Union News

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update

The infection rate has continued to 'flatten', and if the measures introduced are maintained, Australia may escape the deaths of thousands. At the time of posting, there had been 6400 cases of infection, 3598 has recovered, and 61 people had died.

7pm tonight! Live show: Coronavirus - working from home

Due to the coronavirus, and measures to control the infection, increasing numbers of workers have now been working from home. The members of the VTHC's OHS Unit certainly are! While this measure has been an important one in ensuring the rate of infection is reduced, it has created a number of challenges for those of us at home - health and safety and other challenges. 

Join us tonight at 7pm on the We Are Union: OHS reps Facebook page, as Sam and Luke broadcast from three separate home studios (using that term very loosely) to discuss the OHS implications of working from home. Special guest will be Rose Steele from the ASU Victorian Private Sector Branch who will help them shed light on this hot topic.

Ask Renata 

Last week the question was about whether someone who contracts COVID-19 through work would be covered by workers' compensation - here's an update:
During a Fair Work Commission conference last week the ACTU asked Comcare and state-based workcover schemes to declare COVID-19 an occupational disease within the health industry. The FWC conference had been convened on Thursday afternoon President Iain Ross in Melbourne into a union application for health workers to be eligible for paid leave on multiple occasions if vulnerable workers are required to self-isolate due to the COVID-19 outbreak. If the ACTU request is accepted, such a change would make it easier for health workers who suffer from the virus to receive workers' compensation. 

Unions have argued the FWC should urgently consider the position of health workers who are required to personally attend people with COVID-19, or are at high risk of contracting the disease. This includes health and community sector jobs such as in disability services and aged care, where the risk of exposure, according to the ACTU, is "clearly elevated".  Similar "presumptive" measures have been put in place for firefighters who acquire certain cancers, which are then deemed to have occurred in the course of their work. 

We will keep readers informed of progress in this area. 

This week's Ask Renata:
My organisation has now moved to a working from home arrangement, with all staff connecting remotely. We have had all employees complete a working from home checklist to ensure they are working in a safe space. One thing we have identified is that some employees do not have 'complete' first aid kits (they may have a small amount of medical supplies eg. bandaids) and some do not have fire extinguishers/fire blankets either. I have not been able to find clear information on what an employee should have and whether they need full first aid kits or extinguishers. Are you able to provide some advice around this? 
The duty on the employer to provide adequate facilities (under s21) is 'so far as is reasonably practicable' and the First Aid Compliance Code provides employers with two options to work out what they need to provide. Option 1 sets out the minimum requirements for workplaces (depending on the type of workplace) and Option 2 recommends that a risk assessment be done to establish what is needed in the workplace. 
So based on an assessment: the first aid needs for someone working from home would be basic, so I would check what people have and ask them to put something together. If someone has nothing then maybe the workplace could contribute (eg a one-off payment to get some basics). I don't think it needs to have as much in it as a workplace first aid kit - deciding what should go into it would depend on the types of (hopefully minor) injuries someone at home working might have. With regards to a fire extinguisher or fire blanket... again, what is the risk of a fire happening? A decision on the need for a fire extinguisher or blanket needs to be made on the basis of this assessment.  Remember too: our position is that the employer has the duty to provide what's necessary for people to work at home - so far as is reasonably practicable. 
Go to the First Aid Kits FAQ on the site, as well as the Working from Home information page. 
I am still getting fewer queries coming in: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. 
April 28: International Workers Memorial Day

International Workers’ Memorial Day or Workers’ Mourning Day is April 28. This is the international day of remembrance and action for workers killed, disabled, injured or made unwell by their work. Not surprisingly, the international focus this year is the global COVID-19 pandemic.  

'Virtual events' will take place all over the world in support of all the courageous workers who are putting their own health at risk by working with the ill, the elderly, providing essential goods and services, and in remembrance of the people who have died or become sick or injured while doing their job.

The VTHC will be live streaming an event through our We Are Union OHS Reps Facebook page which will be a combination of short speeches and videos to remember those killed in Victoria over the past year. We will provide updates in the upcoming editions of SafetyNet. For international news and events, check the ITUC 28 April Campaign website

PPE in short supply
With the ongoing Coronavirus COVID-19 situation, many health and community service workers are finding that appropriate PPE, such as masks and scrubs, is in short supply. Medical centres have posted on local social networks (such as the 'Good Karma Networks') asking for anyone handy with a sewing machine to make up scrubs, and this week The Age reported that a new personal protective equipment taskforce, which is set to develop its own detailed advice for local healthcare workers, is being established in Victoria. The taskforce will be headed by Victoria’s chief medical officer, Professor Andrew Wilson

Guidelines being developed could result in some pharmacy staff and people undertaking preliminary screening being advised not to wear any PPE at all, when able to avoid close contact with patients. PPE would instead be saved for those working in the highest-risk jobs, including cleaners in COVID-19 wards and maternity staff involved in births with women who could have the infectious disease.  Healthcare workers are at an increased risk, with at least 157 Victorian healthcare workers have already been infected with coronavirus.  Read more: Healthcare workers to be told who can and can't have protective equipment. The Age

This week's edition of the TUC's Risks ejournal also has items on the shortages healthcare workers are facing in the UK in the midst of that country's Coronavirus crisis: Health workers lose faith after PPE provision failures and Hospital staff 'left in tears' over lack of PPE.

Cancer Council Webinar: Supporting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

The Cancer Council will be running a series of free webinars. The first will be held this coming Thursday the 16th at 12pm. They will be discussing how employers can support and promote positive mental health and wellbeing in their workplace during the coronavirus pandemic. Topics will include mental health and remote work, the warning signs a colleague is struggling and how to start a conversation and mental health and wellbeing support. Panellists will include speakers from Beyond Blue, Mental health First Aid and R U OK? The Cancer Council invites anyone interested to register here (or share the details with their networks). 

Workers injured in Malmsbury incident

There have been media reports that a worker at Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct was allegedly attacked by an inmate on Monday and taken to hospital. Ambulance Victoria said one male staff member had an upper body injury as a result of the incident and was taken to hospital in Bendigo. The staff member was allegedly kicked in the head. Two other staff were also hurt in the alleged attack.

The CPSU tweeted about the incident, which was confirmed by a spokesman for the Department of Justice. "Violent behaviour or assaults at youth justice centres are absolutely unacceptable, and the safety of staff and young people is of utmost importance," the spokesman said. Source: The Age

Workers Solidarity Bulletin

Workers Solidarity is an organisation made up of rank and file union members and officials which was formed to fight back against the attacks on workers. The organisation is open to all workers, and has been producing a very informative fortnightly bulletin. Over the past few weeks, the focus of the free publication has been, not surprisingly, the current Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect on workers, both in Australia and internationally. Each edition of the bulletin has an in-depth article on an issue: in this edition it looks at the world wide struggle of migrant and undocumented workers. Also in the bulletin is a list of worker demands in the Covid-19 crisis, developed through discussions with Australian and international unions and workers' organisations.   
Access the latest edition, Edition number 13 here, where you can also access past editions and subscribe. 

Asbestos news

UK: Cancer care during the pandemic 
In these unprecedented times, populations the world over have been confronted with a terrifying new reality that has unravelled daily routines, reordered national priorities and thrown into disarray virtually every aspect of human life. In the UK, the country with the world’s worst incidence of asbestos cancer, the treatment of patients with mesothelioma – the signature asbestos cancer – as well as other asbestos-related cancers and respiratory diseases was disrupted as hospitals geared up to prepare for the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Showing a breath-taking ability to adapt to changing circumstances, UK asbestos victim support groups and charities began devising ways to continue serving their communities, some of which are discussed in this article. Read more: Cancer Care during a National Emergency , IBAS 

Eternit: Asbestos scandal 
Groups representing asbestos victims in Brazil and Asia have joined international campaigners to denounce moves by Eternit S.A., formerly Brazil’s largest asbestos conglomerate, to temporarily restart asbestos processing in Goiás State in order to export 24,000 tonnes of asbestos to Asian countries. Commenting on this matter, President Eliezer João de Souza of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed said: “It is an abomination that Eternit should try and avoid the Supreme Court ban to inflict more toxic fiber on unsuspecting workers and communities in Asia.” Campaigner Sugio Furuya, representing the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, hopes “common sense will prevail and that all exports will be suspended.”  Read more: ABREA media release [pdf]. Source: IBAS

Italy: Stephan Schmidheiny in the dock again
There was a small victory on January 24, 2020 in the long-standing battle to get justice for thousands of Italian asbestos victims when a Court in Vercelli in northern Italy ordered that Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, former owner of the Swiss Eternit asbestos group, face charges of voluntary murder (“omicidio volontario”) for the asbestos-related deaths of almost 400 people from the town of Casale Monferrato, the site of an Eternit asbestos-cement factory. The trial was scheduled to begin on November 27, 2020. Legal actions against the same defendant are also being pursued in other Italian jurisdictions over asbestos-related deaths of Eternit employees and local residents. Read more: IBAS  

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

International News

UK: Joint government, union and employer statement on COVID-19
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), employers’ group the CBI and union peak council the TUC have issued an unprecedented joint call for employers to ensure safe working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak. The statement says those companies remaining open must take practical steps to minimise the threat of workers being exposed to the virus wherever possible – including enabling social distancing.  The statement warns that if employers do not comply with the latest Public Health England guidance they face being hit with enforcement notices and potential closure. The joint appeal also encourages workers to raise any concerns about working conditions first with their employer or trade union. It notes that if concerns can’t be resolved locally, workers can approach the Health and Safety Executive or their local authority for help. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We all want businesses to get through this crisis and keep people in their jobs. But this must not come at the cost of safe working conditions. Employers and unions have a crucial role to play in stopping the spread of the virus, protecting our NHS and saving lives.” 
Read more: 
TUC news release. CBI news release. HSE news release. Source: Risks 942 

Burma: Garment factory workers demonstrate
On 3 April approximately 1500 garment workers from four factories in Yangon held a demonstration demanding that the factory owners temporarily close down the plants as a preventative measure to stop the spread of COVID-19 and give workers paid leave. More than 20,000 workers have lost their jobs in factories in Myanmar due to shortages of raw materials caused by the breakdown of global supply chains during the pandemic. Those who continue to work, despite a wide spread lockdown, are increasingly concerned about their health. A representative from the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma said “We are now demanding to negotiate with the boss. We are appealing to him to shut down the factory for the entire month of April and pay wages and salaries for this month.” Source: Workers Solidarity Bulletin

Global: Unions call for universal social protection fund 
The international trade union confederation ITUC has called for a global fund to protect public health, social protection and jobs in poor nations. The call came after the global union body’s survey found that while wage protection and income support are provided in many G20 and OECD countries, working people in Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas have lost jobs and incomes and could face widespread famine unless there is urgent global co-ordination and fiscal stimulus measures.

“While G20 governments have committed to a record stimulus of US$5 trillion, it risks excluding emerging and developing countries,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said. “We cannot just sit by and wait for the pandemic to attack countries in Africa and Latin America with the same ferocity that it has elsewhere without a plan of action. Fifty-seven per cent of governments surveyed in Africa and 35 per cent surveyed in the Americas are not providing wage protection and income support for workers. We must be prepared with all the tools at our disposal to support these countries – many of whom the world, including advanced economies, relies on for food and materials through global supply chains.”

The ITUC is calling for support for a Global Fund for Universal Social Protection for the poorest countries to support health care and income support, and for the IMF to co-ordinate fiscal stimulus, issue additional special drawing rights (SDRs), set up a Trust Fund into which advanced economies can re-allocate their holdings of SDRs, and earmark the Trust Fund for public health, social protection and jobs. “Only by working together with social dialogue between unions, employers and governments and the commitment for global co-ordination will people retain trust in governments. This is the basis for a post-pandemic future that leaves no one behind,” said Sharan Burrow. 
Read more: ITUC news release, ITUC Global Covid-19 Survey key findings [pdf] and 7 April ITUC action round-up. Source: Risks 942


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