno anche a dosi minime; condannato datore di lavoro [Judgment: asbestos is carcinogenic even at minimal doses; convicted employer]. Source: IBAS.
UK: COVID-19 causes havoc in multiple workplaces
With the COVID-19 crisis being so much more serious in the UK, with infections at over 120,000 and more than 16,000 deaths (not including deaths of people in nursing homes), huge numbers of workers find themselves at high risk of infection just doing their jobs. These are workers in the transport, retail, prison and healthcare sectors in particular, but also many workers whose jobs have been designated 'essential'. Problems include shortages of PPE, low levels of testing, and poor work practices. Below is a snapshot of some of the current problems. For more detail, go to the April 16 edition of Risks 943.
- Transport union RMT has advised tens of thousands of workers in the rail and bus sector to stop work on safety grounds if employers do not provide adequate protection. The union says workers should stop work and invoke the “safe work procedure if employers do not follow key protection measures” including only conducting activities related to essential services, avoiding group and close proximity work and maintaining two metre separation of workers. Where this isn’t possible on essential jobs “then personal protective equipment such as gloves, eye defenders and masks [are] to be utilised by all workers in close proximity to provide mutual assurance and the time spent within two metres must be minimised and only for the purpose of the task. If full appropriate PPE is not available then work should not commence.”
- RMT is also demanding that companies install perspex screens to protect their bus members after some reported that what they'd been provided with was no better than a shower curtain screwed to the ceiling.
- Shortages of PPE are so acute that one of the UK's biggest unions, Unite, has called for the ‘rapid appointment’ of a minister with responsibility for PPE delivery. Vital protective equipment is not getting to the NHS and social care frontline, nor to other workers such as those in transport, postal services and many other sectors.
- Workers in many call centres are being put at risk with a recent survey finding that pre-existing health and safety concerns were being exacerbating by the current coronavirus crisis. Half of all workers surveyed reported they were working face-to-face with a co-worker; over a third had been required to have face-to-face team meetings; and a similar proportion described being required to engage in team ‘huddles'.
- The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned that fire and rescue personnel urgently need coronavirus testing, as services have lost up to 12 per cent of their firefighters and control staff to self-isolation. According to the FBU almost 3,000 fire and rescue staff are in self-isolation and unable to work, representing 5.1 per cent of the UK’s overall fire and rescue workforce.
- At least 19 NHS workers had died after contracting the coronavirus.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has advised nurses without appropriate PPE, who have ‘exhausted all other measures’, can refuse to treat patients. The RCN has urged nurses without adequate PPE to consider delaying treatment, using alternative practices and refusing to work if ‘escalation steps’, such as consulting a line manager and documenting concerns, do not resolve the situation. In guidance published on 9 April RCN advised: “Ultimately, if you have exhausted all other measures to reduce the risk and you have not been given appropriate PPE in line with the UK Infection Prevention and Control guidance, you are entitled to refuse to work. This will be a last resort and the RCN recognises what a difficult step this would be for nursing staff.” RCN news release and Refusal to treat guide.
- Union slams lack of PPE for Border Force staff. The PCS union says they need to be equipped with PPE as a matter of urgency. The call follows a second death at Heathrow reportedly from COVID-19. PCS, which represents border force staff in customs and passport control, has demanded management take action to protect members from the coronavirus and has slammed a ‘lax attitude’ to safety.
Why Zoom meetings are so tiring
Not a recent research article, but very interesting during these times when so many of us are working from home: does using Zoom drain your energy? Manyu Jiang, for BBC Worklife, looks at this phenomenon. She spoke to Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, and Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness, to hear their views. Some of the issues identified by them include:
- a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face meeting - we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy
- silence on a video call is more of a challenge
- when we are 'on camera' we are very aware we are being watched
Furthermore, the mere fact we are having to hold virtual meetings highlights why we are needing to do so: the current pandemic and what this means for us all. The mixing up of work and personal lives, work space and family space - all contributes to this stress.
To reduce the fatigue, the experts suggest limiting video calls to those that are necessary. Turning on the camera should be optional and in general there should be more understanding that cameras do not always have to be on throughout each meeting. Having the screen off to the side, instead of straight ahead, could also help concentration, particularly in group meetings. Read the entire article here: The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC Worklife (note: link fixed!)
Problem-solving meetings reduce sick leave
Swedish researchers have found that guided problem-solving meetings between workers with common mental disorders and their managers can reverse any "mismatch" with the work environment, significantly reducing sick leave and improving return-to-work (RTW) times.
They looked at 100 Swedish workers suffering new episodes of incapacitating work stress, depression or anxiety and found those who were quickly placed in a brief "participative problem-solving intervention" took 15 fewer days of sick leave in the next 12 months than those receiving the usual care. They found that while both groups had similar overall improvements in mental health symptoms, the program participants were able to partially RTW after a sickness absence significantly earlier.
The intervention comprised of three steps: the first two were interviewing the manager and the worker separately; the third was a joint where the two were guided by a consultant and encouraged to actively take part in problem solving around the worker's work situation. Workers were also provided with advice on stress management and attended at least three follow-up meetings where the RTW plan was reviewed – steps the researchers said are also crucial to reducing sickness absences.
Their results show these types of interventions can be enhanced by a participative problem-solving approach, and with early involvement from the employer. Given that common mental disorders like depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders are among the main causes of long-term sickness absences in many countries, these could be important findings.
Read more: Marijke Keus van de Poll, et al, Preventing sickness absence among employees with common mental disorders or stress-related symptoms at work: a cluster randomised controlled trial of a problem-solving-based intervention conducted by the Occupational Health Services. [Full text] Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first April 2020 doi: 10.1136/oemed-2019-106353. Source: OHSAlert
WorkSafe Victoria news
Respect our health care workers!
The regulator sent out a communication today calling for respect for health care workers. This is their message:
These workers support us, and the ones we love, often when we are most vulnerable.
It’s a challenging period for everyone, but there is no excuse for violent or aggressive behaviour from customers or patients and their families.
This unacceptable behaviour can have significant ongoing effects on the physical and mental health of our healthcare workers. These workers deserve our respect.
We must work together to ‘Recognise. Report. Prevent’
- Recognise - be aware of what constitutes problematic behaviour. Recognise it within yourself and in those around you.
- Report - if you witness or experience violent or aggressive behaviour, do not get involved. Report it immediately to someone at the healthcare facility, or to the police.
- Prevent - recognise unacceptable behaviour and unreasonable reactions in yourself. Notice your triggers and take time out before things escalate. If you’re in management at a healthcare service, ensure you implement controls to eliminate or reduce the risks of these incidents, encourage your workers to report them, and act on issues and opportunities.
More information on the WorkSafe website It's never ok.
New complaints system introduced
WorkSafe has introduced a new centralised system for complaints about workers compensation.
The Victorian Government will conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s dangerous goods laws to help put a stop on unsafe chemical stockpiling. Andrew Palmer, QC, has been appointed to conduct the review of the Dangerous Drug Act 1985 and associated regulations.
The move is just one of the latest steps that the government has done in response to chemical stockpiling after two large chemical fires in West Footscray in August 2018 and Campbellfield in April 2019. WorkSafe conducted a safety blitz following the 2018 incident to ensure dangerous chemicals were being stored correctly. Those investigations led to the discovery of waste chemicals stockpiled at 13 sites in Melbourne’s north last year.
A WorkSafe-led taskforce has so far removed over 13 million litres of the stockpiled waste chemicals, clearing four sites in Epping, three in Craigieburn and three in Campbellfield. The final three sites in Campbellfield are currently being cleared.
Tough new penalties were introduced last year. Rogue operators who recklessly manufacture, store, transport, transfer, sell or use dangerous goods in a way that places another person in danger of death will face up to 10 years in jail and fines of more than $6.4 million.
“This review will make sure dangerous goods laws remain effective and keep Victorians safe.” said Minister for Workplace Safety Jill Hennessy. A review of the Act is important to ensure our laws are up to the task of protecting the community from the unacceptable risk that stockpiling of dangerous goods poses and to deal with those who do it. A final report and recommendations are expected to be delivered to the Government next year, with opportunities for public comment and stakeholder engagement later this year. Read more: Victorian government media statement
New guidance on COVID-19
Given that building work has continued during this period, WorkSafe has issued new guidance for the construction sector: Managing the risk of COVID-19 exposure: Construction industry
Latest edition of Safety Soapbox
The April edition of WorkSafe's Safety Soapbox arrived in our inboxes today.
In this edition, the editorial discusses a recent tragic incident in which a worker sustained a serious laceration to his upper leg while operating a circular saw, severing his femoral artery. The worker was airlifted to hospital where unfortunately he died the next day. Brian Chamberlin, WorkSafe’s Inspector and Construction industry education officer, looks at the common mistakes made when using power saws across the industry. There is also a short video clip in which Brian provides tips on the use of power saws.
In the month of March, 207 incidents were reported to WorkSafe, 67 per cent of which which resulted in injury: 51 per cent of these were significant, and 11 per cent were serious. There were four 'serious near misses' and two fatalities. 36 incidents involved young workers.
Access the April 22 edition of Safety Soapbox here - the list of reported incidents can be downloaded from the page.
National Fatality Statistics
There has not been an update since the last edition: As of 9 April there had been 54 worker fatalities notified to the national body. The fatalities have been in the following sectors:
- 17 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 12 in Construction
- 7 in Agriculture, forestry and fishing
- 5 in Public administration & safety
- 5 in Manufacturing
- 3 in Mining
- 2 in Arts & recreation services
- 1 in Accommodation & food services
- 1 in Retail trade
- 1 in 'other services'
To check for updates, and for more details on fatalities since 2003, go to the Safe Work Australia Work-related fatalities webpage.
Unfortunately there have not been any updates to WorkSafe's page once again. That's two weeks now. To keep up to date with any new prosecutions before next week's edition, check the Prosecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
ACT: Crane driver gets suspended prison term for 2016 workplace death
On Monday this week the ACT Supreme Court sentenced a worker to 12 months' jail for reckless conduct that killed a co-worker, in a judgment which revealed multiple safety failures resulting from inadequate training, time pressures and cost-saving measures.
Seven people and two companies (RAR Cranes Pty Ltd, and Multiplex) were charged by WorkSafe ACT in April 2018 with multiple offences following the investigation conducted over the death of a worker that occurred while mobile crane at the site was moving a large generator.
The RAR Cranes driver pleaded guilty to a breach of the Act, and the Court found that although the fact he permitted others to pressure him into performing an unsafe crane lift increased the seriousness of his offence, it wholly suspended his sentence upon him entering a good behaviour order. While the driver had decided not to undertake a risk assessment for the lift due to failing light, and made other errors, there were a number of mitigating factors. These included that the primary responsibility for risk assessment and worker safety lay with Multiplex as the construction site's principal contractor, occupier and controller, and with RAR as the worker's employer.
The driver had not been trained by RAR on how to correctly operate the crane in superlift mode, and had not been informed that one of his RAR colleagues felt the pick and carry crane shouldn't be used for lifting the generator. He also reasonably believed his casual employment would be threatened if he refused to carry out the lift; at another site, he had refused to undertake a crane task as a rigger because of safety concerns, which led to an RAR client engaging another company to carry out the lift.
ACT Work Safety Commissioner, Greg Jones said the outcome of this case is a strong reminder that workplace safety should be given a high priority. “Every supervisor, manager and director on any worksite must continually review and mitigate workplace risks. They also need to ensure their workers understand and follow all safety systems and procedures so they can do their job safely. The consequences and penalties for failing to meet safety obligations and responsibilities are far too high to be complacent.”
Sources: OHSAlert; Safety Culture.
UK: New Coronavirus guidance from HSE
As covered in Union news, the situation in the UK is much worse than it is in Australia with tens of thousands dead. The UK's health and safety regulator, the HSE, has issued extensive guidance which can be found on its website. Among this guidance are guidelines on how businesses must maintain social distancing and protect workers during the coronavirus outbreak.
The guidance explains what employers must do in order to protect their workers and keep their businesses open. It covers:
- social distancing (employers who have people in their offices or onsite should ensure that employees are able, where possible, to follow the appropriate regulations and/or guidance for England, Scotland and Wales on social distancing)
- essential and non-essential work
- safe in-work activity