Welcome to the May 13 edition of SafetyNet. Once again it has been a tragic week, with two more Victorian workers killed since our last edition. 2020 has been a terrible year not only due to the coronavirus.
Again we remind HSRs and employers - while the pandemic has meant taking certain precautions, we must not take our eyes off hazards in the workplace. If you need any assistance or advice on hazards or conditions at the workplace, contact your union. Also, 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. 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.
Latest reported workplace fatalities
Since the last journal, WorkSafe has reported on two workplace fatalities in Victoria.
The first was a self-employed builder who died last Wednesday after he fell about three metres at residential property at Mead, near Kerang on Monday last week. According to the WorkSafe media release, the 53-year-old was working on the roof of an extension at the time of the incident.
In the second incident, a man was killed after he was thrown from an ATV when it rolled down hill at a Glenaroua property in central Victoria last Friday. WorkSafe believes the 86-year-old was not wearing a seatbelt when the side by side vehicle slipped down a rocky outcrop.
WorkSafe is investigating both fatalities, which bring the number of workers killed in Victoria this year to 25. The VTHC extends our sincerest condolences to the families, friends and work colleagues of the workers killed.
TONIGHT! Wednesday May 13: Webinar on Occupational Disease
Tonight (Wednesday May 13) tune in to our latest webinar on Occupational Disease. Sam and Luke, the VTHC Safety Boyz will be joined by a very special guest, Professor Tim Driscoll, from the School of Public Health at Sydney University, to discuss how the law covers occupational diseases, who is most at risk and what we (and HSRs) can do about it. When? Tonight, 7pm on the We Are Union HSRs Facebook page.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update
As of this morning, there had been 6,964 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 97 people have died - no increase since last week. These figures highlight the success of measures taken - but it is not time to become complacent, with last week's outbreak in Melbourne meatworks Cedar Meats accounting for 85 new infections (see below). Nevertheless, due to numbers being low, all of Australia, including Victoria, has begun to relax some of the measures.
This week Premier Daniel Andrews announced that there would be a staggered return of students to schools, with Prep, grades one & two, any years 11 & 12 returning May 26. Years 3 to 10 would go back on June 9. However measures such as staggered drop offs and pick ups, and lunch/breaks, will be introduced. Further, staff who may be vulnerable to the virus will be exempted from returning.
New cases and deaths worldwide are still on the increase, with some countries not yet reaching the 'peak'. Numbers of infections and deaths in countries such as the USA, Russia and now Brazil are an example of the ongoing seriousness of the pandemic. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.
Cedar Meats update
The number of COVID-19 infections associated with Cedar Meats reached 85 this week. Unfortunately the case illustrates how badly things can go wrong if there are any shortcomings in the system. It appears that the Department of Health and Human Services initially just contacted the Brisbane-based labour hire company which employed the person diagnosed with the infection. It was several days before Cedar Meats, located in Brooklyn and where the man actually worked, was notified. It also appears that the first case was initially diagnosed when a worker presented to hospital after a workplace incident in which he suffered a severed finger.
The AMIEU, the union covering meatworkers, has been monitoring COVID-19 cases in the industry. With regard to the outbreak at Cedar Meats, it says, "Only a small number of those who were working there at the time of the outbreak are members of the union. However, we have sought information from all of the companies about pay and protection of the all of the workers, both those affected by COVID-19 and those stood down." It adds that the union has been told "the company had in place employee temperature devices, hand sanitation and other preventative measures. The outbreak shows that this is not sufficient. The AMIEU is willing to meet with Cedar Meats to work with them to reach agreement on the necessary controls including physical distancing, appropriate barriers where practicable, work processes, personal protective equipment and vaccinations if and when they become available." Sources: The Age; AMIEU website
This week there are two, brief, working from home questions which came in from two separate people.
1 - Hi Renata
Is it necessary to organise evacuation drills when working from home?
Although the employer has duties under the OHS Act to employees who are working from home, organising or requiring employees to do emergency evacuation drills is, in my view, not necessary. The employer must provide for employees, a working environment that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health - even when they are working from home. So as well as checking out, or asking the employee to check the work station - using a checklist for example.
Many employers are also asking employees to make sure there is a safe way to get out in case of an emergency, and asking them to check out trip hazards. Where would they go? For workers who live in multi-storey apartment buildings, this is an important consideration and something they need to get clear. I have seen advice that, in a two storey home, for example, it is preferable that the 'home office' be set up on the ground floor. This should be part of the checklist that employers need to get their employees to fill out before they start working from home. (For more information and examples of checklists, check out our Teleworking page)
2 - Hi Renata
With working from home and a lot more online working, I have noticed that my eyes, wrists and um, bottom, are getting sore as I keep at it for hour after hour. Do you have any lovely guides or links to guides which provide best practice for not getting sore eyes, wrists - and the other part?
Well.. funny, but serious! I too have noticed that although the VTHC has set us all up with proper monitors, keyboards and even a foot rest, I am getting very sore shoulders, neck and.. bottom too. I have been using my own office chair, so that may be the problem. In any case, the kind subscriber who sent in the above question then later provided me with a copy of some advice developed by Deakin University for their office staff. The leaflet Office Exercises [pdf] provides a number of suggested exercises someone who is seated for a long period can do. (Thank you Angus!)
The 'trick' of course, is to remember to stop regularly, and do the exercises as recommended - whether at home or in the office.
Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website.
Vale Jack Mundey
Veteran unionist and environmentalist Jack Mundey, who campaigned to protect some of Sydney's most famous areas from development, died this week aged 90. He was secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in the late 60' and early 70's, which was best known for its green bans - 42 in all - stopping several developments at The Rocks, and saving many historic sites. His actions and those of the union members who refused to work on projects they deemed to be environmentally or socially undesirable provided the inspirations for the world's first Green Party, established in Germany. He was also an activist for worker rights, indigenous rights and also social justice causes such as affordable housing.
Throughout the 1960s, Mundey led thousands of militant builders’ labourers in courageous and often dangerous campaigns for better work conditions. These workers were poorly paid and conditions were very unsafe. Once, as reported in the Guardian, BLF militants heaved a flimsy substandard work shed into a large hole on a construction site. Concrete pours were stopped until basic demands were met.
Mundey was elected secretary of the BLF in 1968, and during the period of his leadership, union meetings were translated into seven languages to meet the needs of members, the majority of whom were migrants. For the first time, women were admitted as members and organisers of the union. Later Mundey was clear that without this fight for the dignity and safety of workers, he and fellow leaders would not have won rank and file support for their green bans.
A 'life-long radical', he will be remembered by many as a true Australian hero. He inspired many and his work lives on. Vale Jack Mundey.
QLD: Young woman's childhood exposure fatal
In a tragic example of how lethal asbestos is, Mackay woman Brooke MacDonald, 27, has died after a battle with cancer. The young mother was terminally ill with what was believed to be an asbestos-related cancer that she contracted in primary school. The young mum and nurse was suing the state for $3.8 million. Her supreme court claim alleged that exposure to asbestos at Dundula State School in 1998 and 2002 caused her to develop peritoneal mesothelioma. Her case against the State Government was due to go to trial in June. Source: The Daily Mercury Mackay
James Hardie: Toxic company
Most Australians and all asbestos activists will know of building materials manufacturer James Hardie (JH) - once our own 'asbestos giant'. The company has been in the news again this week: Reacting to adverse business conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, JH has announced its intention to scrap dividends, shut down selected operations in the US, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, make hundreds of workers redundant, cut back on capital spending and make its regular payment to the Australian Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund quarterly instead of annually in July. The company’s disbursement to the Fund is to cover asbestos-related claims made by individuals injured by exposure to JH asbestos-containing products. Read more: James Hardie scraps dividends amid slump. Source: IBAS
Italy: Sardinia's toxic legacy
Members of an association representing asbestos victims in Sardinia have urged regional leaders, politicians and councillors in the Oristano region of Sardinia to use the coronavirus emergency as an “opportunity to plan and urgently implement an extraordinary environmental remediation plan, which includes the remediation of buildings with the presence of asbestos and remediation of illegal landfills…” to address the toxic legacy which persists in the aftermath of decades of asbestos manufacturing and use on Sardinia. The goal would be to remediate all asbestos on the island by 2030.
Read more: C’è un’altra emergenza, l’amianto: Regione, è ora di farla sparire [There is another emergency, asbestos: Region, it's time to make it disappear]. Source: IBAS.
International Union news
UK: Don't rely on goodwill to keep staff safe
As the prime minister prepares to set out how the UK will start emerging from lockdown, the TUC has warned that it can’t be left to the goodwill of employers to keep workers safe. Describing draft government guidance as worrying, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “What the government is proposing amounts to little more than the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) crossing its fingers that employers will act responsibly and keep their workers and the wider community safe.”
Writing in the Guardian, she noted: “Actions will be left to employers’ discretion. Risk control measures such as social distancing and handwashing should be taken ‘where possible’. There is a blank space where the proposed policies on PPE should be. Without a big shift from the government, when lockdown eases bad bosses will be able to expose their workers – and all of us – to infection without fear of consequences.” O’Grady said the TUC was proposing a new approach, one that supports good employers to get it right but is clear about the requirements of every employer, and clear about the penalties for getting it wrong. It wants an explicit requirement for a new coronavirus risk assessment in every workplace, “done in agreement with recognised unions in the workplace. Union health and safety reps are experts who have special legal rights to investigate workplace hazards. And where there isn’t yet a union, management should consult with staff.”
Read more: The Guardian. TUC proposals on ensuring a safe return to work, 4 May 2020. TUC video on coronavirus and employment rights at work. Covid-19: How racism kills, TUC blog, 1 May 2020. Source: Risks 946
Canada: Union anger as outbreak meat plant reopens
The union for workers at a beef-packing plant in Alberta, Canada, that has been the site of the largest single Covid-19 outbreak in North America has expressed anger after regulators refused to back its call to stop the plant reopening. There have been over 900 cases of the virus at the Cargill plant south of Calgary, which employs 2,000 workers. One worker in her 60s died, and her husband was hospitalised with the illness. Cargill announced on 20 April it was shutting down operations for two weeks at the plant, which provides about 40 per cent of the beef processing in Canada. However, it said the plant would reopen on 4 May.
Thomas Hesse with the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) Local 401 said workers are scared, and the union had tried to get a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. “Unfortunately, the situation has not been resolved. At this moment, we have been unable to convince any government or legal authority to have the courage to step in and ensure the plant remains closed until safety is assured.” Hesse said on the union's website. “Our lawyers are looking at new strategies.”
The union held a rally on the edge of the property on 4 May as the plant reopened and handed out black face masks emblazoned with ‘Safety First’. On its website, the union told its members: “If you are healthy and have been called and cleared to return to work, you should report to your supervisor. If you don't really think it is safe to work, then don't.” The union surveyed more than 600 workers in four languages over the weekend; 85 per cent reported they are afraid to return to work, and 80 per cent said they did not want the plant to reopen. UFCW’s Hesse said: “It's ridiculous that hundreds of workers can be required to pour into the plant to kill 4,000 to 5,000 cattle a day, while if you climb on the monkey bars in your local park you're going to get a ticket.” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the decision to reopen the plant was “reckless, irresponsible and, I would say, morally repugnant.”
Read more: UFCW Local 401 news release. AFL news release and related news release Source: Risks 946
USA: 6,000 meat workers have contracted COVID-19
The situation for meat workers in the United States appears to be even more serious than that in Canada. At the end of April at least 6,000 meat workers in the USA had contracted COVID-19 at 80 different facilities in 26 states resulting in several temporary plant closures. Strikes and mass sickouts have also erupted at meatworks around the US with workers concerned about their health and safety. Donald Trump reacted by signing an Executive Order using the Defense Production Act to force processing plants to stay open as meat shortages started to become apparent. The President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union commented “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.” Source: Workers' Solidarity Bulletin #15 (can be downloaded as a pdf on this page)
Why are work-related musculoskeletal injuries still so prevalent?
A major research review commissioned by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has found that despite the increasing focus on risk reduction measures in work safety laws and practices over the last 20 years there has been little reduction of the musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). It also found the growing awareness that psychosocial factors affect MSD rates has not been matched by risk assessment and prevention processes.
The researchers, from the UK's Institute of Occupational Medicine, were trying to work out why reported rates of MSDs in the working populations of the European Union increased between 2007 and 2013, and plateaued, at best, by 2015.
In their 69-page report, they identify 12 hypotheses for the costly problem, including that: new technologies have increased MSD risks or merely shifted them to other sectors, or even other parts of the body; new forms of employment like online gig arrangements have reduced workers' access to safety protections; and many employers are failing to comply with legislative requirements around excessively repetitive tasks, awkward postures and heavy lifting.
The researchers concluded that risk assessment tools and risk reduction measures must be adapted to assess both MSDs and psychosocial risks in one assessment.
Read more: Work-related musculoskeletal disorders: why are they still so prevalent? Evidence from a literature review, European Risk Observatory, EU-OSHA, May 2020 [pdf] Source: OHSAlert
WorkSafe Victoria news
Safety alert on falls
WorkSafe has issued a safety alert after there were two fatal falls in construction over a seven day period. As reported in SafetyNet, the first fatality was at a residential construction site when a worker fell from scaffolding to the ground. He suffered severe head injuries and died in hospital two days later. The second fatality was a self-employed worker who was undertaking work on a pergola under construction at a residential site. Roof sheeting had been removed from the pergola and he fell through an opening to the ground below, suffering fatal head injuries.
The regulator issued the alert to remind employers and workers of the potentially deadly risks associated with working from heights without adequate fall protection. Falls are a leading cause of fatalities within the construction industry, and that they often occur as a result of inadequate fall prevention or incomplete systems of work.
Where there is a risk of falling more than two metres, employers must eliminate that risk so far as is reasonably practicable. For example, by undertaking work on the ground or on a solid construction. If the risk of a fall cannot be eliminated, employers must reduce any remaining risk as far as is reasonably practicable by implementing the controls in a specific order - outlined in more detail in the alert. Read more: Two fatal falls in construction within a seven day period
Reminder: Webinar on the Workplace manslaughter laws
This is a reminder of the WorkSafe webinar on Tuesday May 19, at 11am - 12.30pm, WorkSafe. There will be a panel of WorkSafe experts, who will explain what the introduction of the new industrial manslaughter law will mean for employers and what needs to be done to comply. Participants will be able to ask the panel questions during the live session.
- Rob Kelly, Director, Specialist Services in Health and Safety
- Gordon Cooper, Director, Enforcement Group
- Dmitry Rozkin, Director, Legislation Policy and Information Services and
- Adam Watson, Head of Operations and Emergency Management in Health and Safety
There is a limit to the number of participants, so if you are interested, register asap. To find out more and register, please click here.
NSW: warning on fake face masks
SafeWork NSW has issued a Safety Alert warning that due to the increased demand for PPE as a result of COVID-19, construction businesses (and PCBUs) and some other industries have had difficulty getting P2 disposable respirators used for protection against dusts and chemicals including silica, asbestos and lead. This extra demand is leading to fake respiratory protective equipment (RPE) entering the Australian market. The regulator recommends that before purchasing RPE, PCBUs need to make sure it meets the Australian Standard or international equivalent, especially when there is any doubt about its performance claims. Read more: Supply of fake face masks
Safe Work Australia news
COVID-19 workplace guidance
The Safe Work Australia website is continually being updated to provide a central hub of work health and safety (WHS) guidance and tools to help Australian workplaces manage the health and safety risks posed by COVID-19.
The website gives users easy access to guidance that is directly relevant to their specific industry. It includes guidance about physical distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, workers’ compensation, how to conduct risk assessments and design emergency plans, as well as providing case studies to help explain how to manage the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. Unions have had some input into this guidance.
Go to COVID-19 Information for workplaces and filter the content using the new drop-down menus to find information and resources tailored for:
- employers, small business and workers
- the industry you work in, and
- the health and safety topic that you would like information on.
You can also use the search bar to find specific COVID-19 WHS content or browse through the information for your industry. New information and guidance continue to be developed and the website will be updated with new information as the COVID-19 situation evolves.
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia has updated its workplace fatality statistics: as of May 7 there had been 70 worker fatalities notified to the national body. This is seven more than the last update on April 23. Three of these were in the Transport, postal & warehousing sector, two in manufacturing, and one each in construction and wholesale trade. The fatalities have been in the following sectors:
- 23 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 13 in Construction
- 9 in Public administration & safety
- 8 in Agriculture, forestry & fishing
- 7 in Manufacturing
- 4 in Mining
- 2 in Arts & recreation services
- 1 in Accommodation & food services
- 1 in Retail trade
- 1 in Wholesale 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.
WorkSafe Victoria has not published any further prosecutions. To keep up to date with new prosecutions, check WorkSafe Prosecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
NSW: Sole director sentenced in tragic Sydney hospital incident
The sole director and employee of Pro-Med Services Pty Ltd has been convicted and a fined over the Sydney hospital gas incidents that killed one newborn baby, and severely injured another, could have averted the tragedies by conducting the simple tests he was qualified and paid to perform. He was convicted and fined $100,000 after pleading guilty to a breach of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 after the death of one baby and serious injury of another at Bankstown-Lidcombe Hospital in 2016.
The man was one of several parties SafeWork NSW began action against after it was discovered that nitrous oxide and oxygen lines had been cross-connected and the testing that could have prevented the tragedies was not properly carried out.
One of the babies suffered serious injuries, when she was given the nitrous oxide during resuscitation. The other baby died following the administration of nitrous oxide instead of oxygen from the neonatal gas system.
Valerie Griswold, SafeWork NSW Executive Director of Investigation and Enforcement said that in 2018 SafeWork began prosecution proceedings against five parties for alleged breaches of the Act. “Two of these matters proceeded to a hearing at court, being the cases against installation company BOC Limited and its contractor Christopher Turner,” Ms Griswold said. The cases against two other defendants were discontinued for legal reasons. The case against another party, South Western Sydney Local Health District, was discontinued when it entered an enforceable undertaking with SafeWork as an alternative to prosecution. Read more: SafeWork NSW media release.
WHO Return to work publication flawed
The World Health Organisation (WHO) this week issued return-to-work guidance which, while of interest, has some serious gaps and questionable recommendations, and which could undermine existing standards.
According to Professor Rory O'Neill, editor of the UK's TUC Hazards magazine, the flaws in the new guide, ‘Considerations for public health and social measures in the workplace in the context of COVID-19’ include but are not limited to:
- recommending ‘at least one metre’ physical distancing, which is not sufficient, and based on a questionable assessment of aerosol risks in many workplaces, and is less than recommended by many national authorities (In Australia the recommendation is 'at least 1.5m');
- referring to the need for ‘medical masks’ for high risk work – this is vague and potentially dangerous. Specified fluid repellent, high performance masks are required to minimise the risks in high risk work, and many medical/surgical masks do not meet this requirement;
- referring to ‘disposable’ and ‘heavy duty’ gowns and gloves, but not to the crucial fluid repellence, cover area or quality assurance;
- saying nothing on right to refuse work that presents a serious and imminent risk to health (a right included in many national laws and in the relevant ILO Conventions);
- saying nothing on protection from victimisation for raising safety concerns (again, a right in ILO Conventions);
- While acknowledging they may be at increased risk, it says little or nothing on protection for vulnerable workers (other than recommending that they not be assigned to high risk jobs) – and fails to assert the need for a right to remain off work if at risk, or when living with or caring for vulnerable individuals;
- saying nothing on testing to identify pre-symptomatic/ asymptomatic workers;
- saying nothing on the adequacy of risk assessments and little of substance on worker involvement in their preparation and approval, prior to return to work; and
- saying little or nothing on the employer’s role in reporting, recording, recognising and compensating work-related cases of coronavirus related infections, and related mental health and other problems.
The document was prepared without the involvement of unions, despite the preamble identifying unions as a part of the target audience and unions expressing concern about the development of guidance without union participation. (Thanks to Professor Rory O'Neill)