Welcome to the December 16, 2020 edition of SafetyNet.
This will be our last edition for 2020 - and we can all agree that it's going to be great to see the end of what has been a very difficult year. All of us at the VTHC OHS Unit wish all of you a safe and happy holiday season, and a very Happy and Joyful New Year.
For those who are working over the coming period: health care workers, emergency service workers, retail workers, hospitality workers, entertainers, and all of those who keep our city and country going - thank you. Keep safe and keep well.
Our next edition will be in February 2021.
Visit our We Are Union: OHS Reps Facebook page for news, memes and more. 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. If you have comments or want to send through any ideas, email us at [email protected]
Coronavirus (COVID-19) - update
Australia has had a total, to date, of 27,987 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed. None of those recently diagnosed in the past weeks have been in Victoria, where there have not been any new cases identified for 38 days. As a result, the Andrews government this week further reduced restrictions, including numbers of workers allowed in workplaces, and the wearing of masks. There have also been changes which affect the public. We have updated the information on the website: Coronavirus the Victorian situation and Masks and face coverings.
Internationally, the numbers of infections and deaths are still climbing, with some countries recording huge increases. The cumulative number of infections is now 73,830,321 (note: the numbers are updated continually). One week ago it was 68,479,299: this is an increase of almost 5.3 million more infections in just seven days! There have been 1,641,440 COVID-related deaths around the world.
The numbers in the United States are mind-boggling: there have been 17,143,779 infections and 311,068 deaths to date. Just in the past day there were 190,082 new infections and 2,716 deaths. While the rollout of the Pfizer vaccines began in the country this week, it is expected that numbers will continue to grow in coming weeks, fuelled by holiday travel, family gatherings and lax adherence to mask-wearing and other precautions. Another vaccine, developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, is likely to be approved soon. Read more: ABC news online For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page.
I'm wondering whether a casual labour hire worker can be a candidate in an HSR election with permanent full time staff?
If the worker is actually employed by another employer (eg the Labour hire company) then no, that worker cannot stand for election nor vote in an HSR election when one is held in the DWG. That person is also not automatically a member of the DWG. However, when a DWG is negotiated, one of the things that can and should be addressed under s44(1)(e) is:
"whether the health and safety representative or representatives for the designated work group or groups are authorised also to represent independent contractors, or a class of independent contractors, engaged by the employer, and any employees of such independent contractors, who work at a workplace at which members of the designated work group or groups work. "
I would recommend that all workers be included in the DWG as the issues faced would be the same whether a worker is a direct employee or a labour hire worker. In that way, the elected HSR is able to represent everyone.
Of course the employer still has duties to any labour hire workers, as per s21(3). See: Duties of employers.
Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. Note however, that the service will not be attended from December 16 to January 18 while the staff of the OHS Unit is on leave
Sign the petition for Gig workers
In our last edition we reported on the deaths of five food delivery drivers in just weeks. The gig economy is literally killing workers. Without health and safety rights, insurance and a living wage riders are forced into working quickly rather than safely over long hours to pay their bills and buy groceries.
Platforms like UberEats are getting away with turning a blind eye to the health and safety of their workers as the Federal Government attempts to wash its hands of responsibility and fails to act. Federal Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter, must step up and act immediately to enforce minimum standards to keep gig workers safe.
This is a crisis of national proportions and it is not enough for Christian Porter to simply extend his “deepest sympathies” to the families of the workers who haven’t made it home safely. As the Federal Industrial Relations Minister he has the powers to regulate the gig economy and extend protections and support to these workers. Tell the Minister and the Federal Government that 'enough is enough' - sign the Megaphone petition now.
Exploitation of migrant workers increased during the pandemic
A large Unions NSW audit has found that the underpayment of migrant workers significantly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 88 per cent of a sample of foreign language job advertisements in the state offering below award wages.
Unions NSW has used the audit of 3000 online foreign language job postings to call for government funding of unions and peak IR bodies to lead wage theft investigations, claiming the pandemic has exposed the "ineffectiveness" of the FWO's strategy. It is asking for tougher penalties and policing of wage theft issues. It is also seeking welfare support for temporary migrants affected by COVID-19, the abolition of the 40 work hours per fortnight visa condition for international students and a legal requirement to advertise the minimum rate of pay in all job advertisements.
The report Wage Theft: The shadow market [pdf] shows a significant increase since the end of last year. According to the report, the construction industry had the highest proportion of ads for underpaying jobs, at 97.3 per cent, followed by cleaning at 91.8 per cent, hair and beauty at 87.9 per cent, fast food at 87.5 per cent, retail at 87.1 per cent, hospitality at 87 per cent, clerical at 84.3 per cent and transport at 66.7 per cent. This was much worse than the 70 per cent and 78 per cent in 2017 and 2018 respectively revealed in previous reports.
Advertisements written in Vietnamese were the most likely to pay illegal wages (90.7 per cent), while ads in Korean (88.3 per cent), Chinese (87.9 per cent) and Nepalese (86.3 per cent) also scored highly.
“There are more than one million temporary migrants in Australia who can’t fully enforce their workplace rights due to their visa status,” said Mark Morey, Secretary of Unions NSW. “So many migrants were already exploited, and without JobKeeper or JobSeeker it got much worse during the crisis. Without income support, tens of thousands of migrants were made more vulnerable. Clearly, some unscrupulous bosses seized on the opportunity of the COVID pandemic to rip off vulnerable migrants even further."
Labor’s shadow industrial relations minister, Tony Burke, savaged the issues exposed in the report. On too many occasions, we have third world working conditions in a first world country,” Mr Burke said on Monday.
Read more: Unions NSW media release; The New Daily
Victoria: Funding for private schools
The Andrews Labor Government has announced funding for Catholic and independent schools for infrastructure, through a new round of its $402 million contribution to fund upgrades for the non-government school sector.
Minister for Education James Merlino has opened applications for round three of the Non-Government Schools Capital Fund, which supports projects such as building new schools and increasing capacity or upgrading facilities at existing schools. It also provides funding for the removal of asbestos and cladding in these schools. The opening of round three has been brought forward to provide funding sooner for capital projects that ensure the creation of more local jobs for Victorians in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Applications for round three close on Monday 15 February 2021.
Source: Victorian government media release
NSW: Huge fines in asbestos documents
A NSW company has been ordered to pay about $500,000 and a "principal/owner" convicted over false and misleading documentation involving disposal of more than 1,000 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated soil. The charge is not one of 'dumping', as the asbestos is still missing.
Paul Mouawad (now Boulos Isaac) and also described as an "employee" of Aussie Earthmovers, the sole director of which is his mother – was at the time of the decision to be assessed for community service in lieu of imprisonment and has agreed to pay $60,000 costs. His sentencing is due early next year.
He has been convicted after pleading guilty of two offences of knowingly supplying fake tipping dockets and a disposal report that claimed the asbestos-contaminated waste had been lawfully disposed of, following a prosecution by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA). There was evidence Mouawad contracted to separate transporter S A Civil to move the waste, then made several demands for payment, manipulated a document, bought a thermal printer and created false records of the disposal. The company arranged for the removal of 134 truckloads of the asbestos-contaminated waste in June and July 2016. The EPA found one truckload was lawfully disposed of at the Suez Kemps Creek Landfill - but the location of the remaining asbestos-contaminated waste is unknown.
The Land and Environment Court found that Aussie Earthmovers Pty Ltd knowingly supplied false and misleading information about the disposal of about 1,400 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated soil from a building site in Darlington in central Sydney. The company was fined Aussie a total of $450,000 for the two offences and ordered the company to pay the EPA’s legal costs. Read more: Hefty fines in Aussie Earthmovers asbestos documents case, ATN (Australian Transport News)
Holiday Cheer after a difficult year
And for something completely different: if you're looking for something really fun do do for Christmas with family and or friends - you can't go past this: A Swingin' Bella Christmas
Cost: $9.95 to rent. $29.95 to own.
Global: Pressure grows to let seafarers off ships
Pressure is mounting on governments to designate seafarers as ‘key workers’ to avoid the prospect of forced labour and human rights abuses in major supply chains this holiday season, representatives of the global transport unions’ federation ITF have said. An estimated 400,000 seafarers have been trapped on ships for months, as ports have refused to allow them to disembark during the COVID crisis. Now the United Nations General Assembly and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have each passed landmark resolutions calling for urgent action by national governments on the crew change crisis.
ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said: “We now have the full authority of the United Nations General Assembly saying that if countries want to participate in the global economy, then they must recognise this global workforce as ‘key workers’ with practical effect. Key worker status means letting seafarers get off in their ports for medical attention. It means letting them get to an airport to fly home and return to their families when their contract on a ship is completed. It means letting replacement crews through a country’s border to join those waiting ships.”
The ITF, which represents more than a million seafarers through its affiliated seafaring unions, has been working behind the scenes with governments and UN agencies to secure the resolutions. “The global movement to recognise that seafarers need travel, transit and border exemptions and practical quarantine rules, is gaining momentum. Governments are starting to realise that they need to act now if they want to avoid being blamed for this pressing humanitarian – and potentially economic – crisis. The heat is on,” said Cotton.
Read more: ITF news release. ILO news release. Source: Risks 977
The crisis in care: New report underlines urgent need for responsible investor action in nursing homes
UNI Global Union, which represents two million care workers worldwide, is calling on investors in nursing homes to take urgent action to address the deepening crisis in long-term care.
A new report released by UNI highlights the legal, human rights and operational risks of investments in nursing homes caused by a combination of poor health and safety, understaffing, low wages, temporary contracts and over-financialization. The entrenched problems in the sector have increased the vulnerability of nursing homes to the coronavirus, with estimates from 21 countries showing that on average 46 per cent of COVID-19 deaths were care home residents as of mid-October.
“Residents and workers in nursing homes deserve better than the dangerous and deeply unsustainable model of long-term care. Investors have a pivotal role to play in addressing the crisis in the sector and setting standards higher,” said Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union. “COVID-19 has exposed the fundamental flaws in a system of low pay, poor contracts and lack of worker voice. Freedom of association and collective bargaining are key to improving working conditions, health and safety and the quality of care in nursing homes.”
The report shows that trade unions are a key differentiator in helping to reduce coronavirus infection rates through unions’ roles in demanding high staff to patient ratios, paid sick leave and PPE and higher wages and benefits, which reduces staff turnover. A study of 355 nursing homes in New York State found the presence of a health care worker union was associated with a 30% lower mortality rate from COVID-19 among nursing home residents.
However, without investor impetus across the sector, individual nursing homes will be unable to break the downward cycle of pressures, says the report.
UNI is calling on investors to classify nursing homes as a high-risk industry and use their stewardship activities and investment decision-making to drive up standards in the sector. UNI plans to work together with investors to develop best practices for action in the coming year.
“Investors must now carry out proper due diligence into their investments in nursing homes, and not forget they bear responsibility for the critical care of vulnerable, elderly people at the end of their lives,” stressed Hoffman. “Vaccination programmes may eventually solve the contagion and deaths related to COVID but they are not the long term answer to the risks presented by the conditions in nursing homes. Now that these risks have been exposed, it is irresponsible to wait until the next pandemic to fix the problems.” Read more: UNI news release
Is Casual employment in Australia bad for workers?
Researchers from both Australia and the UK (Hahn, McVicar, Wooden) and assessed the impact of working in casual employment, compared with permanent employment, on eight health attributes. They also investigated the mental health impacts of casual jobs with irregular hours over which the worker reports limited control. They concluded that there was no evidence that casual employment in Australia is detrimental to self-assessed worker health. The article was published in the latest edition of the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
However, in a commentary in the same edition of the journal, researchers from the University of Washington, note that while the "changing nature of work' has received a lot of attention, 'careful definition and ascertainment of 'exposure' are paramount" when interpreting any studies.
They examine some of the research and conclude that 'casual employment' is a different concept in Australia than it is assumed to be in many other countries. As a result, they say conclusions of Hahn et al should not be over-interpreted to suggest that 'contingent forms of employment have no health implications generally'. Further, future research will need to incorporate the multidimensional aspects of employment relations, as well as social and policy contexts in which they are embedded, that are likely to affect workers’ experience of work-related security and health. Despite these limitations, they say that an optimistic interpretation of Hahn et al’s well-done study is that it may be possible to modify employment relationships, through social policy, such that workers in non-permanent arrangements are at least somewhat protected against the inherent precariousness of market-based labour relations.
Read more: Hahn MH, McVicar D, Wooden M, Is casual employment in Australia bad for workers’ health? [Full text] Occup Environ Med oemed 2021;78:15–21 and
Trevor Peckham, Noah S Seixas, What’s casual? What’s causal? Advancing research on employment relationships and health [Full text] Occup Environ Med oemed 2021;78
Reminder: New simplified PIN form now available for HSRs
WorkSafe has redesigned the Provisional Improvement Notice it has available on its website.
The document provides HSRs with a blank PIN form to capture information about OHS laws being contravened by an individual employer. What needs to be completed on the PIN form include:
- the name of the HSR completing the PIN form
- who will receive the PIN
- check box that the HSR has consulted the person receiving the PIN before it is issued
- how the PIN will be issued
- details of how OHS laws that have been contravened
- how the HSR believes the contravention can be fixed
Now all we need is for inspectors to support HSRs who take the step of issuing a PIN, and affirming (with or without modification) more than they currently do!
Important: The PDF needs to be downloaded to a computer. It can then be filled in using Adobe Reader. Check it out here.
Business Victoria: Disaster resilience for small business
Preparation for dealing with crises is the same regardless of what the disaster or incident is. Coronavirus (COVID-19) has shown that the more is known about potential disruptions to business, the more can be done to prepare and minimise the impact.
Business Victoria has produced a new, easy-to-use disaster resilience for business toolkit, available in a fillable PDF version. Completing this will assist to:
- identify what will make the business resilient to disasters
- understand how businesses can prepare for a disaster
- keep businesses trading safely during a disaster
- get the business back up and running after a disaster.
Read more and access the toolkit here.
Productivity Commission releases mental health report
As HSRs and workers will be well aware, psychological (or psychosocial) hazards in the workplace receive far less attention than physical hazards. Nevertheless, such hazards, including workplace bullying, are increasingly identified as significant contributors to psychological injuries, according to a recent Productivity Commission report.
Read more: AIHS report summary and the comprehensive Mental Health Report. More information on Psychosocial hazards and materials from the VTHC's 2020 Conference: Risks to psychological health.
National Fatality Statistics
Safe Work Australia has not updated its fatality statistics since December 3, at which time there had been 150 worker fatalities notified to the national body, three more since the previous update on November 19. The deaths this year have been in the following sectors:
- 51 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 30 in Agriculture, forestry & fishing
- 26 in Construction
- 15 in Public administration & safety
- 12 in Manufacturing
- 5 in Mining
- 3 in 'other services'
- 2 in Arts & recreation services
- 2 in Administrative & support services
- 1 in Accommodation & food services
- 1 in Retail trade
- 1 in Wholesale trade
- 1 in Education and training
Note that the figures are based on preliminary reports, and so at times will change. To check for updates, and for more details on fatalities since 2003, go to the Safe Work Australia Work-related fatalities webpage.
Company fined after unsafe demolition
In a rare asbestos-related prosecution, a demolition company has been convicted and fined $20,000 (plus $4449 in costs) after a neighbour spotted workers knocking down a building without the proper controls in place. In the experience of the VTHC OHS Unit, neighbours are often the first to notice and report questionable demolitions.
Fivestar Demolition and Render Pty Ltd pleaded guilty in the Broadmeadows Magistrates' Court last Thursday to failing to provide or maintain a workplace that was safe and without risks to health and failing to ensure that people other than employees were not exposed to risks to health.
After being alerted by the neighbour, WorkSafe inspectors attended the Oak Park property in May 2018 and found two Fivestar workers demolishing a bungalow. An independent hygienist confirmed the building contained asbestos. Fivestar was not a licensed asbestos removalist.
One of the workers said the company’s director had told them to go ahead with the work despite the presence of asbestos to get the job done quicker. This behaviour put the workers and those in the surrounding area at risk.
WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Julie Nielsen said cutting corners on safety was unacceptable. "Asbestos is an extremely hazardous material that can have lifelong health consequences for anyone exposed to it," Ms Nielsen said. "Employers are required to provide a safe and healthy workplace and must also comply with laws relating to asbestos removal." Read more: WorkSafe media release, which includes information on removal of asbestos. More information on asbestos in the home, and in the workplace.
To check for more prosecutions before the next edition (which remember will not be until February 2021), go to WorkSafe Victoria's Prosecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
NSW: Company fined $300k after worker killed
NSW company WY Constructions Pty Ltd has been convicted and fined $300,000, and ordered to undertake a WHS project, after a worker was killed performing a high-risk task she was "completely unqualified" for. NSW District Court Judge David Russell found the company failed to implement a safe work method statement or demolition plan for demolishing a six-metre-tall brick chimney, leaving several untrained workers to determine how to remove the chimney in the moments before it collapsed and killed one of them.
WY's director was at the site at the time and "had to run for his life to escape being crushed". , said the judge. "[He] had no appreciation of the precautions which were necessary during the demolition... His ignorance shows that WY Constructions made no attempt whatsoever to ascertain or carry out its obligations under the [NSW WHS] Act."
The fatality occurred in December 2017, when the director and the three workers were manually demolishing a brick cottage at the Strathfield site. The killed worker, a 48-year-old woman who recently immigrated from China and started work on the site only that day, was buried in the brickwork and suffered fatal blunt force injuries to the chest and neck. She had been engaged by WY to perform demolition work despite her construction industry experience being limited to casual work delivering bricks and mixing cement. The judge said, "[The worker] was on her first day on the site at the time of the incident and was completely unqualified for demolition work. She was a very vulnerable worker."
The original fine of $400,000 was reduced by 25 per cent due to the company pleading guilty.
China: Coal miners killed by carbon monoxide poisoning
Eighteen miners have been killed and several others are missing after a leak of carbon monoxide gas at a coal mine in the south-west of the country on December 4, according to Chinese state. One person was rescued from the Diaoshuidong mine in Chongqing municipality, the broadcaster reported. An investigation has been launched into the incident on 4 December. CCTV reported that the gas leak at the mine occurred while workers were dismantling underground equipment. The mine had been closed for the previous two months. In September, 16 workers were killed at another mine on the outskirts of Chongqing when a conveyor belt caught fire, producing high levels of carbon monoxide. In December 2019, an explosion at a coal mine in Guizhou province, south-west China, killed at least 14 people. Source: BBC News Online.
Bangladesh: worker dies on LTA construction site
A 29-year-old Bangladeshi worker at a Land Transport Authority (LTA) construction site beside the Changi MRT depot died late last week after a workplace incident. The death comes after a spate of five workplace fatalities in the two weeks between late last month and early this month, which prompted the labour movement to urge companies to prioritise and safeguard the safety of workers. Read more: The Straits Times