Welcome to the first edition of SafetyNet for the new year, 2021.
The OHS Unit has recently returned to 'base', the Trades Hall Council in Victoria St, Carlton South, after almost a year working from home. Let's hope that the number of infections in Victoria and the rest of Australia remain under control, and we can all return to what's now being called a COVID-Safe normality.
We regret to inform our readers that there were two work-related fatalities in the past two weeks.
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]
Two work-related fatalities in one week
There have been two fatalities in Victorian workplaces in less than a week. In the first a worker was killed on Monday February 1 at the production facility of a hay bale exporter in Bridgewater, near Bendigo. Early indications from WorkSafe are that the 29-year-old man suffered fatal injuries when he became entangled in machinery just before 12.30pm. It is particularly tragic when a worker as young as this is killed.
The second death occurred last Saturday, February 6. A 63-year-old aged care resident died following an incident while being transported in a taxi at Echuca. WorkSafe believea the woman died after her chair tipped backwards when the taxi braked.
The deaths bring the workplace fatality toll to two for 2021, 10 less than at the same time last year.
There was also a fatality at the end of last year: A 53 year-old gardener was killed after the ride-on mower he was operating rolled down an embankment at Lilydale on Thursday, December 17. WorkSafe believe the man was crushed by the mower as it rolled.
That death brings the workplace fatality toll to 63 for 2020, two less than at the same time in 2019.
WorkSafe is investigating all three fatalities.
All of us at the VTHC send our sincerest condolences to the families, friends and work colleagues.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) - update
Australia has had a total, to date, of 28,860 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed. Most of the new cases over the past few months have been diagnosed in returning travellers in hotel quarantine. However, there have recently been three Victorian hotel quarantine workers who contracted the virus. There are fears that a cluster at the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport is increasing. As a result, the Andrews government re-introduced certain restrictions - such as mandatory wearing of masks indoors (including in workplaces) and a reduction in the number of visitors allowed in private homes. 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 continuing to record huge increases. On December 16 last year, the day SafetyNet was posted, the cumulative number of infections was 73,830,321 - this morning, February 10, 2021, the worldwide infections are at 107,376,344 (note: the numbers are updated continually). There have been 2,348,680 COVID-related deaths around the world.
The big news since December, however, is the development and roll out of a number of vaccines. These have been developed and approved in a relatively short period of time, and some countries have begun mass vaccination programs of their people. Australia has yet to commence our vaccination program - but with the number of infections so low, everyone agrees that it is wise to wait.
The latest Victorian COVID restrictions state that face masks are mandatory in public indoor spaces. Does this include workplaces, for example office areas, workshops, warehouses etc?
Yes, it does. The instructions, for the moment at least, are that masks must be worn indoors, and this includes all workplaces. The only exception is if there is a lawful reason not to - this is usually a medical reason. Masks must also be worn in commercial vehicles, public transport, flights to and from Victoria, and in airports. The CHO is even recommending that we consider wearing masks when we visit someone else's home. See advice specific to Victoria, here.
Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website.
Union urges stronger national laws on silica
The Australian Workers Union is leading a push for tougher national regulations to protect all workers exposed to deadly silica dust, with fears Australia could be hit with a “tsunami” of deaths in the coming decades.
Silicosis is caused by breathing in chrystalline silica dust, which scars the lungs, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. The dust is generated in workplace mechanical processes such as crushing, cutting, drilling, grinding, sawing or polishing natural stone or, even worse, man-made products that contain silica, such as manufactured stone.
Last year, more than 350 people were diagnosed with the disease - and health authorities fear with thousands of workers exposed over the past decade, many more could develop the illness. Unlike asbestosis and mesothelioma, which can take decades to develop, silicosis affects young and healthy workers in their 30s and 40s, and can often be fatal. Some sufferers may eventually need a lung transplant.
AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said preliminary reforms recommended by the National Dust Disease Taskforce would only provide extra protection for stonemasons, leaving the construction industry, miners, quarry workers and tunnellers “out in the cold”.
Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald. More information on Silica.
Star Wars actress dies of mesothelioma
Australian actress and pop singer Trisha Noble has died at the age of 76. Trisha, who had several hits in the 1960s and also appeared in two Star Wars films, died on January 23 after an 18-month battle with mesothelioma. Born in Marrickville, Sydney, she began her career on Bandstand, and in 1961, won Best Female Singer of the Year at the Logie Awards. She moved to the UK, signed a two-year contract with Columbia Records, and in 1967 moved to the USA. It is not clear where or when she was exposed to asbestos. Read more: The Daily Mail.
International Union News
UK: 'Dire consequences' if workers not protected better
Workplace exposure control experts in the UK have warned of ‘dire consequences’ if better protection of workers from COVID-19 is not put in place. The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), which is the chartered body for workplace exposure professionals, was speaking out after latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures on COVID-19 deaths revealed ‘alarming trends’ (Risks 982).
BOHS president Kelvin Williams said: “People are dying unnecessarily, because there is still insufficient understanding of occupational hygiene measures that can prevent the spread of this disease.” BOHS said the figures prove that more focus needs to be placed on getting the right workplace protections into the right sectors, including effective respirators for all key health and public-facing workers and more attention to other protection, including proper ventilation, enforced social distancing and hand hygiene in the workplace. BOHS said it has “consistently campaigned since March 2020 to ensure that the NHS provides all its frontline workers with properly fitted filtering respirators within the context of properly thought out and managed occupational hygiene precautions, including ventilation.” The BOHS call for the more effective respirators – as opposed to the far less protective surgical or medical masks - to protect workers from COVID-19 has also been a repeated demand of unions and occupational medicine experts. They are concerned the UK's regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) continues to ignore the findings of its own research.
A 23 January 2021 paper co-authored by Manchester University’s Professor Raymond Agius observed: “It is not clear why the HSE is still not recommending respirators as PPE for public transport workers and other public-facing occupations, as well as in health and social care in situations where control at source, barriers, and ventilation are not adequate”. In an April 2020 Occupational Medicine paper, Prof Agius cited a 2008 HSE study that concluded: “Live viruses could be detected in the air behind all surgical masks tested. By contrast, properly fitted respirators could provide at least a 100-fold reduction.”
Read more: BOHS news release and report, BOHS – COVID-19: Occupation Risk Rating and Control Options According to Exposure Rank. CNN News.
Raymond M Agius. Covid-19 and Health at Work. Occupational Medicine, volume 70, number 5, pages 349-351, April 2020.
Raymond M Agius, Denise Kendrick, Herb F Sewell, Marcia Stewart, John FR Robertson. Reaffirming health and safety precautionary principles for COVID-19 in the UK, The Lancet, volume 397, issue 10271, page 274, 23 January 2021.
Health and Safety Executive. Evaluating the protection afforded by surgical masks against influenza bioaerosols: Gross protection of surgical masks compared to filtering facepiece respirators, Research Report RR619, 2008. Source: Risks 983
The situation for workers in the UK is horrific with the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths extremely high. For more news about what workers are facing, go to Risks 983, and earlier editions.
USA: Poultry plant nitrogen leak kills six workers
A liquid nitrogen leak at a US poultry plant killed six people on 28 January, and sent at least 11 others to the hospital, some in a critical condition. The incident occurred at the Prime Pak Foods plant near Gainsville, Georgia. The firm, which earlier in the month merged into the Foundation Food Group, processes chicken for restaurants and food service operations. It is believed the asphyxiations occurred when a nitrogen line ruptured in the facility. When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporises into an odourless gas that is capable of displacing oxygen. That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the US government agency the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), which is investigating the incident.
Gainesville is the centre of Georgia’s massive poultry industry, with thousands of employees working for multiple processing plants. Much of the workforce, like in many meat processing plants nationwide, is Latino. Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union RWDSU, which represents over 15,000 poultry workers at facilities across the southern United States, said: “The egregious, lack of standards at non-union facilities like the one in Gainesville cost essential workers their lives today. We cannot allow this to continue to happen. Workers' lives are not disposable.” Two workers died in a December 2020 nitrogen leak at a plant of the meat producer Golden West Food Group in Vernon, California.
Read more: RWDSU news release. CSB statement. New York Times. Insurance Journal. The Guardian. BBC News Online. Source: Risks 983
Risks from heat kick in earlier than previously thought
In a study relevant to Australian employers, US researchers have shown that workers' bodies can quickly heat up during hot days, contrary to the common belief among employers that workers are safe from heat risks in the morning.
The collaborative study between the researchers from Emory University and the Farmworkers Association of Florida also identified risk factors leading to workers surpassing safe core body temperature thresholds, which need to be addressed in heat policies.
The team monitored the core temperatures of 221 agricultural workers over three working days with a mean heat index (combining air temperature and relative humidity) of 32 degrees Celsius. They found that each day half the workers surpassed the government-recommended core temperature limit of 38 degrees, where heat exhaustion begins. Workers exceeded this threshold well before the hottest part of the day: five per cent by 8am and most by 10.38am. Many workers' core body temperatures exceeded 38.5 degrees by 11.10am.
"These results have occupational health significance because morning hours are considered to be the safest for workers and supervisors have been observed to cease work in afternoons of very hot days," the researchers say. The risk of heat strain and heat-related illness can occur earlier in the day than expected. Heat control measures, such as rest and shade, need to be implemented at the beginning of the working day and applied consistently, not solely in the afternoon, though by this time the heat strain peaked and remained consistently high.
US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations are that employers prevent heat illness through: frequent scheduled breaks in cool, shaded areas; reminders to rehydrate; reviewing key heat-related illness information in consultation with workers; and buddy system policies where workers look for signs of heat-related illness in their colleagues.
"For those working in the direct sun, OSHA recommends that employers monitor workers very closely for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and to design schedules for work and rest intervals," the researchers add. They also found the risk of surpassing the core temperature threshold was higher in less experienced workers, indicating new workers should be monitored more closely in hot weather.
Read more: Valerie Mac, et al, Risk Factors for Reaching Core Body Temperature Thresholds in Florida Agricultural Workers. [Open access - pdf can be downloaded from this page] Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first January 2021, doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000002150. Source: OHSAlert
Being ignored, bullying increases insomnia
Anti-bullying measures in workplaces can prevent insomnia and related hazardous symptoms in workers, according to researchers, who also investigated whether sleep problems can lead to bullying.
In a study of over 1,000 workers, Norwegian researchers from the National Institute of Occupational Health found being exposed to direct and indirect negative behaviours, like being ignored or excluded, being constantly reminded of mistakes or being denied information, were significantly associated with increased insomnia symptoms at a six-month follow up.
There is emerging evidence that exposure to workplace bullying is a key risk factor for the development of sleep problems. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis found bullied workers are 2.3 times more likely to report sleep problems than other workers.
"Being exposed to bullying typically challenges the world view of those targeted, particularly in early phases where acts tend to be rather subtle and discrete, and may, therefore, easily lead to worries and rumination," said the study’s lead, Morten Nielsen.
Repetitive thoughts about negative work experiences and being unable to switch off from these thoughts are risk factors for sleep problems, as increasing arousal and physical activation and disturbing sleep patterns. A number of studies show exposure to bullying is associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which is characterised by hyperarousal, nightmares, and other sleep difficulties.
The researchers said, "The findings of the present study indicate that measures against bullying at the workplace can be beneficial concerning reducing sleep problems among employees." The research team points to previous research showing organisational support and an ethical climate can reduce the impacts of bullying, including another study led by Nielsen.
Read more: Morten Nielsen, et al, Associations between exposure to workplace bullying and insomnia: a cross-lagged prospective study of causal directions. [Open access] International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, online first February 2021, doi: 0.1007/s00420-020-01618-2.
Proposed OHS Amendment (Crystalline Silica) Regulations 2021
Public comment on the proposed Occupational Health and Safety Amendment (Crystalline Silica) Regulations 2021 (proposed Regulations) and associated Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) is now open.
The proposed Regulations aim to improve risk assessment and information relating to the control measures for reducing exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust. They will also maintain a ban on uncontrolled dry-cutting of engineered stone and includes a licensing system for workplaces that use engineered stone - currently banned under the interim regulations introduced in May 2019. These had been due to expire on August 20, 2019, but were extended to allow the development of the current proposed amendment, and public comment. WorkSafe Victoria invites workers, HSRs, unions, employers and members of the public to review and make comment on the proposed Regulations and RIS. Public comment closes at 5pm, Thursday 18 February 2021.
Find out more here.
New Safety Alert
In December last year WorkSafe Victoria issued a safety alert about the risks associated with operating plant with inadequate guarding.
Two employees received crush injuries and amputations to their hands after working with unguarded power presses. The guarding was not interlocked with the power press, so the employees were able to continue operating the press without any guarding.
At another workplace an employee was operating a power press to cut out metal parts for manufacturing. The employee was able to use tools to disable the mechanical interlock and operate the press with guarding in the open position. The plant also had an electrical interlock switch which was not operational. The employee placed their hand in the press area of the plant during operation where three fingers were amputated and a fourth finger was partially amputated.
Check the Safety Alert here.
Preventing workplace sexual harassment, violence and aggression
New national work health and safety guidance has been developed by Safe Work Australia. The new resources provide practical guidance to businesses to help them prevent workplace sexual harassment, violence, aggression and domestic violence.
Under Australia’s model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws, employers must proactively manage risks to health and safety arising from work. This includes both physical and mental health. The new information provides guidance to anyone who has a WHS duty to protect the health and safety of workers.
1 - Preventing workplace sexual harassment
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces highlighted how prevalent sexual harassment is and the harm it is causing. Employers can and must do much more than just respond to complaints. WHS duties require employers do everything they reasonably can to prevent sexual harassment from occurring at work, just like other risks to health and safety.
The new Guide: Preventing workplace sexual harassment is the first comprehensive WHS guidance in Australia to focus on preventing sexual harassment. The guidance supports business and organisations to meet their WHS duties with practical steps to identify risks and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
The guide is supported by information sheets for small businesses and workers:
- Preventing workplace sexual harassment – guidance for small business
- Workplace sexual harassment – advice for workers
For more information, go to the Workplace sexual harassment web page.
2 - Preventing workplace violence and aggression
The Guide: Preventing workplace violence and aggression provides information for persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), such as employers, on how to manage the risk of violence and aggression in the workplace, including gendered violence.
The guide is supported by information sheets for small businesses and workers:
- Workplace violence and aggression – guidance for small business
- Workplace violence and aggression – advice for workers
The information sheet Family and domestic violence has been developed to provide PCBUs with guidance on managing the risk of family and domestic violence at the workplace. The information sheet provides guidance on how businesses can help provide a safe environment for workers and where to seek more advice.
For more information, go to the Workplace violence and aggression web page.
Public comment sought on exposure standards
Safe Work Australia is calling for public comment on the remaining 168 workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. SWA is reviewing the Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants (WES) to ensure they are based on high quality evidence and supported by a rigorous scientific approach.
Comments are requested on 168 draft evaluation reports from paraffin wax to zirconium compounds (release 15).
Each draft report includes:
- a recommended WES value
- information about the basis of the recommendation, and
- a summary of the data relied upon to make the recommendation.
Feedback is sought on the WES values and technical comments regarding:
- the toxicological information and data that the value is based upon, and
- the measurement and analysis information provided.
The review will result in the development of a list of health-based recommendations for the workplace exposure standards in Australia. This includes recommendation on the workplace exposure standards values, notations and the list of chemicals.
To provide your comment, go to the Workplace exposure standards review on Engage. For more information go to the Review of the workplace exposure standards web page.
Work health and safety and workers’ compensation scheme performance in 2018–19
Safe Work Australia has released the latest Comparative Performance Monitoring report, providing trend analyses on the work health and safety (WHS) and workers’ compensation schemes operating in Australia and New Zealand.
This report facilitates the improvement of work health and safety, workers’ compensation and related service outcomes in Australia and New Zealand by:
- monitoring the comparative performance of jurisdictions over time, and
- enabling benchmarking across jurisdictions and the identification of best practice to support policy making.
The report is divided into 3 parts:
- Focuses on work health and safety performance
- Focuses on WHS compliance and enforcement activities
- Compares the workers’ compensation premium rates, entitlements and scheme performance of jurisdictions across Australia.
National Fatality Statistics
As at 4 February, 9 Australian workers were killed at work in 2021. In 2020, 173 Australian workers were killed at work compared with 183 workers in 2019.
The 2020 and 2021 figures listed in the table on the SWA website are based mainly on initial media reports and provide a preliminary estimate of the number of people killed while working. Once the appropriate authority has investigated the death, more accurate information becomes available from which Safe Work Australia updates details of the incident. Updated information is used to publish Safe Work Australia’s annual Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities report which includes finalised work-related fatalities from 2003 onwards.
The deaths this year have been in the following sectors:
- 3 in Transport, postal & warehousing
- 2 in Agriculture, forestry & fishing
- 1 in Arts & recreation services
- 1 in Construction
- 1 in Manufacturing
- 1 in Wholesale trade
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.
Trio convicted after worker’s death
At the end of December last year, two companies and a director were convicted and penalised $250,000 over the death of a contractor who was killed when run over by a trailer at a Mildura almond processer in 2018.
Olam Orchards Pty Ltd and Complete Commodity Management Pty Ltd (CCM) pleaded guilty in the Mildura Magistrates’ Court to one charge each of failing to ensure persons other than employees were not exposed to risks to their health or safety. The court ordered Olam to pay $75,000 and CCM $150,000 to local charities.
CCM director Desmond Brown pleaded guilty to one charge of failing as an officer of CCM to take reasonable care to ensure persons other than employees were not exposed to risks to their health and safety and was ordered to donate $25,000.
Each party was also ordered to pay $4481 in costs.
In 2018, CCM was engaged by Olam to manage the delivery of almonds to its Mildura processor, which included tractors with trailers attached moving in and out of a mill tunnel where the trailers were unloaded. On 6 April of that year, a 24-year-old labour hire worker contracted to CMM was killed when he was crushed by a moving trailer inside the tunnel. He has been tasked with clearing blockages preventing almonds from being unloaded and had been standing between two trailers when the incident occurred.
At the time of the prosecution, WorkSafe Acting Executive Director of Health and Safety Adam Watson said there was no excuse for failing to protect workers from the known risks of mobile machinery. "Too often workers are put at risk because well-known safety steps, such as separating employees from mobile machinery, are not followed," Mr Watson said.
The VTHC would have liked to have seen higher fines, and even a prison sentence, rather than ordering the parties to donate to local charities. This young man's death should never have occurred. Read more: WorkSafe media release
Air-conditioning company pays $15,000 after apprentice injured
In January Air Synergy Pty Ltd, a company which supplies, services and installs evaporative, refrigerated and split system air conditioning systems, was sentenced, without conviction, to one year good behaviour bond, a contribution of $15,000.to the Court Fund and ordered to pay VWA's costs over a 2018 incident in with an apprentice was seriously injured. He fell approximately 3 metres while installing an evaporative cooling system on a single level pitch roof at a home in Tarneit. He slid down the roof, hit a colour bond fence with his back and fell to the ground.
The court found the employer had not identified the fall hazards and risks and outlining the way employees were required to carry out tasks, had failed to ensure workers used a fall arrest system such as safety harnesses, and had not provided them with the necessary instruction, information and training to safely work at heights. It was reasonably practicable for the company to reduce or eliminate risk by ensuring that a risk assessment was undertaken prior to commencement of work and fall protection was in place.
Metal fabrication company fined without conviction after worker crushed by steel beam
Central Victorian Welding & Fabrication Pty Ltd, operator of a metal fabrication workshop in Axedale, pleaded guilty and was, without conviction, fined $15,000, plus $1,654 in costs after an incident in January 2019 where a 21 year old employee was injured when he was struck by a 900 kg steel beam which was being lifted using a mobile crane. He sustained a fractured pelvis and muscle damage and spent five days in hospital.
The worker and a crane operator had been tasked by a supervisor with moving steel beams from their location outside on a concrete pad into the back of the shed at the workplace - a distance of about 300 metres. The young man was an apprentice boilermaker with the company. He did not hold any 'high risk work' licences for dogging, rigging or operating cranes or forklifts. He was not being supervised whilst carrying out the lifting works on on that day.
The company had no safe operating procedures or written systems of work in place for lifting and moving loads using plant at the workplace.
To check for more prosecutions before the next edition, go to WorkSafe Victoria'sProsecution Result Summaries and Enforceable Undertakings webpage.
USA: Swift progress on COVID safety at work
After just eight full days into his administration, US president Joe Biden has added new COVID-19 guidance to last week’s executive order on protection of workers from the infection (Risks 982). The US Department of Labor announced on 29 January that its workplace safety regulator, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has issued stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement a coronavirus prevention programme and better identify risks which could lead to exposure and infection.
“More than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions of people are out of work as a result of this crisis. Employers and workers can help our nation fight and overcome this deadly pandemic by committing themselves to making their workplaces as safe as possible,” said senior counsellor to the secretary of labour M Patricia Smith. “The recommendations in OSHA’s updated guidance will help us defeat the virus, strengthen our economy and bring an end to the staggering human and economic toll that the coronavirus has taken on our nation.”
Acting head of OSHA Jim Frederick said: “OSHA is updating its guidance to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus and improve worker protections so businesses can operate safely and employees can stay safe and working.” The guidance covers issues including ensuring infected or potentially infected people are not in the workplace, the use of personal protective equipment and improving ventilation, good hygiene and routine cleaning.
Read more: Department of Labor news release. Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.
Source: Risks 983