Union News

Workplace manslaughter: a criminal offence in Victoria

Workplace manslaughter today became a criminal offence in Victoria with tough new laws introduced by the Andrews Labor Government.  This achievement is the result of decades of campaigning by Victoria's union movement and the families who lost a loved one in a workplace incidents. It was finally achieved by convincing Premier Daniel Andrews, the Hon Jill Hennessey, Minister for Workplace Safety, and other elected politicians. 

Negligent employers now face fines of up to $16.5 million and individuals face up to 25 years in jail. Ms Hennessey said, “Employers need to understand that if their negligence costs someone their life, they will be prosecuted and may go to jail.” 

The new offence will be investigated by WorkSafe Victoria, using their powers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004. The offence applies to employers, self-employed people and ‘officers’ of the employer. It also applies when an employer’s negligent conduct causes the death of a member of the public.  WorkSafe has provided assistance to small and medium-sized businesses to prepare for the new laws, which will be supported by a $10 million package to improve investigation and enforcement of workplace safety laws.  This includes a specialist WorkSafe team to lead investigations and prosecutions and more support for families, including two additional WorkSafe Victoria Family Liaison Officers.

During the campaign, Trades Hall Secretary Luke Hilakari said, "We count what we care for." He was making the point that the deaths of workers such as truck drivers killed on the road were not classed as 'workplace deaths'. Also, the potentially hundreds of workers who die each year as a result of occupational diseases were not clearly included in the workplace fatality lists.  

The government listened to these concerns, and has broadened the criteria that defines a workplace death. From today, fatalities that occur on the road while working, suicides attributable to a workplace health and safety failure, deaths from industrial diseases such as silicosis, and workplace deaths resulting from a criminal act, will all be recognised in the WorkSafe toll. Ms Hennessey said, “Broadening the definition of a workplace fatality will help better identify and address the true extent of workplace health and safety issues in Victoria.”  According to WorkSafe, there have been 41 deaths in Victoria in 2020 under the expanded definition.

In a statement released today, Mr Hilakari said, "The idea that if you’re responsible for a worker’s death you should go to jail shouldn’t be controversial. Every workplace death is avoidable, which is why we’ll never stop fighting for positive change to protect the health and safety of working people and their families."

WorkSafe Chief Executive Colin Radford said workplace manslaughter laws would play a crucial role in making Victorian workplaces safer. “It is simply unacceptable for any Victorian to go to work one day and never return home,” Mr Radford said. “The threat of jail for individuals, or a hefty fine for organisations, should stop those who think it’s ok to put other priorities above the health and safety of their workers in their tracks.”

Mr Hilakari said, "Finally, I have a message to employers across Victoria. Respect workers, and make their safety a priority. You are not safe until the people working for you are safe. Because if you kill a worker in Victoria, you can now go to jail."
Read more: Ministerial media release WorkSafe media release  

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update  

As of this morning, there had been 7,836 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia - an increase of almost 350 since last week. 104 people have died. The number of new infections in Victoria has continued to grow which has led to increased concern.  

Up to yesterday, the state was relying on concentrated testing blitzes in specific suburbs. This has been described as a mammoth task that relies on thousands of workers - among these are 'scores' of paramedics who are volunteering their time. Danny Hill, Secretary of Victoria's Ambulance Union, told the ABC "This is out of the norm, but they are volunteering to do it, they are putting up their hand because as one paramedic recently said to me, anything they can do to bring this whole coronavirus pandemic to a conclusion, the better it is for everybody." Further, up to 800 Commonwealth workers will be coming in to Victoria to assist with the testing.   

Yesterday Premier Daniel Andrews announced stricter restrictions in, for the moment, the ten suburbs. From 11:59 pm tomorrow night, postcodes linked to these outbreaks will go into local lockdown. These suburbs fall in the local government areas of Moreland, Brimbank, Hume, Casey, Cardinia and Darebin. For now, these are: 3038, 3064, 3047, 3060, 3012, 3032, 3055, 3042, 3021, 3046. 

These “hot zones” will be required to return to Stage 3 Stay at Home restrictions – until at least 29 July. For those living in these locations, there will be only four reasons to be out:

  1. Shopping for food and supplies,
  2. care and caregiving,
  3. exercise, and
  4. study or work – if you can’t do it from home.

This continues to have implications for workers.  People, particularly if they are in the nominated suburbs, should avoid travelling to and from the nominated areas, although if they needed to go/leave for reasons of work. Employers are being urged to keep employees working from home if possible. The same applies to people outside these suburbs being limited entry.

The businesses and facilities in these areas that had been able to recently reopen (eg beauticians and hairdressers, gyms, libraries, swimming pools) will again be restricted. Cafes and restaurants will again only be open for take-away and delivery.

The number of new infections around the world continues to grow alarmingly. The number of people infected is now at 10,559,566  - last week it was 9,341,567, so this is once again well  one million more infections. There have now been 512,964 deaths. Read more: For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site. 

Call for National Register of Respirators 

A coalition of workplace health and safety related organisations across Australia and New Zealand, and the ACTU has called for the urgent establishment of a register for approved respirators (aka face masks). The group describes the presence of non-compliant, fake and faulty disposable masks as an immediate threat to the health and safety of workers. 

At the launch of the coalition’s new Guide to Buying P2, or Equivalent, Respirators for use in the Australian & New Zealand Work Environment, Andrew Orfanos, President of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, said there was an immediate and urgent case for the Federal government to intervene to protect Australians’ health. “The situation is out of hand. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic our market has been flooded with more than 100 million respirators of different types and standards, and amongst the suitable products are fake, faulty, counterfeit and sub-standard products. Australian businesses are rightly confused about which ones are suitable. They need to know what they’re buying, and the government needs to get a handle on this issue” he said. 

Liam O’Brien Assistant secretary ACTU said “The pandemic has focussed attention on masks as an essential piece of protective equipment with huge potential to save lives and prevent transmission. However, it has also made clear that regulation of PPE is grossly inadequate to ensure that the masks that Australian workers are using are up to the task.

“Australian workers, whether they need a mask to protect themselves from COVID-19 or other workplace hazards like silica dust, should be able to rely on a simple set of standards which make it clear which masks are safe to use. Without clear and simple regulation on this issue, Australian workers and the community at large will continue to be put at risk” he said.
Read more: Joint media release [pdf]. Guide to Buying P2, or Equivalent, Respirators for use in the Australian & New Zealand Work Environment [pdf]

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata 

Earlier this year I was injured while lifting a 60 litre drum of thinners by hand, and I have been off work since the beginning of June. I have now heard that my boss has directed two female workers that they need to lift these drums. I believe this is a danger to them. Is this actually allowed in a workplace? How can i get a Worksafe inspector to visit my workplace and see if it is safe?

I am not surprised that you were injured as a result of having to lift 60 litre drums: these would weigh at least 60kg (more if full). This task is, by the definition in the Hazardous Manual Handling Regulations, hazardous, and your employer should never have had a task where such heavy weights had to be lifted/moved by a worker.  Even though there are no maximum weight limits in the legislation, 60kg is clearly too heavy. In fact, lifting even 5kg can be hazardous and cause an injury - see this page for information on weights. 

Also, see this page for  a summary of the regulations and what your employer should have done - and now needs to do by law to minimise the risk to other workers - irrespective of whether they are male or female. The regulations do not discriminate between male and female workers, but require the employer to identify all hazardous manual handling tasks and then implement controls to eliminate or minimise the risk to workers. It is certainly not ok to ask other workers to do a task that has led to a severe injury! Check a summary of the regulations here.
Finally - you are able to contact WorkSafe Victoria to get advice by calling their Advisory Service on 1800 136 089. However, if you have an elected health and safety representative, then that would be the best way to have this issue addressed. The HSR can take the matter up with the employer - and if there is no action, then issue a PIN. If the employer does not address the matter, then this would trigger an inspector visiting the workplace. 

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

CFMMEU officials allegedly assaulted on construction site

A union official was rushed to the Alfred Hospital unconscious yesterday morning after he and a colleague were allegedly attacked at a construction site in Melbourne's inner east. Police are investigating after two officials from the CFMMEU were allegedly assaulted after turning up to a Hawthorn East worksite on Toorak Road just before 7.30am. The injured official was released from hospital at about midday. 

A post on the union's Facebook page says the assault occurred while  the two officials were conducting a site visit - with official ARREO documentation. They were attacked by up to seven men.  According to a union spokesperson one of the officials was knocked unconscious after being struck in the back of the head with some kind of object. Source: The Age, CFMEU Facebook page

Asbestos news  

National: Draft Asbestos-Cement Water and Sewer Pipe Management Guidelines available for public comment

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency has released the draft Asbestos-Cement (AC) Water and Sewer Pipe Management Guidelines for public comment. The public consultation period closes at 5pm on Friday 7 August 2020.

The Guidelines provide information on AC water and sewer pipe removal and remediation methods and the issues that water agencies should consider in deciding how to safely manage AC water and sewer pipes. They aim to provide practical guidance on how to eliminate or minimise the risks of asbestos exposure when managing water and sewer pipes in accordance with the work health and safety and environment protection laws that currently exist across Australia.

Details on how to make a submission are included in the draft Guidelines. ASEA says that public feedback will help ensure the final version is useful and supports safe practices when managing and removing asbestos cement water pipes. Any queries about the public consultation can be sent to the Agency via email to [email protected].

July 22: watch Devil's Dust miniseries on Stan

Devil's Dust, a two-part Australian television docu-drama mini-series made by the ABC which first screened in 2012 will be available to watch on Stan from July 22. Based on journalist Matt Peacock's 2009 book Killer Company, Devil's Dust was researched for over two years prior to the series' production. Through the factual case of Bernie Banton, it recounts the tragedy of many Australian workers and their families afflicted with asbestosis and mesothelioma in the twentieth-century asbestos mining and processing industries. Though the extreme health risks of exposure to asbestos dust had been documented for many years, manufacturer James Hardie persisted in large-scale use of the material, aided by inadequate regulation by state health agencies. (Information on the series sourced from Wikipedia)

NSW: increased fees for asbestosis and other dust disease victims

The NSW Government has increased fees for people seeking compensation for diseases such as asbestosis and silicosis. In a move introduced very quietly just last Friday, Dust Diseases Tribunal applications will cost 3.5 per cent more than they did last year.  The change takes effect from today, July 1.

Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey said fees should be abolished, not hiked. “People suffering diseases such as asbestosis and silicosis have enough anxiety and hardship to cope with. The very fact people are charged for seeking access to justice is offensive and unconscionable. The NSW Government should not only explain why it is hiking these fees, but in fact why they are charged at all.”

The standard fee to file an initiating process increases from $207 to $214, while the fee for a first directions hearing increases from $827 to $854. This is well above inflation. “Fees such as these send all the wrong signals to people seeking justice and add unnecessary barriers. We call on Attorney General Speakman to abolish them completely,” Mr Morey said.
Source: Mirage News

US: Court orders J&J pay US$2.2 billion to women suffering ovarian cancer

Last Tuesday a court in Missouri ordered baby powder giant Johnson & Johnson to pay over $US2.2 billion ($A3.2 billion) to 22 women with ovarian cancer. The women's case was that the company’s talc-based products, including its baby powders, could have been contaminated with asbestos and that the company sold them anyway, without warning. It was a misstep the court said was either driven by “evil motive, or reckless indifference” on the part of the company.

The huge payout is a reduction from the nearly $US4.7 billion ($A6.83 billion) that a lower court awarded the same cancer patients in 2018, a cutback based on “personal jurisdiction” (i.e. that some of the women were not residents of Missouri, and should bring their cases elsewhere), and a reduction in punitive damages overall.

But the overall findings of the lower court in that two-year-old decision against Johnson & Johnson were largely upheld by a Missouri court of appeals on Tuesday, as each woman (or her family) was awarded at least $US25 million ($A36.4 million). Already, 11 of the 22 women taking part in the case have died from their cancers, their law firm said in a statement released Tuesday. 

Tens of thousands of similar lawsuits against the company are still ongoing around the world. These lawsuits hinge on apparently straightforward, but ultimately messy questions about whether Johnson & Johnson’s powder was contaminated with asbestos in any meaningful way, whether the company knew it, and whether that contamination then led to customers’ cancers. Read more: Business Insider.

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

International Union news

UK: Wide concern as lockdown relaxed and 2m rule eased

Unions have warned that workers could be put at risk as a result of a government decision last week to weaken lockdown rules in England. In changes announced on 23 June, prime minister Boris Johnson said people should remain 2 metres apart where possible but a “one metre plus” rule will be introduced from 4 July. TUC general secretary said any relaxation of the rules must be accompanied by greater enforcement of health and safety protections for workers and said there were too few inspections and an under-resourced inspectorate. Several large unions and a succession of experts including members of the government’s SAGE advisory group, have said the changes could increase the COVID-19 risks to workers.

The prime minister told the Commons that all steps were “reversible.” He said people will be encouraged to use “mitigation” - such as face coverings and not sitting face-to-face - when within 2m of each other and “where it is possible to keep 2m apart, people should.” When serving indoors, pubs and restaurants will only be allowed to offer table service, and venues will be asked to collect contact details of customers for the NHS Test and Trace system. Cinemas, art galleries and museums are allowed to reopen as are theatres and music halls, although they are not allowed to host live performances. The number of infections in the UK is still significantly higher than other countries. France and Germany are seeing less than half the number of infections - and Germany has a larger population - while Italy has less than a quarter. Germany this week was forced to reintroduce a lockdown in the vicinity of a meatpacking plant where over 1,500 workers have tested positive. It has a 1.5m physical distancing rule. The UK government did not publish the findings of the review it ordered to advise on the changes.
Source: Risks 953 where there are more COVID-19 related items

Global: Meat workers at increased risk 

In Germany, which seemed to be on track in terms of recovery, more than 650 people tested positive for the virus at a meat processing plant operated by Tönnies Group in Gütersloh, in mid-June. By last week that number had increased to over 1550. When the outbreak was first identified, the government closed the plant as well as schools and childcare centres in the area. Then last week as the numbers grew, it announced that restaurants, bars and gyms in the Gütersloh district would close for a week. Outdoor gatherings of more than two people are again prohibited.  

Many of the workers in the German plant come from Romania, and live in shared accommodation – another risk factor once the virus has entered a population.  Last month, Germany agreed a proposal banning the use of temporary workers at abattoirs following a spate of infections – but clearly this has not been enough. Trade union representatives have said that these infections are due to poor working conditions and living quarters in a sector that is in a “disastrous race to the bottom” in the quest for cheap meat.  

There have been significant outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat processing plants around the world: France, Spain, Wales, England, Canada... and even Australia. In the US, by mid-May over 5000 meat workers had contracted COVID-19. Yet, with panic regarding adequate meat supply for American BBQs, in a typically cavalier move, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act in late April to reopen infected slaughterhouses and meat processing plants and to make sure they stayed open irrespective of whether workers were infected or not. By late June, it was reported that the number of meat workers with COVID-19 in the US had increased to more than 24,000, with at least 91 fatalities.  
Read more: COVID-19 rages through food processing plants, warehouses and manufacturing facilities, WSWS, The Guardian.


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