Union News

Fatality near Ballarat

It is with great sadness that we report that a worker was killed on a site in Golden Point, near Ballarat, on Monday morning. Early reports suggest that the man, an electrician, was on a roof at the time of the incident. Police and WorkSafe Victoria are now investigating the circumstances surrounding the death. The VTHC sends its sincerest condolences to the man's family, friends and work colleagues. This fatality brings Victoria's number of workers killed this year to 26. No worker should die at work.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update  

Latest figures  
As of this morning, there had been 7142 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia. 103 people have died - an increase of three since the last week. There have not been any new 'clusters' in Victoria - but the recent outbreak at Brooklyn meatworks Cedar Meats has now led to 111 cases. WorkSafe Victoria and the union have been cooperating, developing guidance, and ensuring proper measures are taken to ensure that risk of further infections is minimised.  

The pandemic is far from reaching its peak around the world however, with the number of people infected now over 5.5 million. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site. 

COVID-19 return-to-work guidance

1 - Guidance from the TUC: Return to safe workplaces

If employers want workers to return to their normal place of work, they must make sure it’s done safely, to protect the health of workers, customers and the public. A new TUC Education online publication gives a step-by-step how-to guide. It goes in turn through Covid-19-specific risk assessments, employers’ duties (obviously based on the UK laws), consultation, and steps to address risks to all workers, including vulnerable workers, and to get approval for plans before going ahead. It also goes through the need to communicate the Covid-19 plan to the workforce, and for employers to publish their workplace plan on the company website. There’s lots more, and it is easy to navigate – have a look. Return to safe workplacesTUC Education, May 2020.

2 - ILO Guidance

Two guidance documents for creating safe and effective return-to-work conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Guidance Note states that return to work policies need to be informed by a "human-centred approach that puts peoples’ rights at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies". Social dialogue – bringing together governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations – will be critical in creating the effective policies and trust needed for a safe return to work. The note draws on specialist ILO guidance documents and International Labour Standards, which provide a normative framework for creating a safe return to work. 

Workers must feel safe at their workplaces, both from risks directly related to COVID-19, and indirect risks, including psychosocial issues and ergonomic risks related to working in awkward positions or with poor facilities when working from home, the guidelines say. They should have the right to remove themselves from any situation “which they have reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to their life or health”, and “shall be protected from any undue consequences”.

Each specific work setting, job or group of jobs should be assessed before returning to work and preventive measures should be implemented to ensure the safety and health of all workers according to a hierarchy of controls. For workers staying at home, the risk of infection in a work context can be eliminated; for all workers returning to workplaces, priority should be given to options that substitute hazardous situations for less hazardous ones, such as organizing virtual instead of physical meetings. When this is not possible a mix of engineering and organizational control measures will usually be required to prevent contagion, The specific measures to implement are specific to each workplace, but may consist of installing physical barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards, improving ventilation, or adopting flexible working hours, in addition to cleaning and hygiene practices.

The Guidance Note, A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, is accompanied by a 10-point, Practical Guidance action checklist for employers, workers and their representatives. This tool is intended to compliment and not replace national occupational safety and health regulations and guidance, to help establish the practical details of a safe return to work. Read more: ILO press release. Download the Guidance Note [pdf]

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata   

My employer has started to make noises about us gradually returning to work. What are some of the issues we need to be aware of?

We had Part 1 to this question last week: here's Part 2:  

Last week we covered the areas HSRs need to be involved in when the employer is planning for workers to return to work.  Today we'll look at one of the 'less obvious' issues: recently the VTHC provided feedback to the national WHS body Safe Work Australia on guidance associated with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

In many workplaces, these would have been shut down while COVID-19 restrictions were in place, and will now need to be re-started as workers return.  Restarting HVAC systems that have been temporarily shut down can carry significant risks to the health and safety of workers and others entering the building, if the systems have not been maintained and inspected in accordance with relevant regulations and standards prior to restarting.

During periods of shutdown, cooling towers and condenser water systems in an HVAC system can build-up corrosion on the surfaces that have not been chemically treated. When an HVAC system is shut down, sections of the system where water cannot flow through (dead legs) can hold stagnant water. The bacterium Legionella can grow in the corrosion build-up and dead legs, and can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a serious infection in the lungs. Employers, and those with management or control of workplaces, have duties under the OHS/WHS Acts: they must take all reasonably practicable steps ensure risks to health and safety are eliminated or minimised. This includes any risks associated with the HVAC system being restarted. Specific advice is being finalised by Safe Work Australia and will be available on their website. Also, check our website for more information on Legionnella and Air Conditioning and Legionnaires Disease

There will be no doubt continue to be other issues, depending on the specifics of the workplace itself, the type of work and how general guidance is actually implemented in the workplace. Just remember that that workers, through their HSRs, must be consulted and be able to raise any concerns related to the return to work process.

Note that with eight new cases identified in Victoria yesterday, Premier Daniel Andrews is urging employers to ensure workers who can work from home continue to do so for at least another month.  While he announced the easing of some of the State's coronavirus restrictions on the weekend, he stressed that some must remain, including working-from-home requirements. "One of our most important messages to Victorians is this: if you are working from home, you must keep working from home," he said.

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

Asbestos news  

Morwell: Hazelwood stacks demolished
Hazelwood Power Station’s eight chimneys, which stood at 137 metres above the Latrobe Valley town of Morwell for more than fifty years, have been demolished in a series of controlled explosions earlier this week. The chimneys were blown up one by one, four seconds apart.  The plant was closed following 2014 bushfire which spread to its coal mine and burnt for 45 days. Hazelwood Power Corporation was fined  $1.56 million last week for putting employees and nearby residents at risk by failing to prepare for the fire.

The company spent almost 12 months preparing for the demolition. There was approximately 50 kilograms of ‘‘bonded asbestos’’ in each chimney, as well as about 12 tonnes of concrete. Air quality at the site will be monitored over the coming week with the results to be shared with the community.

Company spokesperson Mr Auger said the asbestos was in the base of the chimneys but was far enough from the detonation site not to become airborne. ‘‘There is absolutely no risk that asbestos will be anywhere other than on the ground, and ultimately remediated on-site and stored in an approved cell,’’ he said. About 400 people are still working at the plant to prepare demolition and to rehabilitate the 4000-hectare site. Check out a video of the demolition: The Age

WA: unions demand better inspection of asbestos activities 
Following the release of a report by the WA Auditor General critical of the licencing for asbestos removal and handling by WorkSafe, WAUnions WA wants a more rigorous inspection campaign for asbestos removal and regulation. The report found that only one quarter of inspections during the audit period were conducted in worksites carrying out asbestos removal jobs. It also found WorksafeWA was unable to demonstrate its inspection resources for high-risk sites. Unions WA Assistant Secretary Owen Whittle said, "Regulations under work health and safety laws has to be matched by strong enforcement. Under the previous WA Government there were significant funding cuts made to WorkSafe and while there has been a welcome increase in funding in recent years it’s clear that more needs to be done to ensure WorkSafe can perform its basic functions." 
Read more: WAUnions media release

International: J&J announces it will cease selling baby powder in US and Canada
Johnson & Johnson has discontinued its legacy talc-based baby-powder products in the US and Canada after thousands of suits alleging asbestos contamination led to a decline in sales. The healthcare giant announced last week it had stopped shipping hundreds of talc-based items in those countriesafter coming to a "commercial decision" to discontinue them. The company will wind down sales in those markets over the coming months. However, it will continue selling its cornstarch-based product.

The company has faced lawsuits accusing it of hiding the cancer risks tied its talc-based version of baby powder since 2014. Juries across the US have hit the company with billions of dollars in actual and punishment damages over their handling of the product. J&J has been successful in getting many of those verdicts reduced or wiped out on appeal. The announcement has led the Drug Administration of Vietnam to write to the company seeking an explanation. 
Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald; Tuoi tre news

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

International Union news 

Reminder: TUC guide risk assessments for homeworkers

In case you didn't check it out last week, the UK's peak union council the TUC has a new guide to for HSRs to do risk assessments for homeworkers. The guide gives guidance on workers’ rights and employers’ duties to address risks including accidents, injuries, mental health problems and violence. Read more: TUC guide to risk assessments for homeworkers.

UK: Almost all teachers concerned about government plan to reopen schools on 1 June

The UK government must provide the scientific evidence to justify the decision to reopen some schools from 1 June, the teaching union NASUWT has said. It warned that teachers ‘remain far from unconvinced’ that reopening can be safely or practicably achieved by this date. In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said the government should provide the scientific evidence and modelling it has relied on in making its decision. NASUWT said the lack of confidence and the high level of concern of teachers about the government’s plans for schools have been highlighted by its snapshot survey, to which nearly 29,000 responses were received from members in just four days. Almost all (95 per cent) teachers expressed concern and anxiety about the government’s plans for the wider reopening of schools. A similar proportion (92 per cent) did not feel reassured by the government’s announcements that it will be safe for more pupils to return from 1 June, and 85 per cent said they did not think it will be safe to return by then, with the same percentage saying they believed that social distancing will not be possible to achieve or will present a major issue in schools. The NASUWT leader said: “The results of our survey underscore the fact that the government has thus far failed to win the trust and confidence of teachers about the safety of reopening schools. It is now imperative that the government takes every available opportunity to provide the necessary assurances that teachers are seeking.” Media reports suggest the government plans have been thrown into doubt, as a growing number of local authorities (councils) have indicated they do not support school reopening on 1 June or would not require schools to do so.

It should be remembered that as of last weekend, the UK had had 259,559 cases of COVID-19, and 36,793 deaths. Workers there have seen huge shortages of appropriate PPE, testing has been spasmodic and in general workers have felt under informed and under protected. 
Read more: NASUWT news release and call on government to release the scientific evidence. BBC News Online. The Guardian   Source: Risks 948

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