Union News

Two workplace fatalities in Victoria in the past week

On Thursday last week a farm worker died after suffering serious head injuries while working alone in a shed on a property at Binginwarri, in Gippsland. WorkSafe, which is investigating, believes the 74-year-old man struck his head on machinery after being knocked when six large round bales fell from a stack behind him. WorkSafe is investigating the incident.

The VTHC expresses its deepest condolences to the worker's family, friends and work colleagues. No one should die at work.

The second tragedy was on the weekend, when an eight-year-old child drowned at an indoor public swimming pool at Port Fairy in south-west Victoria. The incident occurred on Saturday morning at the Belfast Aquatic Centre, a community-run facility. The child, who was found unresponsive by staff, received medical assistance at the scene but was unable to be resuscitated. WorkSafe Victoria is investigating the child's death as the swimming pool is a workplace.

A council spokesperson said support would be offered to swimming centre staff. "Our thoughts go out to the family and friends of the child, the first responders and to those staff and members of the public who were at the pool today," the spokesperson said.

Everyone at the VTHC express our sincerest condolences to the child's family. 

These deaths bring Victoria's workplace fatality toll to 18 for 2021.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -  update 

Australia has had a total of 30,029 cases of coronavirus diagnosed, and a total of 910 COVID-related deaths. 

This week has seen a re-introduction of restrictions in Victoria following a new outbreak of community cases, which appear to be linked to the case of the Woollert man who contracted COVID in an Adelaide quarantine hotel. There have been 10 (ten) new cases identified in the past 24 hours, and as a result, from 6pm last night measures have been introduced in metropolitan Melbourne. These include mandatory wearing of masks indoors and a limit to the number of people allowed in the home and for public gatherings. Go to this page for updated information on the current numbers and restrictions: Coronavirus the Victorian situation 

Internationally, the numbers of infections and deaths continue to mount: the cumulative number of infections last week was 164,878,741. Today it is CHECK 168,513,226. This is 4.5 million new infections in the past week, continuing the downward trend which is now at -12 per cent. There have now been 3,499,417 COVID-related deaths around the world - a downward trend of about 7 per cent. (note these figures are updated constantly)

COVID-19 Vaccinations

As of May 3, any Australian over the age of 50 has been able to book in for their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and we urge people to do so. There are a number of 'hubs' in Victoria which are delivering the vaccines, including a new one located at the Sandown Racecourse on the Princes Highway in Springvale, which is open 9am - 5pm, seven days a week. GPs are also now administering the vaccines.  At time of press, 956,347 vaccine doses had been administered in Victoria. Both the government and the VTHC are urging workers who are eligible to get their vaccines, particularly in the light of the recently diagnosed community cases. If you are a 1A or 1B category worker, and under 50, you should be getting the Pfizer vaccine. 

Reminder: The Department of Health's Victorian COVID-19 vaccination guidelines (the guidelines), appendices and resources available online on this DHS webpage. The guidelines provide advice and describe the minimum requirements for delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination program in Victoria, in accordance with the requirements set out by the Commonwealth Government. The guidelines are updated weekly. Please ensure you are using the most up to date version. Updates are highlighted in yellow in the document.

For more information, go to these pages on the website: Coronavirus disease 

Tomorrow, Thursday May 27, 5.30 pm: VTHC OHS Unit liveshow on COVID 19 and vaccines

The unit had planned this liveshow some time ago, but the timing is perfect given the developments in the state over the past week. The liveshow will be discussing the vaccine rollout, particularly vaccine hesitancy. And no doubt the issue of Melbourne's recent outbreak will come up.

The VTHC's OHS Unit's new staff members, Divina and Bridget, will be running the show, and will be joined by special guest Professor Ben Cowie lead immunologist from DHHS. Some of you will remember Prof. Cowie from a liveshow we did earlier this year. 

So don't miss what will be a riveting event! Tune in tomorrow, Thursday evening, at 5:30 on Facebook Live We Are Union: OHS Reps. Don't forget to put your questions for Prof. Cowie in the comments as these will be answered live.  (If you miss out or are unable to tune in 'live', you will be able to watch the show at your leisure at any time afterwards). 

June 1: Injured Workers Day

The 1st of June is Injured Workers Day. The Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Health and Community Services Union will host a panel discussion on how to fix our WorkCover system. You can watch it live on Facebook at the Injured Workers Day page.

Injured workers will be fighting for a system that treats injured workers with dignity and puts our needs before profit. The WorkCover system needs major reform. We need a system that looks after injured workers first, and gives workers the medical and financial support to recover and live in dignity. 

The VTHC and our affiliates are calling on Daniel Andrews and the Victorian Government to reform our WorkCover system so it serves the needs of injured workers first, including:

  • In-sourcing the services of independent agents and bringing the entire WorkCover scheme back into public hands;
  • Phasing out self-insurance scheme and bringing all workplaces onto the same scheme;
  • Amending the definition of ‘complex claim’ so that workers who need extra support can get it when they need it;
  • Extending employers' return to work obligations past the 52 week mark.

If you are interested in getting involved with the Injured Workers Support Network, like the Facebook page Injured Workers Support Network Victoria.

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata,  

I'm part of the OHS committee at my workplace. I have been for the past three years now, and have renewed for another three years. I am also an elected HSR.

In the past couple of weeks three members have left our committee due to its mismanagement. We have had a call out for new members. So far this this year we have met twice. We don't receive the minutes beforehand and it seems that nothing actually happens. It's all talk and then the paid rep and business manager handball everything to leadership. None of our opinions and suggestions seem to be getting listened to. It is very frustrating to be working in an unsafe workplace and we aren't being heard. I don't know what to do. It's been suggested to me by the chair that I quit the committee - which I am not doing. Can you help?

It’s a real problem when an OHS committee is run poorly and doesn’t seem to achieve anything. The OHS Committee is supposed to be one of the major forums for consultation on OHS matters and this should lead to real improvements in the workplace in terms of the health and safety of workers.  

Firstly, there should not be any 'term of office' for membership of the OHS Committee - but there is, of course in relation to the term of office for HSRs.

There are a few things that I can suggest to get the committee working again:

  1. The OHS Act states that it’s up to the committee itself to determine its own functions and procedures (s72[5]). So apart from the mandatory matters – which are that at least half of the committee must be employees (and so far as practicable these must be HSRs or DHSRs) and that it meet at least every 3 months, the rest is up to the committee. So I would suggest you and the other HSRs/employee committee members write up procedures which you then table and move that they be accepted.  I can provide information and advice on procedures. For example, who chairs, how the agenda is determined, who should take minutes and when these need to be made available to members. I would try to get the current HSRs to stay on if possible, and certainly stay on yourself. If it’s too late for the former, then talk with the other employees/staff and encourage them to nominate but outline your plan with them and get them on board.
  2. You  mention that the committee has met just twice this year – as it is May, this is still within the mandated time period. However, send a written message/email to the current chair, pointing out the requirements under the Act and requesting the date of the next meeting. If the committee already has in its constitution that it is to meet more often (eg every month), then point out that this has not occurred.
  3. Remembering that the functions of the OHS committee are to consider broad, workplace-wide issues, such as policies and procedures, it may be that you can take up issues in an alternative way, particularly if you feel that the management reps are just handballing issues to leadership and nothing gets resolved. As HSRs you and the others have the right to raise OHS issues which affect your DWG directly with the employer/employer rep, and they must meet and attempt to resolve these issues. If you don’t get a good outcome, then you can take the matter further (eg issuing a PIN, calling WorkSafe, etc). See: Resolution of issues
  4. Contact your union for assistance – and perhaps see whether it might be possible for your organiser to be invited as a guest at the next committee meeting. That way they may be able to give you more advice. Your union may also have specialist OHS Organisers who would be able to give you specific assistance and advice.

Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. 

Peak union body welcomes WHS Ministers decision on psychological health, regret missed opportunity on industrial manslaughter

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has welcomed last week's decision by Australia's WHS ministers to amend the model WHS Regulations to prescribe control measures for psychological risks, and significantly increase safety penalties. 

ACTU assistant secretary Liam O'Brien said the vote in favour of clauses regulating psychosocial hazards was a major step towards the prevention of mental illness and workplace sexual harassment and gendered violence. "Up to 45 per cent of mental health issues are attributable to work," he said, referring to a recent report from The Australia Institute.  "Years of campaigning from working people and their unions, along with the support of mental health and gender equality organisations, have gone into winning this regulation. It will make Australian workplaces safer for future generations of workers."

However the ACTU is disappointed that the proposed industrial manslaughter laws were voted down at the WHS Ministers meeting. 

The jurisdictions that already have (or are on the verge of enacting) the offence of industrial manslaughter – the ACT, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia – supported adding the offence to the model WHS Act, but this did not receive the required majority of six votes. Unfortunately, several ministers representing coalition governments voted to prevent action on industrial manslaughter in our model Work Health and Safety laws. The ACTU has been urging Federal Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash, who chaired the meeting, to use her deciding vote to add manslaughter provisions to the model Act, but she did not. 

O'Brien said this was a missed opportunity: industrial manslaughter laws protect workers by holding employers accountable for preventable deaths. Millions of workers will not have this important protection and employers will not be held accountable for preventable workplace deaths. Read more: ACTU media release

Asbestos news

NSW: dead and dying workers underpaid almost $15m 

Icare documents have revealed that more than 1100 NSW workers who have either died or are suffering from dust diseases such as mesothelioma and silicosis have missed out on almost $15 million in compensation because of decades-old payment errors.

Approximately 830 workers have died without correct compensation while at least 300 ill workers have been underpaid almost $4 million since 2014.

According to icare, the state insurer, it officially identified payment errors 12 months ago, but a an anonymous source said these were being discussed as early as 2015. It has been estimated that individual workers suffering dust diseases have been underpaid an average of $13,000, assuming an underpayment of $500 per week per worker for 26 weeks. Workers who have already died missed out on $10.8 million, while 300 totally disabled workers have been underpaid $3.9 million. As yet no underpaid worker has been informed about the error or paid the money they are owed. Read more: Sydney Morning Herald 

More information on Asbestos: In the workplace and In the Home

Queensland : Union wins PTSD cover for emergency workers

Emergency service workers in Queensland no longer need to prove they developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while on the job. In a big union win, the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2020 passed this month allows workers’ compensation claims by first responders diagnosed with PTSD to be deemed work-related so they can get immediate treatment and benefits. United Workers Union’s national ambulance coordinator Fiona Scalon said: “Queensland’s dedicated ambulance officers are regularly in extremely difficult and challenging situations. Until these new laws passed, claiming PTSD through workers’ compensation has been stressful and challenging for our members who could face rejected PTSD claims and be forced to relive traumatic workplace events in the process.” She said the legal changes “will ensure this won’t happen again. Moving forwards, this allows ambulance officers to feel more confident to seek treatment earlier and is the next step in breaking down the stigma perceived in the workplace.”  
Read more: United Workers Union news release.

International Union news

International: Most workers worldwide missing out on COVID support

Just two per cent of the world’s workers are getting the sick pay, wage replacement and social benefits they need to withstand the impacts of COVID-19, a new study from the global union UNI and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has found.

The first global analysis of COVID-19 support for workers ranks the levels of worker compensation, social security programmes and public health systems in 181 national and regional jurisdictions. Just over half (98 jurisdictions) recognise COVID-19 as an occupational disease through a formal regulatory process, enabling people who have contracted coronavirus at work access to social protections and entitlements — such as sick pay, medical care, and wage replacement — that would otherwise be denied. The report says recognition is particularly important for workers who suffer from long-COVID and other ongoing complications from the disease. Only ten jurisdictions (5.5 per cent) received top ratings indicating good or very good provisions for wage replacement, medical treatment, sick pay, and death benefits. Only 6 per cent had presumptive rules, regulations, laws or policies giving automatic access to medical treatment and wage replacement for all workers with COVID-19. However, when considering healthcare workers alone, this percentage rose to 17 per cent.

Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI, the global union covering care workers, said: “Governments are failing the frontline workers who are supporting our communities during the pandemic by forcing them to shoulder the physical, psychological and financial burdens of COVID-19 on their own.” Sharan Burrow, the ITUC’s general secretary, said “we call on the International Labour Organisation to recognise COVID-19 as an occupational disease urgently, as part of the drive towards making occupational health and safety a fundamental right.” The report ranks Australia quite low - almost all states scored '7' with NSW scoring '9'. The top score., fully supported, was 15. 
Read more: ITUC news release. UNI news release. UNI/ITUC report, COVID-19: An Occupational Disease - Where frontline workers are best protected [pdf], 18 May 2021. Source: Risks 997

UK: TUC says employers massively under-reporting COVID deaths

The number of people who have died from exposure to COVID at work is being “massively under-reported” by employers, according to a new TUC report published this week. The report,  RIDDOR, Covid and underreporting [pdf], highlights a huge discrepancy between COVID work-related deaths reported by employers and data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England. 

Between April 2020 and April 2021 the ONS reported that 15,263 people of working age died from COVID. But according to reports filed by employers just 387 (2.5 per cent) of these deaths came from workers contracting Covid at work. 

The TUC’s report shows that in sectors with high numbers of deaths during the pandemic -  like food production and transport - only a small fraction of deaths have been reported as work-related by employers.  

Figures from the ONS show that between March 2020 and December 2020 more than 600 people working in the transport sector died.  But according to reports filed by employers (over the longer period of April 2020 to April 2021) just 10 deaths in the transport sector were work-related. 

And ONS figures show that 63 food production workers died between March 2020 and December 2020; but according to data supplied by employers (over the longer period of April 2020 to April 2021) just three of these deaths were the result of work.  Read more: TUC media release

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