Union News

Tonight 7pm: Psychosocial Health Standard Live Show

A reminder that tonight at 7pm VTHC OHS Unit will be running a live show to launch our Psychosocial Health Standard. Most workplaces have any number of hazards that put at risk the psychosocial health - or psychological health - of workers. Employers have a duty of care to identify these and then take action to eliminate, or if this is not reasonably practicable, minimise them. There is almost no official WorkSafe guidance on this issue - much less legislation. For this reason VTHC has issued a Psychosocial Health Standard.  

Join Safety Boyz Sam and Luke and Dominic Melling, lead OHS Organiser to learn more about the standard: why it has been necessary to develop and issue it, what it means and how to start using it. When: 7pm Tonight Wednesday September 2 Where: We Are Union OHS Reps Facebook page  

October 27: The biggest event on the OHS calendar - VTHC HSR Conference

We are very chuffed to announce that we will be holding our annual HSR Conference again this year during OHS Week, on Tuesday October 27. The big difference this year is that the conference, which will be focussing on Risks to Psychosocial Health, will be online. It has been a huge task for the team to put this together and get approval from WorkSafe under s69 of the OHS Act - but we did it! This means that HSRs will be able to participate on paid leave. Deputy HSRs, while welcome, are not entitled to paid leave. Registrations are NOW OPEN! So REGISTER here.  

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -  update  

According to the latest official figures, there are 25,819 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia - an increase of 766 since last week, almost all in Victoria (but these figures may not include today's numbers). 657 people have died - 130 more than last week.  This morning Victoria's Premier announced there have been 90 new cases diagnosed since yesterday and unfortunately six more fatalities. However the numbers are generally trending down consistently, as we are over the half way mark of the six-week Stage 4 restrictions. Read more on the Victorian situation here.

The international situation keeps worsening: the number of people infected is now at  25,889,110 - last Wednesday it was 24,042,694: this is once again over 1.8 million more infections. There have now been 860,226 deaths around the world. The USA continues to 'lead' the world with cumulative cases at over 1.6 million, and recording 1,134 deaths in just one day. India now has the largest number of new infections daily: yesterday there were over 78,000. In Europe, Spain and France are facing a serious secondary wave, with 8,115 and 4,982 new cases respectively in the past day. Spain has had almost 60,000 new cases in just the past week! Experts have said the spike has occurred because businesses reopened too soon and public gatherings were held without proper safety precautions. This highlights the dangers of a resurgence if we open our economy too quickly and fail to maintain measures such as masks and social distancing.
Read more: What can we learn from the resurgence of COVID-19 in Spain? Healthline. For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site. NOTE: we have added some new checklists to the Action Plan for HSRs section of the page, so check these out. We would welcome your feedback. 

Woolies workers walk off

Approximately 240 Woolworths warehouse workers stopped work at a Melbourne distribution centre over safety concerns after a positive COVID-19 case on Friday night. The Laverton DC supplies alcohol to Dan Murphy's and BWS stores across the state. As in a recent COVID-19 dispute at a Spotless industrial laundry in Melbourne, unions have argued that stopping work is legal due to an immediate threat to safety.

United Workers Union (UWU) logistics industries director Matt Toner said that on Saturday the union gave Woolworths a list of demands from workers on actions to keep them safe. The list included a 72-hour "deep clean" to be observed by DHHS and health and safety representatives, all workers being tested for COVID-19 during the shutdown for cleaning and all new agency, contractors and employees commencing work at the site to be tested. However Woolworths had so far refused many of the workers’ requests. Source: Workplace Express

Fair Work Commission proposes working from home provisions

Under a draft model flexibility schedule driven by the risk of further COVID-19 outbreaks, employers will be permitted to direct employees to perform duties at home or another place outside of the usual workplace providing that place is safe and appropriate. Fair Work Commission President Justice Iain Ross noted in a statement issued this week that one of the most significant shifts in Australia's working arrangements since the start of the coronavirus pandemic has been the increase in working-from-home arrangements. "Government health advice, encouraging employees to work from home wherever possible, has accelerated what had been an emerging feature of contemporary working arrangements in some occupations and industries," the President Justice said.

ABS data show two in five workers have worked from home because of COVID-19 – a figure that does not include the large number of workers who regularly worked from home before the pandemic, he noted.  He also pointed to Swinburne University research that showed more than three in four managers believe their staff will work from home more often after the pandemic than they did before it, and a recent Centre for Future Work briefing paper suggesting working from home will become the "new normal" for millions of workers in the coming years.

The draft model flexibility schedule (attached to the President Justice's statement) was prepared by FWC staff "to promote discussion among industrial parties about appropriate flexibility arrangements". It includes a provision which allows for an employer and an employee to reach agreement on a working-from-home arrangement that balances the personal and work responsibilities of the employee with the business needs of the employer, as well as provisions for an employer to direct an employee to perform duties that are "within the employee's skill and competency regardless of their classification", providing those duties are safe and the employee is appropriately licensed and qualified.
Read more: FWC President Justice Ross' statement [pdf]. Source: OHSAlert

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata 

I was an HSR for a DWG in my workplace. However, I was recently redeployed to another facility. Some of the staff members in the DWG at my previous workplace have asked for assistance on an OHS issue. Their elected HSR is on leave. What should they do? Should they elect a deputy HSR? Can they still ask another rep from another DWG for assistance in the meantime? They have conveyed their concerns to their manager who has not responded to their concerns at all. 

If their HSR is not available due to being on leave then you can act on their behalf - this is allowed under s59 of the OHS Act:

59 Powers generally limited to the particular designated work group 

A health and safety representative for a designated work group may exercise powers under this Part only in respect of matters that affect, or may affect, members of that group, or persons mentioned in section 44(1)(e) or 48(1)(e) whom the representative is authorised to represent, unless— 

  1. there is an immediate risk to health or safety that affects or may affect a member of another designated work group; or 
  2. a member of another designated work group asks for the representative's assistance— 

and it is not feasible for the representative to refer the matter to a health and safety representative for the other designated work group. 

I would therefore step in and represent them on this, but making sure you then ensure their HSR is informed of the situation/provided with information when s/he returns.

However, this should really only be a short-term thing as you don't want them to keep having to call you in to assist them, so they should look to elect a deputy - or have two HSRs. This isn't totally straightforward though, as it means the DWG must be renegotiated. When a DWG is negotiated and agreed anything more than the default of one HSR must be a matter of negotiation and agreement. So, the members of the DWG need to formally request that the DWG be varied (under s44(3) of the Act). A renegotiation of the DWG could also lead to all positions being 'spilled' and new elections would have to be run again - if this happens, then the DWG needs to make sure that they run the elections.  I would suggest waiting until their HSR is back, and also seeking the assistance of the union if the members of the DWG think there's going to be an issue.  

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

Asbestos news  

New mesothelioma report

A new report, Mesothelioma in Australia 2019, presents the latest available information on the incidence of mesothelioma in Australia, as well as mortality and asbestos exposure information, using data from the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, the National Mortality Database and the Australian Cancer Database. On average, two people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in Australia each day – with a median age at diagnosis of 75 years old.

Australia has one of the highest measured incidence rates of mesothelioma in the world (Bray et al. 2017). Each year in Australia, between 700 and 800 people are diagnosed with the rare and aggressive cancer. Males are more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than females across all age groups, and the number of cases diagnosed each year for both males and females has steadily increased over the past 40 years. There is no cure for mesothelioma. The main cause is exposure to asbestos, which has been banned in Australia since 2003.

In 2019, 724 deaths of people with mesothelioma were recorded on the AMR. From 1982–2019, the number of new cases of mesothelioma rose steadily: 135 to 532 for males and 22 to 127 for females. 94 per cent of people with mesothelioma who provided residential and occupational information were exposed to asbestos.

This data is a timely reminder of the dangers of asbestos not only for workers, but also those undertaking home renovations, given the increase in home improvement activities since COVID-19 restrictions. Read more: The report can be downloaded from this page.

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

International Union news

England: Face coverings u-turn for secondary schools 

Secondary pupils will now have to wear masks in school corridors in local lockdown areas of England, after the government reversed its guidance. Headteachers in any secondary school will also have the “flexibility” to introduce masks in their schools. England's Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the shift follows advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that was recently updated.

It also follows repeat demands from unions for clarity on the issue. The Department for Education said that, for most areas of England, it is keeping its recommendation against using face coverings - but that schools will be able to make their own decision whether to ask pupils and staff to wear them. This will apply in ‘communal areas’ of schools such as corridors, where it is difficult to have social distancing, and when schools “believe that is right in their particular circumstances”. But in parts of the country with high levels of coronavirus transmission, such as those with local lockdown measures, the wearing of masks will be compulsory in such communal areas for adults and pupils. But it will still not be necessary to wear face coverings in the classroom, where “protective measures already mean the risks are lower, and where they can inhibit learning.”

The new guidelines, which apply from yesterday, 1 September, also warn that “stricter guidance” on face coverings could apply to all schools “if the rate of transmission increases across the whole country.” GMB said the u-turn showed why ministers must learn to listen to workers. NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney welcomed the move but said in its updated guidance “WHO called for staff aged over-60 or otherwise vulnerable and who work closely with children, to wear medical-grade masks,” a message he said the government should also heed.
Read more: 
Department for Education news releaseQ&A: Children and masks related to COVID-19, WHO, 21 August 2020. NEU news release. GMB news release. Source: Risks 962

UK: Predicted 'explosion in work cases' proved correct

The workplace is emerging as the new frontline for COVID-19 spread, after the UK government and health agencies ignored warnings on the dangers of a rush back to work, occupational health experts have warned. Janet Newsham, the chair of the union-backed national Hazards Campaign, which is tracking workplace outbreaks, said the organisation had earlier raised concerns about the unsafe opening of workplaces, including schools. “While the community transmission is so high reopening of schools will massively increase contacts between potentially infected individuals and will lead to pressure for more people to return to workplaces, greatly increasing risks,” she said.

The campaign’s analysis of Public Health England (PHE) figures shows that over the last five weeks the ‘workplace’ has emerged as the second most common site of COVID-19 ‘situations/incidents’, trailing only care homes. PHE’s definition of workplaces does not include work-related Covid incidents in hospitals, schools or prisons, so under-estimates the real extent of work-related cases. The campaign warns that evidence elsewhere, including France and Germany, shows workplaces are the ‘new frontline’ for virus spread. The report notes: “The COVID-19 workplace clusters that are now appearing all over the country, are being put down to individuals breaking the rules, but when that coincides with workplaces closing down, mass testing of workers and mass positive results of the same workers, then this is uncontrolled transmission of the virus in workplaces, especially where workers are working inside buildings with an aerosol risk of transmission.”  
Read more: Hazards Campaign reportNational COVID-19 surveillance report: 14 August 2020 (week 33) and National COVID-19 surveillance report: 21 August 2020 (week 34), PHE. Source: Risks 962

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