Welcome to the June 3 edition of SafetyNet. Winter started with a bang this week - it seemed to rain all day in Melbourne at least. This would have meant that unionised construction sites probably closed down, with little work being able to be done safely in such conditions.
Not unexpectedly, we got lots of queries from workers in the education sector last week - but lots of others too. So remember that if you need any assistance or advice on hazards or conditions at work or at home, contact your union, or send in a query through our 'Ask Renata' facillity. Also, remember that everyone at the VTHC is still available to answer queries and help in any way we can.
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
As of this morning, there had been 7229 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 102 people have died - an increase of two since the last week. There have not been any new 'clusters' in Victoria - but there have been a couple of concerning cases identified in school students after schools started back last week.
The pandemic is far from reaching its peak around the world however, with the number of people infected now at 6,451,966 - last week it was over 5.5 million, so that's almost a million more. Over 1,880,000 of these cases are in the USA, with 108,059 deaths, showing how a poor response to the virus has led to shocking outcomes.
For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.
Mental health resources
There are lots of resources available online providing support for workers and others suffering from anxiety during this period. Below are some examples:
- Beyond Blue has a number of resources promoting a calm, practical approach to managing the emotional impact of the virus. Its page: Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service has information and advice, an online community forum, and other resources such as tips about coping with self-isolation, how to talk to children about the outbreak, advice for health care workers, and information about support-seeking.
The Australian Department of Health has also created COVID-19 specific resources on the Head to Health website.
The Australian Psychological Society – Tips for coping with coronavirus anxiety
For young people in particular: Headspace – How to cope with stress related to coronavirus (COVID-19)
I cannot find information about usage and the appropriate cleaning of shared resources in my school, especially phones. In some offices, one phone is shared by at least six people. Often someone answers the phone and needs to hand it to someone else. Staff are reporting feeling uncomfortable and worried about doing this. There is a limited supply of anti-bacterial wipes as these are deemed too expensive. Can you provide me with clear advice for safe practices and routine cleaning?
There is quite a lot of advice around on cleaning. Safe Work Australia has a webpage on cleaning as well as a very detailed document titled Recommended Cleaning: Supplementary Information [pdf]. In it, SWA has the following advice regarding how often to clean a telephone if it is used by multiple users: "Clean and disinfect at least daily & more regularly if shared by multiple users."
So how often is 'more regularly?' It's a bit like 'how long is a piece of string?'!!
- ensure everyone is regularly washing their hands - for example before entering a new, shared, space and after they come out of the classroom, obviously after using the bathroom, or sneezing/coughing, and so on
- ensure that the school is monitoring peoples' health - if anyone has any symptoms, then they need to get tested and not come into work until clear. Staff should also look out for each other.. we can't accept our old ways of just 'soldiering on'!
- ensure the school is also monitoring students' health and gets the information out to parents that if their offspring shows any symptoms they do not come in to school
- an increase in the frequency of the regular cleaning, beyond what is normally required, using detergent/disinfectant; and
- extended cleaning to progressively clean throughout the day, focusing on high-touch surfaces - including handles, bins, phones and so on.
Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website.
Warning: UV exposure will not kill the coronavirus
The Cancer Council is issuing a warning about what is clearly an urban myth: apparently there have been misleading reports that standing in the sun will help kill the corona virus. Experts agree this is not true and only intense doses of UVC delivered using specialised equipment can sterilise certain surfaces not people. However remembers that exposure to UV radiation will increase your risk of skin cancer.
Sun protection for outdoor workers
The Cancer Council is warning that outdoor workers need sun protection all year around. It makes the point that while it may be cold, rainy and grey with summer now a distant memory, the sun's ultraviolet radiation (UV) is still around. For those who work outdoors, UV is their constant companion – every day, all year. UV exposure adds up over time and each dose adds to the risk of skin and eye damage and skin cancer. Working outdoors even at a UV level of 1, can cause damage.
The Cancer Council says: "Just as you've developed a new normal to protect from COVID-19 each day, don't forget your regular routine to protect from UV. Both can't be seen but can do a lot of harm. Prevention is the key." Read more: Sunshine and UV Radiation
National: Money for home renovations? Beware!
There is talk that the Federal government may this week announce a new homebuyers' scheme - his government's fourth COVID-19 stimulus package. The scheme will help low to middle income earners and be put towards big projects such as remodelling and home extensions - not small DIY renovations.
Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn has welcomed the scheme saying the package would save small construction companies from a potential catastrophe. She added that homeowners should also be able to use the grant money to rectify cladding and asbestos concerns.
The VTHC warns homeowners to ensure that only qualified tradesmen do work, that they check before commencing work whether there is any asbestos present, and that, if it's going to be disturbed, it is removed properly. If it is less than 10 square metres, and in good condition (that it, not 'friable') it can be removed by someone who does not have an asbestos removalist licence, it must be removed according to the requirements in the Asbestos regulations (check here). If it is more than 10 square metres OR if it's in a crumbly condition, then only licensed removalists can remove it. Read more: MSN news
Government leave migrant worker groups out of Advisory Group
The VTHC Migrant Workers Centre is calling on the Department of Home Affairs to ensure workers’ rights and not just the interests of businesses are at the centre of the Government’s plan to eradicate modern slavery through its’ new Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group. Over half the appointments to the group are from big business and the business lobby, yet there are no representatives of unions, or civil society organisations. At least 70 people, including many leading experts in the field of modern slavery, and workers’ representatives, were nominated.
The Morrison Government, brokered by Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton and Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood, have stacked this group, deliberately excluding the voices of working people. Workers’ voices continue to be marginalised at a time when migrant workers have been locked out of JobKeeper wage subsidy payments and are facing worsening exploitation across global supply chains through COVID-19.
The legislation passed in 2018 is already weak. There is no proper oversight of the legislation, nor any way to enforce it. Without accountability, transparency and fines, there will be no incentive for companies to report what they have done to deal with slavery in their supply chains, workers’ rights will continue to be breached, and the public will remain ignorant of the abhorrent abuses committed by Australian and multi-national companies.
Migrant Workers Centre Director Matt Kunkel said, “Excluding unions and civil society groups from the advisory group shows that the Morrison Government is only paying lip service when it speaks of a new era of co-operative government."
Source: VTHC Migrant Workers Centre media release.
International Union news
Scotland: Roving union safety reps in reopening plan
Official return-to-work guidance in Scotland is recommending the deployment of union roving health and safety reps to ensure reopening of workplaces is safe. The roving reps are to be on call for workers and employers in non-unionised workplaces. The plan is included in a joint statement by the Scottish government, police and safety enforcement bodies. Scotland’s national union body STUC “strongly welcomes the support from Scottish government, Police Scotland, Health and Safety Executive and local authorities for the role of roving health and safety reps for workers in non-unionised workplaces.” As the ‘Test and Protect’ contact tracing was set to start in the country, STUC reminded government and employers that “no workplace should be re-opening until effective tracing is actually in place,” adding it “has concerns over elements of the transport guidance which must be right before any further relaxation of lockdown. The STUC will take the cabinet secretary up on his pledge to further work with unions to fix these issues.” STUC general secretary designate Roz Foyer said good guidance for manufacturing and retail developed in full consultation with unions “makes clear the steps that are required of employers in creating special risk assessments with unions and fully taking into account our key red lines including contact tracing and travel to work issues.” Welcoming the joint statement, she said: “It makes crystal clear that no employer, unionised or not, is at liberty to ignore their workers or fail to engage with unions when that is their employees wish. Later this week we will announce how unions intend to organise, support and resource an army of organisers and roving reps who will be tasked with ensuring workers are fully empowered and supported over coming months.”
Read more: STUC news release. Scottish government news release and Coronavirus (COVID-19): safer workplaces statement. Source: Risks 949
Models show big infection risks in ‘low risk’ office work
New studies from the UK and the US, modelling virus risks in offices and other indoor environments, have concluded there is a potentially substantial risk of Covid-19 infection. Matthew J Evans of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who modelled Covid-19 aerosol transmission and used the findings to propose guidelines for ventilation and occupancy in the workplace, concluded: “Avoiding infection requires good ventilation and/or short exposure times. Generally, office spaces should not be occupied by more than one person.” Evans noted “a substantial body of literature has developed over the last few decades showing that the short-range aerosol route is an important, though often neglected transmission path.” Much of the current workplace guidance on social distancing and provision of personal protective equipment is based on close range ‘droplet transmission’ alone.
Professor Clive Beggs of Leeds Beckett University, who also considered this issue, noted that unlike droplets, aerosols can “be widely distributed throughout room spaces.” He said the findings of his computer modelling study, which simulated transmission in an office building, “suggest that individuals who share enclosed spaces with an infector may be at risk of contracting Covid-19 by the aerosol route, even when practising social distancing.”
- Matthew J Evans. Avoiding Covid-19: Aerosol guidelines [Full article pdf], medRxiv preprint, 25 May 2020.
- Clive B Beggs. Is there an airborne component to the transmission of COVID-19? : a quantitative analysis study, [Full article pdf] medRxiv preprint, 25 May 2020.
Source: Risks 949
WHO review concluded medical workers should wear respirators, not surgical masks
A World Health Organisation (WHO) commissioned review published on Monday in the Lancet has found the organisation has been dangerously wrong on respirators and physical distancing, points raised repeatedly with WHO by ITUC and global unions. WHO so far has refused to move on either issue, and defended both positions in a 29 May 2020 WHO webinar.
The new analysis of 172 studies confirms what scientists have said for months: N95 and other respirator masks are far superior to surgical or cloth masks in protecting essential medical workers against the coronavirus. The WHO-funded Lancet review concludes respirators should the ‘minimum’ protection for health care workers (WHO currently only recommends respirators in the highest risk activities). The results make it clear that the WHO. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should recommend that essential workers like nurses and emergency responders wear N95 masks, not just surgical masks, experts said.
It also notes there is a 2.6 per cent transmission/infection risk at 1 metre physical distancing; this risk halves at 2 metres (WHO currently recommends ‘at least 1m’). In Australia we seem to have settled on 1.5 metres - exactly half way.
Read more: Derek K Chu, et al, on behalf of the COVID-19 Systematic Urgent Review Group Effort (SURGE) study authors. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis, [Full paper pdf] published online June 1, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31142-9 1
Does temperature and humidity affect spread of coronavirus
The link between seasonal variation and viral outbreaks is much debated. It is thought that cold temperatures increase viral half-lives and that low relative humidity (RH) adversely influences natural processes that otherwise lead to viral inactivation. Consequently, there is a growing interest in whether indoor temperature and RH may be modifiable risk factors for aerial transmission of viruses.
There have been some preclinical studies and observational data which suggest that high temperature as well as RH in the 40%–60% range may reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). And although high humidity has been shown to reduce transmission of various other aerosolised viruses, once RH exceeds 60%, the likelihood of mould growth increases significantly.
At present, various regulatory bodies in the USA suggest that during winter months, indoor temperature should be maintained between 20°C and 24°C, while RH should be maintained between 20% and 60%.
In a short 'post script' in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the US researchers conclude: "While definitive evidence to support the benefits of maintaining higher indoor temperatures as well as RH between 40% and 60% is still needed, hospitals may want to consider routinely measuring indoor climate since optimising these parameters may be a relatively simple, low-cost intervention to potentially decrease the risk of aerial transmission of viruses among healthcare providers and patients."
Read more: Medical Workers Should Use Respirators, Not Surgical Masks, The New York Times. Sadeq A Quraishi, Lorenzo Berra, Ala Nozari, Indoor temperature and relative humidity in hospitals: workplace considerations during the novel coronavirus pandemic [Full article], BMJ OEM
Male melanoma risk in Australia
Recent research by the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute has found that the melanoma risk to Australian men increases as they age, with their incidence rate exceeding that of women by the time they reach 45. This gender difference appears sooner in Australia than other countries (e.g. Denmark's gender difference started showing at 65 years).
Drawing on cancer registry data, the QIMR research team looked at fair-skinned populations exposed to different levels of UV in eight different countries (Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, the UK, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) over three decades. Globally women of all ages are more likely than men to develop melanoma of the lower limbs while men are more likely to develop melanomas of the head, neck and trunk. In Australia, men are twice as likely to develop melanomas of the head and neck and two and half times more likely to develop melanoma on the trunk than Australian women.
Read more: Catherine M. Olsen; John F. Thompson; Nirmala Pandeya; et al, Evaluation of Sex-Specific Incidence of Melanoma [Abstract] JAMA Dermatology. Source: Cancer Council
Safe Work Australia news
COVID-19 workplace guidance
Safe Work Australia has continued to develop guidance. In the past week the following has been added to the SWA website:
- Gyms and fitness centres – new industry added
- Heating, Venting and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems – information about restarting HVAC systems
- Hospitality industry information has also been updated, with additional guidance on Physical distancing and Hygiene for dine-in services.
Guidance on end of trip facilities in the COVID-19 guidance for Offices. To minimise risks to health and safety from COVID-19, it is important to consider physical distancing and hygiene for all parts of the workplace, not just where people perform tasks or congregate for meetings. This includes ‘end of trip’ facilities such as showers, bicycle cages, change rooms and lockers. Safe use of end of trip facilities is best achieved through a combination of measures. This includes measures to control the number of people needing to use end of trip facilities at any one time.
For information on other industries, go to the SWA website which has 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.
A piece of guidance we have just recently become aware of is: Incident notification - COVID-19. This fact sheet provides information for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) on the approach to COVID-19 incident notification laws in each jurisdiction, including details on how to notify when required.
In Victoria, employers must notify WorkSafe Victoria when they become aware of a case of COVID-19 where it is the cause (or suspected causes) of a death at a workplace. Incident notification procedures are detailed here.
Notification must be made regardless of whether the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services is already aware of the case.
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia has not 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. 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.
There has not been any news regarding prosecution outcomes in Victoria - to find out whether there are any new prosecutions before next week, check WorkSafe Prosecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
NSW: PCBUs and director failed in joint WHS duty, fined $620k
A PCBU claiming it wasn't contractually obligated to implement safety measures that could have prevented a fatality has been fined $500,000 for category 2 WHS breaches. A second PCBU and the director of a third PCBU were also fined for breaches relating to the death.
NSW District Court Judge Andrew Scotting found NSW Bricklaying Pty Ltd breached the State WHS Act in exposing "other persons" to the risk of being crushed or struck by debris from a 6.5-metre-high wall that collapsed in high winds at a Carlingford construction site.
The head contractor of the two-storey duplex development site was Effective Building and Construction Pty Ltd (EBC). EBC hired WZY Development Pty Ltd and WZY's director Jianen Wang to manage activities at the site, and Wang engaged NSW Bricklaying to build the high brick wall to divide the duplexes.
On 16 August 2017, the wall collapsed in strong westerly winds, falling onto and trapping two construction workers, killing one of them. The second worker suffered facial scratches and was treated for shock. Later that day, in light of the fatality and an incident elsewhere in Sydney where a worker was seriously injured, SafeWorkNSW issued a wind warning.
After an investigation, the regulator later found the Carlingford wall was inadequately supported at the bottom and wholly unsupported at the top, and charged NSW Bricklaying, EBC and Wang under the WHS Act.
Both EBC and Wang pleaded guilty to the breaches they were charged with. However, NSW Bricklaying pleaded not guilty, arguing it didn't have a duty to eliminate the risk of the wall collapsing because it didn't quote to brace the wall and this was not within the scope of its works at the site. It claimed WZY was responsible for ensuring the wall was braced once it was erected.
But Judge Scotting found, in May, that principal and masonry contractors were jointly responsible for risk assessing and identifying walls that might need temporary support. NSW Bricklaying's contract did not extend to temporarily supporting the wall, but it was legally obligated to conduct its own risk assessment to determine whether it needed temporary support, and could have created an exclusion zone around the wall until support was arranged and installed, the Judge found.
NSW Bricklaying was subsequently convicted and fined $500,000, while EBC and Wang were convicted and fined $60,000 each after 25 per cent discounts for their guilty pleas.
After they were sentenced, SafeWork investigation and enforcement executive director Valerie Griswold said all three parties "failed to apply appropriate risk management and safety measures, ultimately failing in their duty to protect workers". She called for workers working unsupervised on dangerous building sites to cease work and report issues to SafeWork by phoning 13 10 50 or through the Speak Up, Save Lives app.
India: Residents exposed to toxic gas while sleeping
On 7 May 2020, in the early hours of the morning in Vizag, India, LG Polymers, a polystyrene manufacturing plant owned by South Korea’s LG Chemical, released toxic styrene gas into the nearby residential area, killing 12 people, sending hundreds to the hospital, and causing the evacuation of thousands of people. Government officials have warned residents not to use groundwater or eat perishable foods from the area due to contamination concerns.
We are all familiar with polystyrene plastic in the form of coffee cups and take-away food containers. However, many people do not realize that the building block of this common plastic – styrene – is a probable human carcinogen with a variety of toxic effects.
After an investigation, the Andhra Pradesh Forensic Science Laboratory determined that the styrene storage tank at LG Polymers was not maintained below 20C as required. The tragedy was apparently caused by a temperature surge in a styrene storage tank due to a clogged cooling system. Furthermore, it appears that LG Polymers did not have a required federal environmental clearance but instead obtained state permits from Andhra Pradesh authorities.
Read more: LG Chemical Must Be Held Accountable in India Tragedy, IPEN