Union News

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update

Over the past week and a bit, Australia's infection rate has been under 1 per cent, demonstrating that the strict physical distancing rules are generally being adhered to and achieving results. In some states there have been no new cases in a couple of days. At the time of posting, there had been a total of 6647 cases of infection (an increase of just 247 since the last edition). Of these, 4685 had recovered, and 74 people had died.

The numbers of infections and fatalities could have been much higher had our governments not introduced measures quickly. This has been demonstrated by the appalling numbers in both the UK and the USA where governments were slow to introduce controls (see items, below). While there is some level of frustration that physical isolation measures are still in place despite the infection rate decreasing, it's extremely important that we maintain these so as to ensure that we don't end up having a second round of infections as has happened in countries such as Singapore and South Korea. 
For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site.

10.30 am, April 28: International Workers Memorial Day

International Workers’ Memorial Day or Workers’ Mourning Day is April 28 - next Tuesday. 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 the 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. The speakers at the event will be: 

  • Mr Luke Hilakari - Secretary, Victorian Trades Hall Council
  • The Hon. Daniel Andrews - Premier, State of Victoria
  • The Hon. Jill Hennessey - Minister for Workplace Safety
  • Mr Colin Radford - CEO, WorkSafe Victoria
  • Dr Lana Cormie - Industrial Manslaughter legislation activist, and widow of Charles Howkins, who with Jack Brownlee, was killed when a trench collapsed in Delacombe in March 2018

The speeches will be followed by a video of union officials and activists reading the details of the 35 workers killed at work in the past year and lighting a candle, and wreath laying at the Trades Hall and at other locations. Those participating in the live stream will be asked to put their boots out to remember the workers who have lost their lives, to take a photo and post this to the FB memorial service page. 

Please join us on the 28th of April at 10:30, to remember those who have died as a result of work, but fight like hell for the living. The event should wrap up at about 11.15 am.

Please register for the live stream here, to make sure you get a reminder from Facebook. For international April 28 news and events, check the ITUC 28 April Campaign website

New OHS job at the VTHC 

The Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) is looking for someone who wants to make a difference.

We are seeking to employ a WorkWell Project Organiser on a short-term contract (until July 2022) to work in our Carlton office and/or remotely as part of our OHS Team. The WorkWell Organiser will be responsible for working with the ACTU and partner unions to deliver a new project increasing mental health safety and awareness for workers in Victoria. The WorkWell Project Organiser will provide outreach and support to unions, mental health advocates and OHS delegates in over 100 workplaces as they learn how to identify and manage psychosocial hazards.

Applications close 5pm AEST, May 1, 2020. To find out more regarding duties and job requirements, go to this page on the Ethical Jobs website. 

Ask Renata 

My question is regarding emergency response drills. Is there a legislative requirement as to how many drills are we required to conduct on a non major hazard manufacturing facility? Also, in current COVID-19 and social distancing circumstances, if the number of drills cannot be conducted, what is the provision or instructions from the regulators? 
There is no set number of mandated emergency response drills that an employer must perform, particularly in non major hazard facilities (where this would form part of the Safety Case an employer must have in place).
The general duties under the OHS Act apply, however. That is, the employer (and the person with management and control of a workplace) must ensure the workplace, and the means of entering and exiting it, are so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health.  The employer must also provide such information, instruction, supervision and training to employees as is necessary.
So, while there is guidance, there are no set numbers. However in my view in these current circumstances, the employer needs to review the emergency response plans to ensure that physical distancing is maintained, and that if there aren't the normal number of workers present, this be taken into account and the plan reviewed and amended accordingly. Things that may need to be considered:
  • are there adequate numbers of fire wardens in place?
  • is the organisation clear on how many workers (and others) are on site at any given time, and where they are (if workplace arrangements have been changed)?
  • are the normal evacuation routes accessible and how will the employer ensure physical distancing can be maintained during evacuation?
  • are the locations where people need to rally adequate and how will the employer ensure physical distancing can be maintained while people rally there?
  • are all the workers aware of any changes that have had to be made to the evacuation/emergency response plan?
If in doubt or you need to get more information, contact the WorkSafe Advisory service. General advice on emergency evacuations.
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. 

Asbestos news

USA: Victims’ Verdict in NY Appeal
On April 9, 2020, for the first time a verdict awarded by a New York jury in a case over toxic exposure to asbestos-contaminated talc was upheld by a panel of the First Department of New York’s Supreme Court, Appellate Division in a case brought on behalf of mesothelioma victim Florence Nemeth and her husband. Between 1960 and 1971, Mrs. Nemeth had been “exposed to billions or trillions of asbestos fibers” contained in Desert Flower Dusting Powder on a daily basis. She was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in November, 2012 and died in March, 2016. On August 22, 2017, the jury had awarded the Nemeths a total of $16.5 million, of which the defendant in that case was ordered to pay ~$3m; the panel increased this amount to $3.3m. See: Nemeth v Brenntag North America et al. Source: IBAS  

Colombia: Sibaté's asbestos legacy 
A newly published paper details a study conducted in the Colombian town of Sibaté; the Colombian and Italian authors of this text identified a cluster of mesothelioma cases in Sibaté, the location of an asbestos-cement factory which had been operational since 1942. This study was, said the authors, the first to analyse the potential impact of asbestos at the population level and could inform discussions about the hazard posed by asbestos to other Colombian communities where asbestos plants had been sited. The dangerous use of industrial asbestos cement waste within urban areas was discussed. Read more: Commentary Epidemiological research as a driver of prevention: the Sibaté studySource: IBAS 

Italy: Supreme Court verdict
On April 15, 2020, the fourth criminal section of Italy’s Supreme Court convicted the defendant, a former employer, of manslaughter over occupational asbestos exposure. The Court said that even though the asbestos was at “very low doses”, the exposure led to the death from pleural mesothelioma of a worker who had been employed in dismantling railway carriages. The first judgment in this case had been handed down by the Court of Vercelli and was subsequently confirmed by the Turin Court of Appeal. Read more: Sentenza: l’amianto è cancerogeno anche a dosi minime; condannato datore di lavoro [Judgment: asbestos is carcinogenic even at minimal doses; convicted employer]. Source: IBAS.

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

International News

UK: COVID-19 causes havoc in multiple workplaces
With the COVID-19 crisis being so much more serious in the UK, with infections at over 120,000 and more than 16,000 deaths (not including deaths of people in nursing homes), huge numbers of workers find themselves at high risk of infection just doing their jobs. These are workers in the transport, retail, prison and healthcare sectors in particular, but also many workers whose jobs have been designated 'essential'. Problems include shortages of PPE, low levels of testing, and poor work practices. Below is a snapshot of some of the current problems. For more detail, go to the April 16 edition of Risks 943.

  • Transport union RMT has advised tens of thousands of workers in the rail and bus sector to stop work on safety grounds if employers do not provide adequate protection. The union says workers should stop work and invoke the “safe work procedure if employers do not follow key protection measures” including only conducting activities related to essential services, avoiding group and close proximity work and maintaining two metre separation of workers. Where this isn’t possible on essential jobs “then personal protective equipment such as gloves, eye defenders and masks [are] to be utilised by all workers in close proximity to provide mutual assurance and the time spent within two metres must be minimised and only for the purpose of the task. If full appropriate PPE is not available then work should not commence.”

  • RMT is also demanding that companies install perspex screens to protect their bus members after some reported that what they'd been provided with was no better than a shower curtain screwed to the ceiling. 

  • Shortages of PPE are so acute that one of the UK's biggest unions, Unite, has called for the ‘rapid appointment’ of a minister with responsibility for PPE delivery. Vital protective equipment is not getting to the NHS and social care frontline, nor to other workers such as those in transport, postal services and many other sectors. 

  • Workers in many call centres are being put at risk with a recent survey finding that pre-existing health and safety concerns were being exacerbating by the current coronavirus crisis. Half of all workers surveyed reported they were working face-to-face with a co-worker; over a third had been required to have face-to-face team meetings; and a similar proportion described being required to engage in team ‘huddles'.

  • The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has warned that fire and rescue personnel urgently need coronavirus testing, as services have lost up to 12 per cent of their firefighters and control staff to self-isolation. According to the FBU almost 3,000 fire and rescue staff are in self-isolation and unable to work, representing 5.1 per cent of the UK’s overall fire and rescue workforce.

  • At least 19 NHS workers had died after contracting the coronavirus.  

  • The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has advised nurses without appropriate PPE, who have ‘exhausted all other measures’, can refuse to treat patients. The RCN has urged nurses without adequate PPE to consider delaying treatment, using alternative practices and refusing to work if ‘escalation steps’, such as consulting a line manager and documenting concerns, do not resolve the situation. In guidance published on 9 April RCN advised: “Ultimately, if you have exhausted all other measures to reduce the risk and you have not been given appropriate PPE in line with the UK Infection Prevention and Control guidance, you are entitled to refuse to work. This will be a last resort and the RCN recognises what a difficult step this would be for nursing staff.”  RCN news release and Refusal to treat guide.

  • Union slams lack of PPE for Border Force staff. The PCS union says they need to be equipped with PPE as a matter of urgency. The call follows a second death at Heathrow reportedly from COVID-19. PCS, which represents border force staff in customs and passport control, has demanded management take action to protect members from the coronavirus and has slammed a ‘lax attitude’ to safety.


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