Union News

Ask Renata

Hello Renata,

I work in a bushfire affected area. What duties does my employer have to me and my fellow workers in these circumstances?

Employers have duties to employees under the general duties of care in the OHS Act. The employer must, so far as is reasonably, provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. If a workplace is situated in a fire prone area then the employer must be prepared to take the necessary actions to protect the health and safety of employees. The hazards associated with bushfires include smoke, toxic fumes, potential asbestos exposure, and a serious risk to safety if caught up in a fire situation.

What does this mean employers must do? For a start it means not ordering workers to remain on site while bushfires burn (as a McDonald's store ordered its workers to do recently!). Employers in bushfire affected areas need to:

  1. Ensure they are actively monitoring the situation;
  2. Ensure they are monitoring smoke and other airborne contaminant levels in the workplace;
  3. Develop and implement a bushfire emergency plan. This must be done in consultation with HSRs (if no HSRs, then with the workers). The Victorian CFA has developed a guide for businesses on the development of such a plan. See: A Guide for businesses: developing a Bushfire Emergency Plan in Victoria [pdf];
  4. Ensure all workers are provided with the necessary information, supervision and training to recognise when they may be at risk and what to do in an emergency.
  5. Take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that 'others' - eg clients, customers, neighbours - are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of their business. 

UnionsACT is alerting employers about the risks of bushfire smoke, saying there is no safe exposure level for air pollution like smoke. The National Pollutant Inventory, of the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy, advises that no level of PM2.5 (smoke) is safe to someone’s health, which is why UnionsACT is reminding employers of their legal duty to provide a safe working environment to their employees, including volunteers.  The union peak council is producing an information sheet.

Remember: if you or any of your colleagues believe your health or safety is at immediate risk, then stop work, and get out.

More information on Fire and Emergency Evacuation.

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

VTHC OHS Unit news:

New HSR Video on our Facebook page

Check out Safety Sam's new video on our Facebook page: Ian Haysom - Disability support worker. Ian is a HSR and disability support worker in Melbourne's north. Ian's new employer wants to drastically reduce the number of HSRs. Here's why he knows that's a bad idea, and what he plans to do about it.

Webinar next week - Wednesday December 18

Tune in at 7pm, next Wednesday evening on our Facebook page for the final Webinar for the year. Sam, Luke and Renata will be available to go through some of the unanswered questions we've had this year, and those participating can also send in anything on their minds. See you next week!

Asbestos news

J&J: Testing Confirms No Asbestos in Baby Powder
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has said testing has confirmed that Johnson's Baby Powder is safe and free of asbestos.  The company said "our talc is safe and asbestos free, and these 150-plus tests, and the tests we routinely do to ensure the quality and safety of our talc-based products, are consistent with the results from renowned independent research labs over the past 40 years."

On October 18, J&J recalled one lot of talcum powder. The USA FDA said that testing "has found that a sample from one lot of the product contains chrysotile fibers, a type of asbestos."

On October 29 the company responded that additional testing had confirmed there was no asbestos in the tested bottle.  Last week J&J said its investigation "concluded that the most probable root causes for the FDA's reported results were either test sample contamination and/or analyst error" at the FDA's contracted lab, AMA Analytical Services Inc.

More information on Asbestos: In the Workplace and In the Home.

Are the days of manufactured stone numbered?

As more and more evidence of the dangers of manufactured stone emerges, regulators around Australia are introducing regulations and increasing the required controls, it may be that other factors will lead to the end of its use in this country. Numbers of young workers have been diagnosed with silicosis, and some have already died of the condition. Unions and health experts maintain the product needs to be banned - it's not manufactured here, it's a recent 'innovation' and it's certainly not a necessary product. The Greens, in a media statement released a few days ago, have revealed that manufactured stone is now considered so dangerous the industry that sells it can’t get product liability insurance. In a parliamentary inquiry into silicosis, representatives from the industry admitted they can get insurance for the product.

Greens MP David Shoebridge said: “The industry has just admitted on record it can’t get insurance. This is a global first and can’t be ignored. If a building product can’t get insurance because of its risk of killing people then it shouldn’t be for sale." He said, “Insurers are looking at the long game and they can see that manufactured stone is a product that will bring a surge of future litigation.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer we must act now to prevent further deaths and ban cutting manufactured stone," Mr Shoebridge said.“We need to put the lives of workers above the demand for shiny bench-tops and rapidly implement a ban on manufactured stone benchtops.”
Read more: Greens media release; The Australian: A kitchen to die for 

Jobs at the Victorian Trades Hall Council

The VTHC has a number of new and exciting jobs going in the projects team working on the pre-apprenticeship and women in male dominated industries programs. If you or someone you know is interested, please see details below.

For further information on the roles please contact: Barbara Huggins, Program Coordinator. PH: 9659 3511 Mobile: 0458 752 147

International Union News

USA: Union Construction Jobs Are Safer Than Nonunion

It may not be news to those in the business, but new numbers back up what IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and other union construction members already know: there’s safety in a union.

New York’s Building Trades Employers Association, which represents more than 1,300 contractors in New York City, recently released new statistics using data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It found that union construction workers in the Big Apple are five times less likely to suffer a fatal accident compared to their nonunion counterparts.

“IBEW members and employers have safety baked into every aspect of the job; it’s par for the course for us,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “It’s always great to see our experiences backed up with solid data."

"[This study] shows that year in and year out, union construction firms are the safest in New York City. That’s because when you have a skilled and experienced union workforce, the quality of work is better and safety is not just prioritized – it’s part of the culture. These statistics make that clear,” said BTEA CEO Lou Coletti in silive.com.

According to the data, there were 18 fatalities in 2018, with only four on BTEA sites. The union contractors also received 33 per cent fewer violations per project than their nonunion counterparts, and 25 per cent fewer stop work orders.

“The results of this study aren’t surprising at all,” said Local 3 journeyman Robert Holst. “While every construction job has inherent dangers, it is the training that union building trades members receive during their apprenticeship that makes the difference in regards to a safe job. … There is no substitute for a union apprenticeship program.”

The findings echo others.  A January 2019 report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that, “workers die as a result of employer’s disregard for workers’ health and safety and [the report] notes the difference between construction fatality numbers on union versus nonunion job sites, proving that unionized construction jobs keep New York’s workers safer.”  The report, titled “Deadly Skyline,” also stated that while industry deaths decreased in New York City, they increased in the state as whole. This was despite a construction boom in the five boroughs.
Read more: IBEW media release

Amazon sales days protests staged across UK
The union GMB has staged Black Friday and Cyber Monday protests across the UK to express its ‘anger’ at the ‘appalling’ treatment of Amazon workers. Demonstrations took place outside Amazon warehouses in Bolton, Manchester, Warrington, Rugeley, Coalville, Peterborough, Newport and Sheffield and in London on 29 November and 2 December. The union said larger numbers of Amazon workers in fulfilment centres are suffering serious injuries requiring hospital treatment, while pregnant women workers report being treated appallingly.

Mick Rix, GMB national officer, said: “The conditions our members work under at various Amazon sites across the UK are appalling. Workers are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances.” He added: “Amazon has spent a fortune on fluffy adverts saying what a great place it is to work. Why not spend the money making their warehouses less dangerous places to work? Amazon workers want Jeff Bezos to know they are people – not robots. It’s about time Mr Bezos showed empathy with the very people that have helped build his vast empire and make sure it is not a Black Friday for Amazon workers.” Unions across Europe also held protests at Amazon facilities on 29 November.
Read more: GMB news release. TUC alert. Common Dreams. Source: Risks 926

Austria: Glyphosate ban set to take effect in January
The Austrian government’s plan to ban sales and use of the cancer-linked herbicide glyphosate from 1 January 2020 looks set to go ahead. Neither the European Commission nor EU member states have challenged formally the ban on all uses of glyphosate adopted by Austria's parliament in July this year, paving the way for it to come into effect next month. In Austria, the move is supported by a cross-party coalition in parliament, civil society, environmentalists, small farmer organisations and trade unions.

Should the ban now go ahead, Austria would become the first EU country to ban the world's most widely used herbicide, best known as Monsanto's 'Roundup'. However, global farm and food union federation IUF, which has called for a total ban on glyphosate worldwide, has concerns the move could still be frustrated. “While glyphosate maker Bayer/Monsanto had immediately indicated its intention to seek to overturn the ban, and the European Commission questioned its compatibility with the rules of the single market, neither the Commission nor any of the Member States registered their formal opposition during the mandatory 'standstill period', which expired at the end of November,” IUF noted. “The caretaker government's agricultural ministry and the powerful farm lobby linked to the conservative Austrian People's Party, however, have suggested that there may still be procedural grounds for objecting to the law; opponents of the ban fear it could catalyse similar action in other EU countries.”

IUF has been critical of the EU’s inaction on glyphosate risks. In February is said while the campaign to stop glyphosate reauthorisation in the European Union failed, “it succeeded brilliantly in exposing the agrochemical industry's grip on the regulatory agencies tasked with protecting public health and the environment.” A briefing from the union body concluded: “Now is the time to step up organising on the broadest possible basis at national, European and international level for an immediate ban on the most toxic agrochemicals, targeted reductions in pesticide use and comprehensive support for a transition to socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture”. Read more: IUF news release. Source: Risks 926

Europe: Unions welcome extension to carcinogens roadmap
Unions have joined safety organisations and regulators across Europe in signing up to an extension of the EU Roadmap on Carcinogens. Europe-wide trade union organisation ETUC said the objective of this voluntary action scheme is to raise awareness amongst workers and employers about the risks of exposure to carcinogens. The initiative was first launched in May 2016 under the Dutch EU Presidency, and has been extended each time the presidency switched to another nation. Per Hilmersson, the ETUC deputy general secretary responsible for health and safety at work who signed the new covenant at a conference held by the Finnish EU Presidency, said: “The EU Roadmap on Carcinogens shows the willingness of Member States, the European Commission, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, and the social partners to work together to prevent work-related cancers.” ETUC said the activities developed by the many partners of the Roadmap aim to provide employers with information on evaluation and risk management methods, to raise the awareness of companies regarding the risks of exposure to carcinogens, and to deepen the exchange of good practices which already exist in this field. It said with more than 100,000 deaths each year in the EU, occupational cancers are the greatest cause of deaths due to bad working conditions.
Read more:  ETUC news release. EU Roadmap on Carcinogens Convenant and dedicated website.

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