Union News

Latest reported workplace fatalities

Since the last journal, WorkSafe has reported on two workplace fatalities in Victoria.

The first was a self-employed builder who died last Wednesday after he fell about three metres at residential property at Mead, near Kerang on Monday last week.  According to the WorkSafe media release, the 53-year-old was working on the roof of an extension at the time of the incident.

In the second incident, a man was killed after he was thrown from an ATV when it rolled down hill at a Glenaroua property in central Victoria last Friday. WorkSafe believes the 86-year-old was not wearing a seatbelt when the side by side vehicle slipped down a rocky outcrop. 

WorkSafe is investigating both fatalities, which bring the number of workers killed in Victoria this year to 25. The VTHC extends our sincerest condolences to the families, friends and work colleagues of the workers killed.   

TONIGHT! Wednesday May 13: Webinar on Occupational Disease  

Tonight (Wednesday May 13) tune in to our latest webinar on Occupational Disease. Sam and Luke, the VTHC Safety Boyz will  be joined by a very special guest, Professor Tim Driscoll, from the School of Public Health at Sydney University, to discuss how the law covers occupational diseases, who is most at risk and what we (and HSRs) can do about it.  When? Tonight, 7pm on the We Are Union HSRs Facebook page.  

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update  

Latest figures  
As of this morning, there had been 6,964 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 97 people have died - no increase since last week. These figures highlight the success of measures taken - but it is not time to become complacent, with last week's outbreak in Melbourne meatworks Cedar Meats accounting for 85 new infections (see below). Nevertheless, due to numbers being low, all of Australia, including Victoria, has begun to relax some of the measures.

This week Premier Daniel Andrews announced that there would be a staggered return of students to schools, with Prep, grades one & two, any years 11 & 12 returning May 26. Years 3 to 10 would go back on June 9. However measures such as staggered drop offs and pick ups, and lunch/breaks, will be introduced. Further, staff who may be vulnerable to the virus will be exempted from returning.

New cases and deaths worldwide are still on the increase, with some countries not yet reaching the 'peak'. Numbers of infections and deaths in countries such as the USA, Russia and now Brazil are an example of the ongoing seriousness of the pandemic. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site. 

Cedar Meats update  
The number of COVID-19 infections associated with Cedar Meats reached 85 this week. Unfortunately the case illustrates how badly things can go wrong if there are any shortcomings in the system. It appears that the Department of Health and Human Services initially just contacted the Brisbane-based  labour hire company which employed the person diagnosed with the infection. It was several days before Cedar Meats, located in Brooklyn and where the man actually worked, was notified. It also appears that the first case was initially diagnosed when a worker presented to hospital after a workplace incident in which he suffered a severed finger.

The AMIEU, the union covering meatworkers, has been monitoring COVID-19 cases in the industry. With regard to the outbreak at Cedar Meats, it says, "Only a small number of those who were working there at the time of the outbreak are members of the union. However, we have sought information from all of the companies about pay and protection of the all of the workers, both those affected by COVID-19 and those stood down." It adds that the union has been told "the company had in place employee temperature devices, hand sanitation and other preventative measures. The outbreak shows that this is not sufficient. The AMIEU is willing to meet with Cedar Meats to work with them to reach agreement on the necessary controls including physical distancing, appropriate barriers where practicable, work processes, personal protective equipment and vaccinations if and when they become available."  Sources: The Age; AMIEU website  

Ask Renata  

This week there are two, brief, working from home questions which came in from two separate people.  

1 - Hi Renata   

Is it necessary to organise evacuation drills when working from home? 

Although the employer has duties under the OHS Act to employees who are working from home, organising or requiring employees to do emergency evacuation drills is, in my view, not necessary. The employer must provide for employees, a working environment that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health - even when they are working from home. So as well as checking out, or asking the employee to check the work station - using a checklist for example. 

Many employers are also asking employees to make sure there is a safe way to get out in case of an emergency, and asking them to check out trip hazards. Where would they go?  For workers who live in multi-storey apartment buildings, this is an important consideration and something they need to get clear. I have seen advice that, in a two storey home, for example, it is preferable that the 'home office' be set up on the ground floor. This should be part of the checklist that employers need to get their employees to fill out before they start working from home. (For more information and examples of checklists, check out our Teleworking page

2 - Hi Renata 

With working from home and a lot more online working, I have noticed that my eyes, wrists and um, bottom, are getting sore as I keep at it for hour after hour. Do you have any lovely guides or links to guides which provide best practice for not getting sore eyes, wrists - and the other part?   

Well.. funny, but serious! I too have noticed that although the VTHC has set us all up with proper monitors, keyboards and even a foot rest, I am getting very sore shoulders, neck and.. bottom too. I have been using my own office chair, so that may be the problem. In any case, the kind subscriber who sent in the above question then later provided me with a copy of some advice developed by Deakin University for their office staff. The leaflet Office Exercises [pdf] provides a number of suggested exercises someone who is seated for a long period can do. (Thank you Angus!)

The 'trick' of course, is to remember to stop regularly, and do the exercises as recommended - whether at home or in the office.  

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

Vale Jack Mundey 

Veteran unionist and environmentalist Jack Mundey, who campaigned to protect some of Sydney's most famous areas from development, died this week aged 90. He was secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in the late 60' and early 70's, which was best known for its green bans - 42 in all - stopping several developments at The Rocks, and saving many historic sites. His actions and those of the union members who refused to work on projects they deemed to be environmentally or socially undesirable provided the inspirations for the world's first Green Party, established in Germany. He was also an activist for worker rights, indigenous rights and also social justice causes such as affordable housing. 

Throughout the 1960s, Mundey led thousands of militant builders’ labourers in courageous and often dangerous campaigns for better work conditions. These workers were poorly paid and conditions were very unsafe. Once, as reported in the Guardian, BLF militants heaved a flimsy substandard work shed into a large hole on a construction site.  Concrete pours were stopped until basic demands were met. 

Mundey was elected secretary of the BLF in 1968, and during the period of his leadership, union meetings were translated into seven languages to meet the needs of members, the majority of whom were migrants. For the first time, women were admitted as members and organisers of the union. Later Mundey was clear that without this fight for the dignity and safety of workers, he and fellow leaders would not have won rank and file support for their green bans. 

A 'life-long radical', he will be remembered by many as a true Australian hero. He inspired many and his work lives on. Vale Jack Mundey. 

Read more: ABC online, The Guardian, CFMMEU media release.- including a video with an interview of Jack Mundey himself and historical footage.   

Asbestos news  

QLD: Young woman's childhood exposure fatal  
In a tragic example of how lethal asbestos is, Mackay woman Brooke MacDonald, 27, has died after a battle with cancer. The young mother was terminally ill with what was believed to be an asbestos-related cancer that she contracted in primary school. The young mum and nurse was suing the state for $3.8 million. Her supreme court claim alleged that exposure to asbestos at Dundula State School in 1998 and 2002 caused her to develop peritoneal mesothelioma. Her case against the State Government was due to go to trial in June. Source: The Daily Mercury Mackay 

James Hardie: Toxic company 
Most Australians and all asbestos activists will know of building materials manufacturer James Hardie (JH) - once our own 'asbestos giant'. The company has been in the news again this week: Reacting to adverse business conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, JH has announced its intention to scrap dividends, shut down selected operations in the US, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, make hundreds of workers redundant, cut back on capital spending and make its regular payment to the Australian Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund quarterly instead of annually in July. The company’s disbursement to the Fund is to cover asbestos-related claims made by individuals injured by exposure to JH asbestos-containing products. Read moreJames Hardie scraps dividends amid slump. Source: IBAS  

Italy: Sardinia's toxic legacy 
Members of an association representing asbestos victims in Sardinia have urged regional leaders, politicians and councillors in the Oristano region of Sardinia to use the coronavirus emergency as an “opportunity to plan and urgently implement an extraordinary environmental remediation plan, which includes the remediation of buildings with the presence of asbestos and remediation of illegal landfills…” to address the toxic legacy which persists in the aftermath of decades of asbestos manufacturing and use on Sardinia. The goal would be to remediate all asbestos on the island by 2030.
Read more: C’è un’altra emergenza, l’amianto: Regione, è ora di farla sparire [There is another emergency, asbestos: Region, it's time to make it disappear]. Source: IBAS. 

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

International Union news 

UK: Don't rely on goodwill to keep staff safe 
As the prime minister prepares to set out how the UK will start emerging from lockdown, the TUC has warned that it can’t be left to the goodwill of employers to keep workers safe. Describing draft government guidance as worrying, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “What the government is proposing amounts to little more than the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) crossing its fingers that employers will act responsibly and keep their workers and the wider community safe.”

Writing in the Guardian, she noted: “Actions will be left to employers’ discretion. Risk control measures such as social distancing and handwashing should be taken ‘where possible’. There is a blank space where the proposed policies on PPE should be. Without a big shift from the government, when lockdown eases bad bosses will be able to expose their workers – and all of us – to infection without fear of consequences.” O’Grady said the TUC was proposing a new approach, one that supports good employers to get it right but is clear about the requirements of every employer, and clear about the penalties for getting it wrong. It wants an explicit requirement for a new coronavirus risk assessment in every workplace, “done in agreement with recognised unions in the workplace. Union health and safety reps are experts who have special legal rights to investigate workplace hazards. And where there isn’t yet a union, management should consult with staff.” 
Read more: The GuardianTUC proposals on ensuring a safe return to work, 4 May 2020. TUC video on coronavirus and employment rights at workCovid-19: How racism kills, TUC blog, 1 May 2020. Source: Risks 946 

Canada: Union anger as outbreak meat plant reopens  
The union for workers at a beef-packing plant in Alberta, Canada, that has been the site of the largest single Covid-19 outbreak in North America has expressed anger after regulators refused to back its call to stop the plant reopening. There have been over 900 cases of the virus at the Cargill plant south of Calgary, which employs 2,000 workers. One worker in her 60s died, and her husband was hospitalised with the illness. Cargill announced on 20 April it was shutting down operations for two weeks at the plant, which provides about 40 per cent of the beef processing in Canada. However, it said the plant would reopen on 4 May.

Thomas Hesse with the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) Local 401 said workers are scared, and the union had tried to get a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. “Unfortunately, the situation has not been resolved. At this moment, we have been unable to convince any government or legal authority to have the courage to step in and ensure the plant remains closed until safety is assured.” Hesse said on the union's website. “Our lawyers are looking at new strategies.”

The union held a rally on the edge of the property on 4 May as the plant reopened and handed out black face masks emblazoned with ‘Safety First’. On its website, the union told its members: “If you are healthy and have been called and cleared to return to work, you should report to your supervisor. If you don't really think it is safe to work, then don't.” The union surveyed more than 600 workers in four languages over the weekend; 85 per cent reported they are afraid to return to work, and 80 per cent said they did not want the plant to reopen. UFCW’s Hesse said: “It's ridiculous that hundreds of workers can be required to pour into the plant to kill 4,000 to 5,000 cattle a day, while if you climb on the monkey bars in your local park you're going to get a ticket.” Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the decision to reopen the plant was “reckless, irresponsible and, I would say, morally repugnant.” 
Read more: UFCW Local 401 news releaseAFL news release and related news release  Source: Risks 946 

USA: 6,000 meat workers have contracted COVID-19  
The situation for meat workers in the United States appears to be even more serious than that in Canada. At the end of April at least 6,000 meat workers in the USA had contracted COVID-19 at 80 different facilities in 26 states resulting in several temporary plant closures. Strikes and mass sickouts have also erupted at meatworks around the US with workers concerned about their health and safety. Donald Trump reacted by signing an Executive Order using the Defense Production Act to force processing plants to stay open as meat shortages started to become apparent. The President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union commented “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”  Source: Workers' Solidarity Bulletin #15 (can be downloaded as a pdf on this page)

 

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