Welcome to the May 27 edition of SafetyNet.
Unfortunately there was another worker fatality in Victoria this week.
In Victoria, employers have been advised that if possible, workers should continue working from home until the end of June - so while large numbers of workers were back on site this week - notable teachers, there will be many still at home.
If you need any assistance or advice on hazards or conditions whether at the workplace or at home, 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.
Fatality near Ballarat
It is with great sadness that we report that a worker was killed on a site in Golden Point, near Ballarat, on Monday morning. Early reports suggest that the man, an electrician, was on a roof at the time of the incident. Police and WorkSafe Victoria are now investigating the circumstances surrounding the death. The VTHC sends its sincerest condolences to the man's family, friends and work colleagues. This fatality brings Victoria's number of workers killed this year to 26. No worker should die at work.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update
As of this morning, there had been 7142 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 103 people have died - an increase of three since the last week. There have not been any new 'clusters' in Victoria - but the recent outbreak at Brooklyn meatworks Cedar Meats has now led to 111 cases. WorkSafe Victoria and the union have been cooperating, developing guidance, and ensuring proper measures are taken to ensure that risk of further infections is minimised.
The pandemic is far from reaching its peak around the world however, with the number of people infected now over 5.5 million. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.
COVID-19 return-to-work guidance
1 - Guidance from the TUC: Return to safe workplaces
If employers want workers to return to their normal place of work, they must make sure it’s done safely, to protect the health of workers, customers and the public. A new TUC Education online publication gives a step-by-step how-to guide. It goes in turn through Covid-19-specific risk assessments, employers’ duties (obviously based on the UK laws), consultation, and steps to address risks to all workers, including vulnerable workers, and to get approval for plans before going ahead. It also goes through the need to communicate the Covid-19 plan to the workforce, and for employers to publish their workplace plan on the company website. There’s lots more, and it is easy to navigate – have a look. Return to safe workplaces, TUC Education, May 2020.
2 - ILO Guidance
Two guidance documents for creating safe and effective return-to-work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Guidance Note states that return to work policies need to be informed by a "human-centred approach that puts peoples’ rights at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies". Social dialogue – bringing together governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations – will be critical in creating the effective policies and trust needed for a safe return to work. The note draws on specialist ILO guidance documents and International Labour Standards, which provide a normative framework for creating a safe return to work.
Workers must feel safe at their workplaces, both from risks directly related to COVID-19, and indirect risks, including psychosocial issues and ergonomic risks related to working in awkward positions or with poor facilities when working from home, the guidelines say. They should have the right to remove themselves from any situation “which they have reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health”, and “shall be protected from any undue consequences”.
Each specific work setting, job or group of jobs should be assessed before returning to work and preventive measures should be implemented to ensure the safety and health of all workers according to a hierarchy of controls. For workers staying at home, the risk of infection in a work context can be eliminated; for all workers returning to workplaces, priority should be given to options that substitute hazardous situations for less hazardous ones, such as organizing virtual instead of physical meetings. When this is not possible a mix of engineering and organizational control measures will usually be required to prevent contagion, The specific measures to implement are specific to each workplace, but may consist of installing physical barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards, improving ventilation, or adopting flexible working hours, in addition to cleaning and hygiene practices.
The Guidance Note, A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, is accompanied by a 10-point, Practical Guidance action checklist for employers, workers and their representatives. This tool is intended to compliment and not replace national occupational safety and health regulations and guidance, to help establish the practical details of a safe return to work. Read more: ILO press release. Download the Guidance Note [pdf]
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?
We had Part 1 to this question last week: here's Part 2:
Last week we covered the areas HSRs need to be involved in when the employer is planning for workers to return to work. Today we'll look at one of the 'less obvious' issues: recently the VTHC provided feedback to the national WHS body Safe Work Australia on guidance associated with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
In many workplaces, these would have been shut down while COVID-19 restrictions were in place, and will now need to be re-started as workers return. Restarting HVAC systems that have been temporarily shut down can carry significant risks to the health and safety of workers and others entering the building, if the systems have not been maintained and inspected in accordance with relevant regulations and standards prior to restarting.
During periods of shutdown, cooling towers and condenser water systems in an HVAC system can build-up corrosion on the surfaces that have not been chemically treated. When an HVAC system is shut down, sections of the system where water cannot flow through (dead legs) can hold stagnant water. The bacterium Legionella can grow in the corrosion build-up and dead legs, and can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a serious infection in the lungs. Employers, and those with management or control of workplaces, have duties under the OHS/WHS Acts: they must take all reasonably practicable steps ensure risks to health and safety are eliminated or minimised. This includes any risks associated with the HVAC system being restarted. Specific advice is being finalised by Safe Work Australia and will be available on their website. Also, check our website for more information on Legionnella and Air Conditioning and Legionnaires Disease
There will be no doubt continue to be other issues, depending on the specifics of the workplace itself, the type of work and how general guidance is actually implemented in the workplace. Just remember that that workers, through their HSRs, must be consulted and be able to raise any concerns related to the return to work process.
Note that with eight new cases identified in Victoria yesterday, Premier Daniel Andrews is urging employers to ensure workers who can work from home continue to do so for at least another month. While he announced the easing of some of the State's coronavirus restrictions on the weekend, he stressed that some must remain, including working-from-home requirements. "One of our most important messages to Victorians is this: if you are working from home, you must keep working from home," he said.
Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website.
Morwell: Hazelwood stacks demolished
Hazelwood Power Station’s eight chimneys, which stood at 137 metres above the Latrobe Valley town of Morwell for more than fifty years, have been demolished in a series of controlled explosions earlier this week. The chimneys were blown up one by one, four seconds apart. The plant was closed following 2014 bushfire which spread to its coal mine and burnt for 45 days. Hazelwood Power Corporation was fined $1.56 million last week for putting employees and nearby residents at risk by failing to prepare for the fire.
The company spent almost 12 months preparing for the demolition. There was approximately 50 kilograms of ‘‘bonded asbestos’’ in each chimney, as well as about 12 tonnes of concrete. Air quality at the site will be monitored over the coming week with the results to be shared with the community.
Company spokesperson Mr Auger said the asbestos was in the base of the chimneys but was far enough from the detonation site not to become airborne. ‘‘There is absolutely no risk that asbestos will be anywhere other than on the ground, and ultimately remediated on-site and stored in an approved cell,’’ he said. About 400 people are still working at the plant to prepare demolition and to rehabilitate the 4000-hectare site. Check out a video of the demolition: The Age
WA: unions demand better inspection of asbestos activities
Following the release of a report by the WA Auditor General critical of the licencing for asbestos removal and handling by WorkSafe, WAUnions WA wants a more rigorous inspection campaign for asbestos removal and regulation. The report found that only one quarter of inspections during the audit period were conducted in worksites carrying out asbestos removal jobs. It also found WorksafeWA was unable to demonstrate its inspection resources for high-risk sites. Unions WA Assistant Secretary Owen Whittle said, "Regulations under work health and safety laws has to be matched by strong enforcement. Under the previous WA Government there were significant funding cuts made to WorkSafe and while there has been a welcome increase in funding in recent years it’s clear that more needs to be done to ensure WorkSafe can perform its basic functions."
Read more: WAUnions media release
International: J&J announces it will cease selling baby powder in US and Canada
Johnson & Johnson has discontinued its legacy talc-based baby-powder products in the US and Canada after thousands of suits alleging asbestos contamination led to a decline in sales. The healthcare giant announced last week it had stopped shipping hundreds of talc-based items in those countriesafter coming to a "commercial decision" to discontinue them. The company will wind down sales in those markets over the coming months. However, it will continue selling its cornstarch-based product.
The company has faced lawsuits accusing it of hiding the cancer risks tied its talc-based version of baby powder since 2014. Juries across the US have hit the company with billions of dollars in actual and punishment damages over their handling of the product. J&J has been successful in getting many of those verdicts reduced or wiped out on appeal. The announcement has led the Drug Administration of Vietnam to write to the company seeking an explanation.
Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald; Tuoi tre news
International Union news
Reminder: TUC guide risk assessments for homeworkers
In case you didn't check it out last week, the UK's peak union council the TUC has a new guide to for HSRs to do 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: Almost all teachers concerned about government plan to reopen schools on 1 June
The UK government must provide the scientific evidence to justify the decision to reopen some schools from 1 June, the teaching union NASUWT has said. It warned that teachers ‘remain far from unconvinced’ that reopening can be safely or practicably achieved by this date. In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said the government should provide the scientific evidence and modelling it has relied on in making its decision. NASUWT said the lack of confidence and the high level of concern of teachers about the government’s plans for schools have been highlighted by its snapshot survey, to which nearly 29,000 responses were received from members in just four days. Almost all (95 per cent) teachers expressed concern and anxiety about the government’s plans for the wider reopening of schools. A similar proportion (92 per cent) did not feel reassured by the government’s announcements that it will be safe for more pupils to return from 1 June, and 85 per cent said they did not think it will be safe to return by then, with the same percentage saying they believed that social distancing will not be possible to achieve or will present a major issue in schools. The NASUWT leader said: “The results of our survey underscore the fact that the government has thus far failed to win the trust and confidence of teachers about the safety of reopening schools. It is now imperative that the government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.” Media reports suggest the government plans have been thrown into doubt, as a growing number of local authorities (councils) have indicated they do not support school reopening on 1 June or would not require schools to do so.
It should be remembered that as of last weekend, the UK had had 259,559 cases of COVID-19, and 36,793 deaths. Workers there have seen huge shortages of appropriate PPE, testing has been spasmodic and in general workers have felt under informed and under protected.
Read more: NASUWT news release and call on government to release the scientific evidence. BBC News Online. The Guardian Source: Risks 948
Prolonged sitting - or standing - and thrombosis risk
In concerning news - given how much time many workers spend in static positions - a review has highlighted the link between prolonged sitting and standing at work and lower limb venous diseases like varicose veins and potentially deadly deep vein thrombosis. This has led the researchers involved to urge employers to intervene.
According to occupational and epidemiology researchers from Toulouse University Hospital and other French institutions, their study is the first systematic review of this link. They say their findings demonstrate the need for affected workers to regularly change position between sitting, standing and walking. They should also engage in leisure-time physical activity.
From 21 studies on the link between occupations and lower limb varicose veins, the researchers found a significant dose-response effect with time spent standing. They found that while the identified threshold for harmful exposure is inconsistent between the studies, standing for more than three to four hours per day appears to increase the risk of varicose veins by up to two-and-a-half times compared to less standing. One study found standing for more than 75 per cent of the time at work is associated with an increased risk of varicose veins, and the degree of severity is relative to the number of years a worker has worked in a particular occupation.
There were 13 articles examining the occupational risks for venous thromboembolism, a deadly disease that includes deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, with most focusing on prolonged sitting as a risk factor.
One study found each increase in mean hours spent seated at work is associated with a 10 per cent higher risk of thromboembolism. It also found workers eating lunch at their desk significantly increases thromboembolism risk that is not alleviated by having an adjustable chair and leg stretching.
The researchers said that preventative measures for workers suffering from deep vein thrombosis include taking regular breaks to stretch and move the legs, implementing reminder systems that encourage workers to get up regularly, sitting in a reclined posture and using a foot rest.
Source: OHSAlert. Huo Yung Kai, et al, Lower limb venous and arterial peripheral diseases and work conditions: systematic review. [abstract] Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first May 2020, doi: 10.1136/oemed-2019-106375.
ILO First person: COVID-19 stories from around the world
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in ways we could hardly have imagined. Everyone has been affected and everyone has a story to share. The International Labour Organization (ILO) wanted to hear first-hand from people in the world of work. See their stories here.
WorkSafe Victoria news
New targetted COVID-19 advice
- Following the COVID-19 outbreak at Cedar Meats, WorkSafe Victoria has developed and issued information aimed specifically at the meat and poultry industry. The guidance provides advice to employers on how to prevent and control employee exposure to the coronavirus. As the guidance explains, "Employees in the meat and poultry processing industry are not exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19) through the meat products they handle, however there is the potential for an increased risk of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) due to tasks that normally require close interaction between employees such as processing lines and the rapid nature of the work."
Read more: Managing the risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) exposure: Meat and poultry processing.
Also on the WorkSafe site is guidance on managing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in clinical and non-clinical settings, including patient transport. Employees in the healthcare and social assistance industry have a high risk of being exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19). These employees are likely to come into close contact with patients and clients in facilities and in people's homes, and because they work in high traffic environments.
Read more: Prevention and management of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) in the healthcare and social assistance industry
NSW: Return to work kit for employers
NSW government body icare has created a COVID-19 Recovery Employer Toolkit to support NSW businesses prepare and plan for a safe return to the workplace. The COVID-19 Recovery Employer Toolkit recognises that people may have experienced heightened emotional states such as feelings of isolation, anxiety or stress and offers practical steps to identify operational needs and protective strategies NSW workplaces can use in the current phase of the COVID-19 recovery.
icare Chief Executive Officer John Nagle said: "Following this unprecedented period of quarantine and social isolation, safely mobilising a sustainable workforce is critical to NSW's economic recovery post COVID-19."
The COVID-19 Recovery Employer Toolkit provides employers with clear guidance on how to identify risks and implement best practice within the new working environment to create better mental and physical health outcomes for the people of NSW," Mr Nagle said.
The Toolkit identifies the top three areas business leaders and employers can focus on to help their employees feel safe in transitioning to the new work environment:
- good leadership
- consistent and clear communication
- best practice support.
Read more here - and access the toolkit as well as the research report on which it was based.
Safe Work Australia news
COVID-19 workplace guidance
Remember that there is also plenty of information on COVID-19 Safe Work Australia website which may provide useful information, guidance and tools to help Australian workplaces manage the health and safety risks posed by COVID-19. Check the COVID-19 Information page to check for a number of industries, general information, and the COVID-19 Resource Kit, which has information on topics such as how to clean and disinfect the workplace, workplace checklists, and more.
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia has updated its workplace fatality statistics since last week: as of May 21 there had been 76 worker fatalities notified to the national body - six more since the last update on May 7. We send our sincerest condolences to the families, friends and work mates of those killed. Three of these fatalities were in the Agriculture, forestry and fishing sector. The fatalities this year have been in the following sectors:
- 24 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 14 in Construction
- 11 in Agriculture, forestry & fishing
- 9 in Public administration & safety
- 8 in Manufacturing
- 4 in Mining
- 2 in Arts & recreation services
- 2 in 'other services'
- 1 in Accommodation & food services
- 1 in Retail trade
To check for updates, and for more details on fatalities since 2003, go to the Safe Work Australia Work-related fatalities webpage.
Victoria: $15k fine after 6 metre fall increased on appeal
Chloch Homes & Development Pty Ltd, was the principal contractor for a domestic building site in Mount Waverley. It engaged Tyan Construction Pty Ltd to carry out carpentry works at the site. Tyan in turn brought on sub-contractors to do the work. On 23 October 2018, a sub-contractor was installing pre-fabricated roof trusses on the roof over the first floor of one of the units near an unprotected stair void. He fell about six metres through the stair void onto the basement concrete floor below.
The investigation found that it would have been reasonably practicable for Chloch Homes to reduce or eliminate the risk to someone working near the unprotected stair void by providing fall protection for the void and by providing site supervision at the workplace. The company was initially fined $15,000 but this was increased to $25,000 after an appeal by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Read more: WorkSafe media release
To find out more details, and to keep up to date with new prosecutions, check WorkSafe Prosecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
NSW: $200k fine for dangerous demolition advice
An engineering company has been fined $200,000 following the dangerous and unplanned collapse of the former Sydney Entertainment Centre’s roof during demolition.
Minister for Better Regulation, Kevin Anderson said Grasso Consulting Engineers Pty Ltd and its Director, Ignazio Grasso, provided inadequate advice to the high-risk demolition project, and by doing so failed to comply with their duties under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. “Construction and demolition workers rely on the advice provided by engineers for their safety,” Mr Anderson said. “The risks could have been minimised, if not eliminated, with proper analysis, planning and communication by the Engineer.”
Prior to giving the demolition advice, Mr Grasso failed to undertake relevant calculations or computer modelling to assess the risk of unplanned structural collapse of the roof, instead relying solely on fallible engineering judgment. Once the demolition work began, the roof unexpectedly collapsed, crushing an excavator and trapping a worker inside.
“SafeWork will not hesitate to take legal action against those who don’t comply with work health and safety laws. Everyone has the right to return home to their families at the end of the day, and those who cut corners will be prosecuted,” Mr Anderson said. Source: SafeWork NSW media release