Union News

Worker electrocuted 
A man was killed after being electrocuted while working from an elevated platform in Hughesdale last Thursday afternoon.  It has been reported that the 26-year-old was tree pruning when the platform came into contact with the power lines about noon. WorkSafe is investigating.

The fatality brings the official number of workplace deaths this year to six, compared to four at the same time last year. However, the VTHC tally now stands at eight. Source WorkSafe media release

Following this tragedy, WorkSafe has issued a Safety Alert which highlights the hazards and recommended ways to control risks associated with elevating work platforms (EWPs).

Vale Barney Cooney - drafter of the OHS Act
In very sad news, former Labor senator, great supporter of unions and workers, and humanitarian Barney Cooney has passed away after a long illness. He died on Saturday, February 9, 2019. David Cragg, former VTHC Assistant Secretary, knew him well, and kindly provided these thoughts for SafetyNet:.

Barney was a trustee of the Victorian Trades Hall, and had served as an ALP Senator for Victoria from 1985 to 2002. Just as importantly for OHS Reps, Barney had practised as a workers comp barrister in Victoria from 1961 up until his election to Parliament.

Prior to Barney going to Canberra, one of his last jobs in Victoria was to draft the overall framework for OHS in this state - which was passed into law by the Cain State ALP Government later in 1985 - when the Government very briefly had a one-seat majority in the Upper House! Barney - together with the union movement - brought Victoria into the 20th century, by introducing a "three pillars" concept of Prevention, Care and Recovery and creating the role of worker-elected OHS Reps in the workplace. The 1985 Acts created three separate statutory bodies independent of government - the Victorian Occupational Health & Safety Commission (prevention), the Victorian Workcover Authority (compensation & care) and the Victorian Accident Rehabilitation Council (return to work).

Barney's vision brought Victoria right up to speed with world's best practice in Europe and elsewhere. However in 1993 Jeff Kennett's government abolished both the VOHSC and the VARC, and gutted the VWA. Unions are still campaigning to restore some of the rights we won in the late 1980s.  Vale Barney Cooney,  friend to workplace safety.
See also: Senator Kim Carr's Tribute.

Ask Renata

Hello Renata, 
I am an HSR at a chemical manufacturing workplace. The workforce onsite is made up of about 30 males and six females. Everyone is exposed to the same chemical hazards. The Safety Data Sheets for the majority of the hazardous chemicals that are handled onsite recommend immediate removal of soiled clothing and then showering if spilled on the body. We have many emergency showers/eyewash stations accessible onsite. However when our plant was built the only personal hygiene showers installed were in the male toilet and change room facility.

Over the past year I have twice raised the need for at least one shower in the female change room. In response, the plant manager said that if a female needs to shower in an emergency the male facilities could be blocked off temporarily. I do not think this is a suitable solution as the female staff members are uncomfortable with this. Any advice?

I agree it's not a great 'solution', and not acceptable either under the OHS Act, nor under anti-discriminatory legislation. The Act requires the employer to provide 'adequate facilities for employees' – for all employees! The Workplace facilities and work environment Compliance Code sets out what employers need to do to comply - specifically, in relation to showers:

  •  Where the nature of the work causes workers to need a shower before leaving the workplace (eg dusty, dirty, hot or strenuous workplaces), the employer should provide separate shower facilities for each sex (unless they are capable of being secured to ensure privacy).
  • Employers need to provide at least one shower for every 10 workers who may need to shower; and
  • In some workplaces, the work process involves substances which can be a contamination hazard, such as chemicals, lead or asbestos, or infectious agents. In some workplaces employers are required to provide facilities to enable employees to decontaminate themselves by showering and other means before leaving work.
While the Act and the advice in the Code are both qualified by 'so far as is reasonably practicable', as the employment of females will no doubt continue, the proposed solution is not satisfactory and is discriminatory and illegal under the Equal Opportunity Act.

Check these pages:

Please send any OHS related queries in to Ask Renata - your query will be responded to as quickly as we can – usually within a couple of days.

Industrial manslaughter update
1- Mining industry on the offensive
Australia's mining industry, which is enmeshed in scandals about work-related suicides and the re-emergence of deadly black lung disease, has expressed alarm at the prospect of the promised Victorian  industrial manslaughter laws.

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has 'cautioned' the Victorian government that new workplace safety laws ' will give rise to unintended consequences which impair, rather than enhance, health and safety outcomes at Australian workplaces' and should not leave top managers facing the threat of jail. The MCA backlash came after the state government announced it had started work on workplace manslaughter regulations and the creation of an implementation taskforce, following 23 (official) workplace fatalities in 2018. As part of the implementation taskforce, the government is establishing a Workplace Fatalities and Serious Incidents Reference Group to ensure that the families of those who have lost loved ones in workplace accidents can contribute to the reforms.

"While individuals have a role to play in keeping themselves and others safe at work, occupational health and safety laws are very clear that the safety of staff is the responsibility of every Victorian employer," minister for workplace safety Jill Hennessy said. "We're working with unions, business and the community to implement critical reforms as soon as possible, to save lives and keep Victorian workers safe."

But MCA chief executive Tania Constable responded that the manslaughter law proposed by the state government, which could see negligent employers facing jail time of up to 20 years after a workplace death, would not lead to improvements. "This must be the priority, not imposing oppressive and unnecessary criminal liability on selected individuals," she said. But Victoria premier Daniel Andrews, commenting last year when the new law was proposed, said: "Families who have lost a loved one at work deserve justice – and that means jail, not a slap on the wrist."
Read more: Victorian government news release. MCA news release. Mining Technology. Mining Weekly.

2 - First jail sentence under Qld's laws
A company director has been jailed for a year, after being found guilty of breaching section 31 ("Reckless conduct–category 1") of the Queensland Work Health and Safety Act 2011, in recklessly contributing to the death of a 62-year-old roofer in July 2014. Further, his company Multi-Run Roofing Pty Ltd was fined $1 million from a maximum $3 million after similarly being found guilty of reckless conduct in the District Court. The Court heard Gary Lavin was motivated by money when he chose not to install edge protection for the work – a decision resulting in the worker's six-metre fall and death. In a statement released yesterday, Queensland's Office of Industrial Relations said said the Maroochydore District Court ordered Multi-Run to pay the fine within six months, and ordered that Lavin's sentence be suspended after four months.

Lavin's brother Peter Raymond Lavin, and the latter's business Lavin Constructions Pty Ltd, were also charged with section 31 breaches, but but the jury was unable to reach a decision on their charges. The Lavins and their companies were the first entities to be charged with reckless conduct under Queensland's version of the model WHS Act. Source: OHS Alert

3 - Whose responsibility? The Conversation
In an article in yesterday's The Conversation, Associate Professor Diana Kelly, from the School of History and Politics, University of Wollongong considers the issue of responsibility in workplaces where traditional definitions of employment and employer obligations have been unwound. She considers the recent death of apprentice Dillon Wu, employed under the AiGroup's training and apprenticeship scheme but placed at Marshall Lethlean Industries. Neither is taking responsibility for the 20 year old's death.

The recent Senate committee inquiry into workplace deaths recommendeded the Queensland IM legislation become the national benchmark. Employer groups including the AiG strongly opposed this, as did the four Coalition members of the Senate inquiry. But, says Ass. Prof Kelly, "what penalties should apply is moot if laws provide no clarity on who can be held accountable as the employer. There is a pressing need to define employer responsibility when there is a "triangulated" employment relationship – such as between a worker, labour hire organisation and a host employer." She correctly says that this is an area where unions have been calling for greater clarity and specificity. 
Read more: Killed in the line of work duties: we need to fix dangerous loopholes in health and safety laws

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Asbestos News
Elders demand asbestos clean up at Wittenoom Gorge
Further to an item on the long-term consequences of asbestos mining on the people of the Pilbara (SafetyNet 472), the ABC reports that the country's traditional owners of land including the Wittenoom Gorge, who have one of the highest mortality rates from mesothelioma of any group, anywhere in the world, are demanding the site be cleaned up.

When the owners of Western Australia's Wittenoom mine closed it down in 1966, they walked away, leaving behind three million tonnes of asbestos tailings. Giant, slate-blue glaciers of tailings still stream down the sides of Wittenoom Gorge. The gorge is on the boundary of the Pilbara's stunning Karijini National Park, and even though the road is supposed to be closed to the public, it is easily accessible. Tourists come - but the Banjima traditional owners also regularly visit the site. Aboriginal families fish and swim in the picturesque waterhole just a few hundred metres from the tailings.

Almost all Banjima country has been lost to pastoral and mining leases or to Karijini National Park, and Wittenoom Gorge is one of the few places in this blisteringly hot, parched landscape where they can cool off. It's also culturally significant country.

The remediation of the Wittenoom mine has plagued state governments from both sides of politics for 50 years. A 1994 report commissioned by the West Australian Liberal government was damning, labelling the contamination as "disgraceful, even by the standards of the day". in 2006 a Labor state government report warned that tourists and Aboriginal people were at high to extreme risk of asbestos exposure. Still nothing was done - except another report in 2013! Read more: Elders demand asbestos tailings at Wittenoom Gorge be cleaned up. ABC News online.Listen to: The ghosts of Wittenoom: how asbestos changed the lives of the Pilbara's Aboriginal people (Part one), and The ghosts of Wittenoom: the lethal asbestos still putting Aboriginal lives at risk (Part two) on the ABC's Earshot

Read more on Asbestos in the home and Asbestos in the workplace

Trucking association now supports 'Safe Rates'
The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) has voted to support any future Federal Labor Government's plan to restore the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), or a similar Safe Rates body, as long as Labor's approach can improve safety and working conditions and reflects "real world costs and practices".

However, the ATA has said it will not support a "fixed price regime base on spreadsheets in a Fair Work Commission office", apparently referring to the former RSRT's operations. 

The former RSRT's first minimum payments order – aimed at ensuring truck drivers didn't have a financial incentive to speed, drive while fatigued or forego maintenance – commenced in April 2016, but the whole system was scrapped by the Coalition Government less than two weeks later.

The news comes just before the Transport Workers Union holds a Safe Rates Summit in Canberra, as part of its on-going Safe Rates Campaign. Source: OHS Alert

International union news
April 28: International Workers Memorial Day 
International Workers Memorial Day is held on 28th April each year and is observed all around the world. The theme this year is "dangerous substances – get them out of the workplace". The focus will mainly be on carcinogens but this can be adapted by unions and organisations to whatever is most relevant in their own area, as many substances can also cause illnesses such as asthma or dermatitis.

There is a dedicated page to the 2019 Workers Memorial Day on the UK unions TUC website and this will list all events being held on the day. Global updates, plus posters and resources, can be accessed here.


USA: State of the American workplace
In her last posting for he US Confined Space Blog, Jordan Barab gives a rundown on the state of American workplaces. It is a very sobering account:

"Despite the rosy picture some try to paint, the state of working Americans is not good. More than 5,000 workers were killed in the workplace last year –14 every day — and almost 150 each day die from occupational disease — illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos, silica and other hazardous substances. In addition, employers reported that over 3.5 million workers suffered workplace injuries and illnesses in 2017, and those numbers are significantly underestimated.

To enforce employers' obligation to provide a safe workplace, we have tiny, underfunded workplace safety agencies that struggle to enforce the law while they are increasingly restricted in what protections the can issue and how those protections can be enforced. In 2018, there are only 1,821 inspectors to inspect the 9 million workplaces under OSHA's jurisdiction. According to the AFL-CIO's estimate, federal OSHA has enough inspectors to inspect workplaces only once every 158 years. OSHA now has fewer inspectors than any time in its almost 50 year history, despite the fact that the number of workplaces has more than doubled since 1975. The entire annual OSHA budget is around $550 million (A$779m) while the cost of workplace injury and illness is estimated at $250 billion (A$354 b) to $360 billion (A$510 b) a year."

She also points out that most US workers don't have a significant voice at work: they don't belong to unions. She adds: "Meanwhile, the lack of unions, the increasingly fissured workplace and mandatory arbitration agreements prevent workers from defending themselves against abuse by unscrupulous employers." She also discusses how workers' health and safety - their very lives in fact - is a matter of politics. Like in Australia, conservative governments have a tendency to proudly boast proudly of repealing "job killing regulations" and "regulatory reform", in Jordan's words, "cruel euphemisms for taking life-saving protections away from workers, consumers and the environment." A very interesting and thought-provoking blog. 
Read more: Moving On. Goodbye Again. Confined Space Blog

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