Welcome to the June 10 edition of SafetyNet. For most of us it has been a short week, with Monday being the 'Queen's Birthday' public holiday. Unfortunately there was another fatality in Victoria since our last journal.
Most school students are back at school in Victoria this week, so more questions from the education sector. If you need any information 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.
Fatality in Melbourne's western suburbs
It is with great sadness that we report that another Victorian worker was killed on last Friday afternoon after being struck by a metal pole in Altona North. According to police and WorkSafe, the 56 year old transport worker was crushed while unloading steel light tower segments from a semi-trailer shortly before 4.30pm. Worksafe Victoria is investigating.
Read more: WorkSafe media release
The VTHC sends its sincerest condolences to the family, friends and work colleagues of the worker. According to our tally, this worker's death brings the number of Victorians killed in workplace incidents this year to 27.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update
As of this morning, there had been 7267 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 102 people have died - this means that there have been no deaths in over a week, with only two new infections picked up across the country overnight.
The pandemic is far from reaching its peak around the world however, with the number of people infected now at 7,318,12,4 - last week it was just over 6.45 million, so that's almost a million more new infections. The latest controversy is Brazil, where the government sought to stop publishing data on its COVID-19 status, amid accusations it was trying to suppress the scale of the crisis. A Brazilian supreme court judge earlier this week ordered Jair Bolsonaro’s administration to resume publishing complete COVID-19 statistics. On Saturday the government purged the health ministry website of historical data relating to the pandemic and announced it would stop publishing the cumulative death toll or number of infections.
Read more: The Guardian. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.
The commute to work: masks or no masks?
UK unions have finally had a win regarding masks on public transport (see below).
In Victoria, the Rail Bus and Tram Union (RTBU) has voiced concern about the lack of clear policy and substantive measures to address social distancing on public transport. Luba Grigorovitch, the union’s Victorian Branch Secretary said, “With passenger numbers rapidly increasing, advice from medical experts is that more needs to be done to protect the public moving through congested spaces.” After consideration of the available information, she said the RTBU supports calls for clear benchmarks for cleaning and social distancing, as well as measures such as the wearing of masks to be mandatory for commuters using public transport."
Ms Grigorovitch said, “In lieu of leadership from the Government, commuters and staff are right to be concerned for their safety. We have written to the Minister for Public Transport regarding numerous key concerns but are yet to receive a response. With RTBU members working on the front line of service delivery, ensuring that essential travel is possible, the increased risks due to unmanaged passenger numbers and additional mitigation strategies begs an urgent response from the Department or Minister.”
According to the union, the government has a responsibility to ensure that all citizens feel safe around public transport. Clear measures like those implemented in NSW are required if Victorians are to be able to continue moving safely. The RTBU is calling on the government, department of transport and major operators to engage in immediate consultation to ensure the safety and reliability of public transport into the coming weeks.
While the Department of Health is said to be ‘meeting daily’ with public transport agencies, developing plans to ‘safely’ move millions of commuters, Dr Annaliese van Diemen, Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, has said that the current medical advice from ‘the nation’s top infection control experts’ was that masks were not needed by public transport users, but that the final position was not yet finalised. The ABC’s health journalist and physician, Dr Norman Swan, however is of the view that all public transport users should wear masks.
Read more: OHS Matters in the latest edition of the Workers Solidarity Bulletin
QLD: Casuals testing positive for COVID-19 to get paid sick leave
Casual workers who do not have access to sick leave will be given a $1,500 lump sum payment from the Queensland Government if they test positive for coronavirus. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said there are many casually employed Queenslanders whose jobs are vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In announcing the 'Hardship Payment' the Premier said, “If a casually employed Queenslander who is not eligible for the Federal Government’s JobKeeper payment contracts COVID-19, they will have no access to an income during their time away from work. This will also be available to any employee who has exhausted their sick leave or pandemic leave entitlements and tests positive to COVID-19."
While this may seem to be an 'industrial' issue, it is also a clear occupational health and safety issue, as recognized by Ms Palaszczuk: “This initiative is all about keeping Queenslanders safe and healthy – ensuring workers are supported to stay home when required and keep their customers and work colleagues safe and healthy." The Premier said the cash injection would ease pressure on Queenslanders who felt they needed to attend work while sick or while in quarantine. "Hopefully it won't have to be used," Ms Palaszczuk said. "But the last thing we want is someone who tests positive feeling they have to go to work because they have no income to support themselves.”
Read more: ABC online
I work for a large company and the DWG I represent has about 60 members. Years ago my DWG only had one HSR and found that it wasn't enough given the size and the work we do. It was then decided that we should have two HSRs to properly represent the work group. Management is now suggesting that we should only have one HSR and one deputy. They are comparing my DWG with others at my workplace as examples because they all only have one HSR. However these DWGs are all smaller than mine.
I have had a look around and can't find anything that says you can or can't have more than one HSR per DWG. Would you have any advice on this as I would like to be better prepared for when this gets brought up officially, which I fully expect.
Wednesday June 17 - join our next Webinar
We have been getting lots of queries around Designated Work Groups: what they should look like, how to negotiate, what happens if there are labour hire workers or multiple employers on site.. and much more. Too often no-one at the workplace even remembers how or why the DWGs are what they are - they were established so many years ago. We're also finding that some employers are wanting to make changes - like reducing the number of HSRs in a DWG. Can they do this? We will also be discussing the election of HSRs - another area of contention, with way too many employers thinking they can run the show (which they can't!)
So if DWGs is something you've been puzzling about lately, then tune in at 7pm next week - it will be brought to you by Sam and Luke, with special guest Renata. Go to our Facebook page, We Are Union: OHS Reps. You'll have plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and we may even have a new tool or two.
SA: Company fined $56k for unsafe asbestos
A skip bin and demolition company has been fined more than $56,000 for the illegal processing of building waste, including asbestos. Destiny Contracting Pty Ltd and DeJay Contracting Pty Ltd pleaded guilty in the Environment, Resources and Development Court to jointly undertaking a “prescribed activity of environmental significance” without a licence in September and November 2017. The $56,361 fine is a record for that offence, according to the Environment Protection Authority.
The EPA’s investigations manager Stephen Barry said the site was used to sort commercial quantities of building waste, including storing asbestos, without regulation or authorisation. While investigators were inspecting a shed, they found several bags, some unsealed, of varying amounts of asbestos-containing materials. Mr Barry said though the operators had since improved operations to meet regulation requirements, and had been granted a licence for the site, the previous risks to the local community were unacceptable. Source: Adelaide Advertiser
International Union news
UK: Transport workers win on mandatory masks on public transport
After weeks of demanding that the government go beyond 'recommending' that public transport users wear masks, and make it mandatory, the UK's transport workers' unions have had a win - though it's a case of 'better late than never'. The UK government has announced that face coverings on public transport will be compulsory from 15 June in England to help stop the transmission of coronavirus as more people go back to work. The government will require people to wear face coverings on buses, trains, tubes and other modes of public transport from that date, when non-essential shops will probably reopen. However, it will not apply to people entering shops, despite the current guidance saying face coverings should be worn in enclosed public places.
Unite, which represents over 80,000 bus workers, welcomed last week's announcement. Unite first called for it to become compulsory for passengers to wear face coverings last month and has been actively lobbying the government on this matter. The union is also calling for the maximum capacity of buses to be reduced to protect drivers and passengers from becoming infected, a measure that has already been introduced in most of Yorkshire and London.
Read more: Unite media release, The Guardian
Global: Health and safety ‘paramount’ for return to work
Ensuring health and safety in workplaces must be the highest priority as people return to work in many countries emerging from Covid-19 restrictions and closures, the global union confederation ITUC has said. “Re-opening workplaces is much more complicated than closing them, and it is crucial that occupational health and safety regulations, procedures and systems provide the basis for return to work, as well as in situations where work has continued,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary. “Arrangements which are simply imposed on workers without consultation and union involvement pose a much higher risk, both to working people and to the public in general. All the evidence shows that workplaces, whether health and care facilities, transport systems, public venues and other places where workers come into contact with the public, or processing facilities, offices and other places where significant numbers of workers are together, are major vectors for the spread of the virus. Good occupational health and safety protects workers, members of their households and the public.”
Ms Burrow said it was critical to harness the skills and knowledge of trade unions, citing agreements reached by UK unions with major companies that allow union health and safety representatives to provide advice and guidance through their supply chains. She said the new Scottish union roving reps’ system was another positive example. The ITUC is also calling for COVID-19 to be classified as an occupational disease under national regulatory frameworks with an official occupational disease reporting and recording requirement, both for preventive reasons and for workers’ compensation.
Read more: ITUC news release. Source: Risks 950
USA: Senators call for review of workplace COVID enforcement
A group of US senators has asked the inspector general of the Labor Department to review the actions of its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal health and safety regulator has been criticised for not doing enough to protect workers. Last month, the national union federation AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit attempting to compel the agency to enact a temporary emergency standard in order to protect frontline workers. According to the letter from Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren, Tim Kaine, Tammy Baldwin and Robert Casey and Tammy Duckworth and independent senator Bernie Sanders, OSHA citations have dropped 70 per cent since the national emergency was declared on 13 March; that the inspection rate has dropped, and that not a single citation related to the virus has occurred. While OSHA has revised its enforcement policies as of 26 May, saying it would increase inspections and enforce record-keeping requirements, the senators believe guidance would benefit from an audit. During the pandemic, OSHA has maintained the lowest number of inspectors since 1975, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project. Derek Martin, spokesperson for the watchdog Accountable.US, also said OSHA is doing too little. “The Department of Labor’s job is straightforward: keep workers safe,” he told Government Executive. “Instead of rising to the challenge, Secretary [Eugene] Scalia has thrown up his arms and done next to nothing. Federal workers and the American people deserve better.”
Read more: Government Executive. Source Risks 950
New discussion paper on Victoria's fatalities released
OHSIntros has released a new OHS discussion paper- “24. Deaths at Work. Victoria 2019”. It is available to download free for a limited time from here.
The 12th paper in a series for OHS professionals, it covers traumatic deaths during 2019 and recent prosecutions over deaths at work in the Victorian OHS jurisdiction. The paper was prepared by OHSIntros to mark this year’s international workers memorial day and to inform the lead up to industrial manslaughter laws coming into operation in the state on July 1.
The paper features narratives of recent deaths at work and case studies on recent prosecutions over death. An underlying theme of this section is the social impact of a rising annual death toll in Victoria, supposedly the nation’s safest state in which to work, and concerns about "soft" penalties given by Victorian courts over serious harms at work. These fines are consistently below the maximum specified in the OHS Act, and as result are, in the view of OHSIntros, blunting the sharpness of deterrence and therefore failing to deliver “justice” in context of the wider harm done to the community by a death at work.
‘Unacceptable risk’ to frontline workers
Health care workers are not being give the protection they deserve and are contracting deadly infections as a result, a top Australian biohazards expert has warned. Writing in the Lancet, Professor Raina MacIntyre, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, has said the World Health Organisation’s current COVID-19 guidance, which has been the template for health worker protection around the world, is failing health workers by refusing to recommend respirators for a wide range of health care work.
“This kind of denial, what purpose is it serving — except to harm health care workers?,” she told journalists, adding WHO’s current guidelines reflected shortages of respirators rather than good practice. “Guidelines should be based on evidence, not on supplies,” she noted. “It’s like telling an army, ‘Oh sorry, we’ve run out of guns, just take these bows and arrows and face the enemy.’” She said WHO’s acceptance of surgical masks was harming workers. “Although medical masks do protect, the occupational health and safety of health workers should be the highest priority and the precautionary principle should be applied. Preventable infections in health workers can result not only in deaths but also in large numbers of health workers being quarantined and nosocomial [hospital originated] outbreaks. In the National Health Service trusts in the UK, up to one in five health workers have been infected with COVID-19, which is an unacceptable risk for frontline workers.”
In the commentary co-authored with Quanyi Wang, MacIntyre is scathing about WHO’s promotion of an ‘at least 1m’ physical distancing standard. “The 1–2 m distance rule in most hospital guidelines is based on out-of-date findings from the 1940s, with studies from 2020 showing that large droplets can travel as far as 8m. To separate droplet and airborne transmission is probably somewhat artificial, with both routes most likely part of a continuum for respiratory transmissible infections.”
Professor MacIntyre concluded: “Protection against presumed droplet infections by use of respirators, but not masks, supports a continuum rather than discrete states of droplet or airborne transmission. Both experimental and hospital studies have shown evidence of aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”
Read more: C Raina MacIntyre and Quanyi Wang. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection for prevention of COVID-19, [Full text] The Lancet, published online 1 June 2020.01, 2020. Source: Risks 950
WorkSafe Victoria News
Reducing the risks of working with lead
WorkSafe is urging employers at workplaces where lead processes are carried out to follow updated guidance as a new lead exposure standard and monitoring requirements comes into force today.
To coincide with the updated regulations, WorkSafe as released new guidance Lead: A guidebook for workplaces which replaces the former code of practice.
The guidance provides definitions and examples of lead processes and lead-risk work, has information on legal duties for both employers and employees regarding risk and control measures, and outlines obligations in relation to health monitoring of workers. It also includes tables to help employers monitor the blood lead levels of workers who undertake lead-risk work.
The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 impose legal responsibilities on employers and employees in relation to lead exposure in workplaces where lead processes are carried out, and further obligations when lead-risk work is being performed.
This includes notifying WorkSafe that lead-risk work is being undertaken, arranging health monitoring of employees, and removing employees from lead-risk work if their blood lead levels reach certain thresholds.
Read more: WorkSafe media release. Lead: A guidebook for workplaces
Webinar: Understanding Workplace Manslaughter
From July 1 2020, workplace manslaughter will be a jailable offence in Victoria.
In advance of the new legislation coming into effect, WorkSafe held an educational webinar about workplace manslaughter and what it means for Victorians. During this webinar, a panel of WorkSafe experts spoke about what employers need to know and understand about workplace manslaughter and answered questions during a live QandA.
To catch up on an edited edition of the webinar and for further information on workplace manslaughter, please visit this page of the WorkSafe website.
New Safety Alert
Following the death of a child in mid May after crashing a 'side by side' all terrain vehicle on a private property off Cressy-Shelford Road at Shelford, near Geelong, WorkSafe has issued a Safety Alert addressing Side-by-side vehicle safety. The alert warns: "Operating side-by-sides can pose a number of risks to drivers and passengers. When a side-by-side overturns, there is the risk of being killed if thrown from or crushed by the vehicle. People can also be thrown around inside the cabin or hit by loose objects, and receive serious or even fatal injuries."
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia updated its workplace fatality statistics last week: as of June 4 there had been 78 worker fatalities notified to the national body - this is two more since the last update, one in Transport, postal & warehousing, and the other in Agriculture, forestry & fishing. 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:
- 25 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 14 in Construction
- 12 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.
Changes in chemicals regulation
Safe Work Australia has announced that the start date for transitioning from the third to the seventh revised edition of the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS 7) has been postponed because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australian businesses.
SWA members had agreed to start adopting the new safety system from 1 July 2020, in part to ensure the process commenced before the European Union, a key trading partner, completed its transition to GHS 7 in October, but the new start date is 1 January 2021, followed by a two-year transitional period. This change is long overdue and should have gone ahead.
However, while GHS 7 has been delayed, the new risk-based regulatory scheme for the introduction of industrial chemicals in Australia is still scheduled to commence in just over two weeks' time.
The scheme was established by a six-Bill package replacing the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) with the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme (AICIS), reducing the number of newly manufactured or imported chemicals requiring pre-market safety assessments. It purports to strengthen enforcement powers to protect workers' safety - although unions have concerns with whether these powers will in fact be as effective as is claimed. The new scheme also bans most cosmetic testing on animals.
Both the ACTU and the VTHC wrote numerous submissions arguing the proposed scheme was too heavily self-regulated, giving industry too much discretion in deciding whether a new chemical was hazardous or not, and if hazardous, how hazardous. If a company assesses a chemical is 'very low risk' then it can be introduced without notification to the regulator or to the public. As well as unions, Cancer Council Australia, public health experts, environmentalists and academics voiced their alarm about the new system in written and oral submissions, with fears it could unleash the next toxic chemical disaster on the public. Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith from the National Toxics Network branded the changes a "disaster in the making".
Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald, the NICNAS/AICIS website for more information on the new record-keeping and categorisation requirements for imported and manufactured chemicals. Source: OHSAlert