Welcome to the May 20 edition of SafetyNet - brought to you from the 'comfort' of our editor's dining room home office!
While many of us are still at home, restrictions are gradually being lifted, so this will mean more workers getting back to work. This will bring a range of new challenges. Please remember that 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.
Webinar on Occupational Disease available to check out
The unit's Wednesday May 13 webinar on Occupational Disease is available to check out on our Facebook page. Sam and Luke were be joined by special guest, Professor Tim Driscoll, from the School of Public Health at Sydney University. They had a very interesting discussion on how the law covers occupational diseases, who is most at risk and what we (and HSRs) can do about it. Check it out on the We Are Union HSRs Facebook page.
Boy killed in all terrain vehicle crash
In a tragic incident, a 10 year-old boy was killed this weekend after crashing a 'side by side' all terrain vehicle on a private property off Cressy-Shelford Road at Shelford, near Geelong. While this boy's death will not be classified as a workplace fatality, it shows that vehicles such as 'side by sides' and quad bikes are not toys, but extremely dangerous equipment.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update
As of this morning, there had been 7068 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 100 people have died - an increase of three since the last week. While it looks like the measures the government introduced have been effective, it appears that there will continue to be concerns of 'clusters'. For example, in addition to the recent outbreak at Brooklyn meatworks Cedar Meats (which accounted for 99 cases), there has also been an outbreak related to a number of McDonald's outlets. (see below). Although the outbreak at Cedar Meats is being investigated by WorkSafe, work has now recommenced there.
The pandemic is far from reaching its peak around the world however. Italy and other European countries have begun to relax restrictions - with the number of deaths in Italy decreasing (but they still had 99 in one day earlier this week). Countries such as Brazil, however, are still to reach peak numbers. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.
COVID-19 outbreak at McDonalds
Up to a thousand, of McDonald's workers have been stood down on unpaid pandemic leave for 14 days after a cluster was first identified at the Fawkner store in Melbourne's north, and then a delivery driver testing positive. This led to 12 McDonalds outlets closing their doors. There have been a total of 12 cases of the infection: 10 at Fawkner, one at Craigieburn and the driver.
The workers have been told to self-isolate. Those who are part-time (permanent) may have access to some sick leave, but most are casuals and many of them will not qualify for JobKeeper (if they have not been employed there long enough). There is no doubt that these workers came into contact with the virus because they were working at those outlets. They have been told that even after the 14 days they will not be able to return unless they test negative. The plight of the workers who have been stood down highlights the need for paid pandemic leave, as called for by the ACTU last week. The ACTU's demand is:
"Paid pandemic leave for all workers who have reason to believe that they might have contracted COVID-19. This would allow all workers who believe they may have the illness to get tested and if necessary, take additional time to recover. This entitlement can be provided for 90 per cent of workers by the Morrison Government, but states and territories will be essential to ensuring universal coverage." Read more: ACTU media release; The Guardian.
My employer has started to make noises about us gradually returning to work. What are some of the issues we need to be aware of?
I will deal with this question over a couple of separate journals, as there are many issues...
Firstly, it’s crucial you have one or more health and safety representatives (HSRs) as it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are going to be a range of issues which need to be considered and dealt with before workers can safely return to work. Under the obligations of the OHS Act, the employer has a legal duty to consult with any HSRs when identifying and assessing hazards and risks, and when implementing controls to eliminate (or minimise) these hazards and risks. If there are no elected HSRs, then the employer must consult with affected workers – but this is difficult to do effectively, and is often just not done at all. The duty to consult, which is in s35 of the Act, also requires the employer to consult when proposing changes to (almost) anything, like the workplace, the systems of work, the plant and so on.
This is super important – how things will need to be done, what the workplace might look like, and more will need to change. Specifically, this might mean changes to or consideration of:
- The physical layout of the workplace – to ensure physical distancing
- The hours of work
- How and how often the workplace needs to be cleaned
- Evacuation procedures
- How many visitors/clients can enter the workplace
- Interaction between staff and visitors/clients
- Leave policies
- and more…
These issues will affect the level of risk to workers of contracting COVID-19.
There will be other issues, depending on the workplace and the type of work. For example: workers in the transport sector – potential overcrowding in buses, trams, trains and platforms; or construction workers – there have already been employer complaints about the difficulties of maintaining physical distancing. For these reasons it is crucial that workers, through their HSRs have a say. It is unacceptable for employers to not consult – using the excuse that there has not been time. It is absolutely ‘practicable’ to ensure that HSRs are involved in the return to work process.
Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website.
WA: Ratepayers bear financial burden of Wittenoom asbestos compensation claims
Wittenoom’s asbestos mining past continues to affect Shire of Ashburton ratepayers who face rising legal costs from compensation claims. The local government’s insurance coverage expired over a decade ago meaning it has paid $6.3 million on cases related to the ghost town, which is located within its boundaries, since 2008. In the past financial year the Shire has set aside $1.9 million to deal with the costs.
Ashburton president Kerry White said the nature of the claims had changed from involving long term residents to people who had just visited the area. She said, “It’s very unfair a local government has to pay this out when the State put the town there and the State got the royalties and we’re dragged into this with no help from the State. Earlier claims made were from those who were family members of mine workers, including spouses and children ... in more recent times, there has been a rise in claims received from tourists and people who visited the town for short-term work contracts who may have had building product exposure.”
The Wittenoom asbestos mine closed in 1966 and the town was de-gazetted in 2007. More than 2000 former workers and residents from the town have died from asbestos-related diseases.
Source: The West Australian
International Union news
UK: TUC guide risk assessments for homeworkers
Just as in Australia, many in the UK are working from home to reduce the spread of COVID-19. But the TUC says this exposes workers to other health and safety hazards, and many employers are ignoring their responsibility by not carrying out risk assessments. Union reps can help change this with the help of the TUC’s new guide to risk assessments for homeworkers. The guide gives guidance on workers’ rights and employers’ duties to address risks including accidents, injuries, mental health problems and violence. Read more: TUC guide to risk assessments for homeworkers.
UK: Inquiry call as low paid dominate COVID-19 worker deaths
Unite is calling for a full public inquiry after figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed workers in ‘low skilled elementary occupations’ (21.4 deaths per 100,000) were almost four times as likely to die from the virus as ‘professionals’ (5.6 per 100,000). ONS also found that male workers had notably increased mortality rates in a number of professions.
The 11 May age-adjusted figures for the working age population show the highest number of deaths were recorded in the following industries:
- Social care sector, with 131 deaths recorded.
- Taxi drivers, where there had been 77 deaths with a mortality rate of 36.4 per 100,000.
- Chefs (37 deaths, 35.7 per 100,000 mortality rate)
- Security guards (64 deaths, 45.7 per 100,000 rate)
- Bus (30 deaths, 26.4 per 100,00)
Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: “This is only an early snapshot of this dreadful disease but it is clear that lower paid workers have been at the greatest risk of dying during the pandemic.” She added: “An inquiry is needed to understand if measures such as the lockdown was introduced too late and whether frontline workers were able to effectively socially distance at work, if effective cleaning regimes were in place and if workers were provided with the necessary PPE to properly protect them.” Read more: ONS publication note and analysis of deaths in England and Wales related to Covid-19 by occupation the occupations in the UK that have the highest potential exposure to Covid-19. Unite news release. Source: Risks
Work-related asthma triggered within two years
A US study spanning five decades has found that a significant proportion of adult asthma cases can be attributed to workplace triggers and workers can develop the illness in as little as two years, underscoring the need for employers to reduce exposures and monitor staff.
In the study of nearly 14,000 workers, the public health researchers from the University of North Carolina found those working in high asthma risk occupations in the agriculture, cleaning, hospitality, healthcare, beauty, manufacturing and construction sectors are more than four times as likely to have asthma than those in low-risk occupations.
The found that work exposures to asthma triggers may cause or aggravate about 11 per cent of all adult asthma and increase the risk of work-life asthma by 60 per cent. They said that while the greater prevalence of asthma in high-risk occupations was expected, "what was not known prior to this study was the size of the extra asthma risks linked with occupation".
The researchers say the results highlight the importance of employers reducing exposure to asthma triggers, monitoring workers for signs of asthma and limiting exposures for those with symptoms. They also argue there needs to be better public health education on workplace exposures and healthcare professionals asking patients about their workplace exposures.
Read more: James Laditka, et al,Work-related asthma in the USA: nationally representative estimates with extended follow-up. [Abstract] Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first May 2020. Source: OHSAlert
WorkSafe Victoria news
Webinar on Workplace Manslaughter
WorkSafe ran an extremely informative and interesting webinar yesterday on the upcoming workplace manslaughter legislation. The all male panel consisted of:
- 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
The discussion and Q & A which followed emphasised that the new provisions place no extra duties on duty holders. If employers and other duty holders are following the current OHS requirements now, then they will be come come July 1, when the workplace manslaughter laws take effect. What the laws will change are the consequences: if the negligence of a duty holder leads to the death of a worker (or other person), then the potential consequences of being charged with and found guilty of workplace manslaughter will be up to 20 years in prison for an individual or $16.5 million in corporate fines. (for more information on the details of the law, go to this page on the WorkSafe website).
The discussion clarified a number of issues:
- WorkSafe will work with Victoria Police when investigating workplace related deaths; the WorkSafe investigative team will also work closely with the Office of Public Prosecutions
- other charges relating to breaches of the Act may be laid, irrespective of whether a charge of workplace manslaughter is laid
- cases of work-related suicide could be investigated as workplace manslaughter - for example if there has been workplace bullying
- there is no exemption for small business or farm businesses, and nor should there be, because the duties apply to all equally, and all workers (and those affected, eg visitors to the workplace) deserve equal protection
- workplace manslaughter and 'common law' manslaughter are two very different things: workplace manslaughter relates directly to the duties under the OHS Act, but makes the consequences more serious.
WorSafe has indicated that the webinar will be available to view from WorkSafe's website soon.
New Safety Alert
WorkSafe has issued a reminder about the risks with using unsuitable flexible hose assemblies at dangerous goods facilities following two recent incidents that resulted in loss of containment, and injury to one worker. The incidents were caused by the selection and use of hose assemblies that were not suitable for the intended purpose, with respect to temperature and chemical compatibility, construction materials and inappropriate couplings and fittings. Read more, including information on how to control the risks: Safe selection and use of flexible hose assemblies
Latest edition of Safety Soapbox
WorkSafe sent the May edition of its construction and utilities e-bulletin out today. The editorial, by Kate Maheras, Acting Director, Hazardous Industries and Industry Practices, begins:
"It was only a few weeks ago on the 28th April that we stopped to recognise International Workers’ Memorial Day. The day provides an opportunity to pay respects to those who have died at work, and acknowledges the pain and grief of those they left behind. Sadly, since that day we have lost a further two construction workers, in separate falls from height and it is a sobering reminder that working at heights remains a leading cause of fatalities within the construction industry. There have been nine fatal incidents within the last three years and often they occur as a result of inadequate fall prevention or incomplete systems of work."
The editorial is well worth reading.
Also in this edition is:
- advice on COVID-19 and the construction industry, with links to updated guidance. Attached to the bulletin is a document detailing the number of notified incidents during April: 160 incidents were notified to WorkSafe. Of these, 67 per cent resulted in injury.
- links to Safety Alerts
- advice that Worksafe has recently become aware there are organisations offering white card through on-line delivery and who are providing what appears to be a white card. These are not genuine, but fake.
- Interstate news
- and more.
Download the May 20 edition of Safety Soapbox.
Safe Work Australia news
COVID-19 workplace guidance
As we keep noting, 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. This week there is new information for:
Go to the COVID-19 Information page to check for a number of industries, and also general information.
Also check out the SWA COVID-19 Resource Kit, which has information on topics such as how to clean and disinfect the workplace, workplace checklists, and more. A new addition is COVIDSafe App guidance - which makes it clear that a person (including an employer) must not require a worker or other person to download or use COVIDSafe. This includes requiring workers to download COVIDSafe onto work issued and private mobile phones.
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia has not updated its workplace fatality statistics since last week: as of May 7 there had been 70 worker fatalities notified to the national body. 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.
Hazelwood Power fined $1.56m after mine fire
The operator of Hazelwood mine, Hazelwood Power Corporation Pty Ltd, was this week fined a total of $1.56 million for breaches of the OHS Act after a major fire that burned for several weeks in 2014. The company was last November found guilty of 10 charges following an eight-week jury trial in the Supreme Court.
In sentencing yesterday, the company was fined $1.25 million for five breaches of section 21(1) and (2)(c) of the OHS Act, for failing, so far as reasonably practicable, to provide employees a safe working environment. It was fined a further $310,000 for the remaining five charges under section 23(1) of the Act, for failing to ensure persons other than employees were not exposed to health and safety risks.
The fire started on 9 February 2014, when embers from nearby bushfires ignited exposed coal at the open cut mine near Morwell. It burned for 45 days, and blanketed parts of the Latrobe Valley in ash and thick smoke and exposed mine workers, emergency services personnel and nearby residents to dangerous carbon monoxide and other fine particles.
The jury found the company had failed to:
- Adequately assess the risk of fire in the mine from an external source such as bushfire.
- Have an adequate reticulated fire water pipe system to the northern batters (sloping walls) of the mine.
- Slash vegetation on the face of the northern batters.
- Begin wetting down the northern batters on the morning of 9 February 2014 given the extreme fire danger forecast.
- Have sufficient staff numbers and expertise to suppress and fight instantly any fires that might take hold in and around the mine during the weekend of 8 and 9 of February 2014.
WorkSafe Chief Executive Colin Radford said while Hazelwood wasn't responsible for starting the fire, it should have been much better prepared for the risk, considering previous fires at the mine and the extreme weather forecast that weekend. "Brown coal fires are notorious for emitting air-borne pollutants including carbon monoxide, the harmful effects of which are well known," Mr Radford said. "This was an entirely foreseeable event that has led to significant adverse health impacts, and WorkSafe will continue to prosecute employers who fail in their duty to protect not only their workers but also the general public." Mr Radford said he hoped the substantial penalty will help provide some closure for the community as it continues to recover from the disaster. Source: WorkSafe media release
UK: Johnson accused of 'criminal negligence' and 'social murder'
A top safety law academic has accused UK's prime minister Boris Johnson of criminality and ‘social murder’ after he called for an early return to work. Steve Tombs, professor in social policy and criminality at the Open University, said “the government must know that construction workers are exposed to and unwitting carriers of coronavirus. In my view this is criminal negligence, it’s manslaughter, it’s social murder.”
Professor Tombs was commenting in a Reel News online criticism of the government’s policy, featuring construction workers and their family members and construction, legal and safety experts. The video was produced by the grassroots Shut The Sites campaign, which is calling for the closure of all non-essential building sites and for all workers to be paid irrespective of whether they are employees, self-employed or agency workers. It says the same day the government urged all construction workers to return to work, Office of National Statistics figures showed “keeping sites open has led to three times as many deaths of construction workers as healthcare professionals. Hundreds more will die if this appalling policy is allowed to continue - so Shut The Sites are calling for collective organisation to stop the carnage.”
It added: “Construction workers on site are being encouraged to join a union and take action collectively to protect themselves and their families, alongside demonstrations by members of local communities at sites near them.” It said all non-essential work should stop and any critical works must only continue “with the highest level of health and safety possible to protect workers.”
This week the government said local planning authorities were now expected to support the extension of site operating hours to 9pm in residential areas. The ONS figures showed ‘Low-skilled workers in construction’ had a Covid-19 death rate of 25.9 per 100,000 males compared to the general working age population, five times the rate for ‘professionals’.
Find out more: Reel News. Shut the Sites blog. Deaths in England and Wales related to Covid-19 by occupation, ONS, 11 May 2020. The Guardian. Source: Risks