Union News

Worker killed after being crushed by machine

A man was killed last Friday, February 19, after he was crushed while operating a machinery at an Epping metal fabricator. According to a WorkSafe media release, the 46-year-old was using a turret punch to perforate sheet metal when he became trapped between the machine and a workbench. 

The VTHC OHS Unit expresses its sympathy to the worker's family, friends and work colleagues. This fatality brings the number of work-related fatalities to four (or five if the death of the aged care patient is included). 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -  update  

Since the last edition of SafetyNet the Victorian government has begun the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations to workers and members of the population designated as 'Category 1a'. The vaccine rollout began on Monday this week, and it is expected that many thousands of workers will be vaccinated over the coming weeks, with Australia expecting to either import or manufacture almost 54 million doses of either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. However, not all countries will be able to do the same. There are at least 200 countries which have yet to receive any vaccines and have not vaccinated any of their citizens. 

"Workers - especially essential workers - have been under immense pressure during the pandemic, and whether they are in Ireland or India, they should have the same access to live-saving protections—including vaccines. Unfortunately, access has not been equal, leaving millions unprotected and all of us exposed." Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union General Secretary

The UNI Global Union says an essential right to a safe workplace must include the right to vaccination, regardless of where one lives. Consequently it is joining the call for the temporary suspension of certain treatment-related intellectual property obligations under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). A “TRIPS waiver” would allow low-and-medium income countries to expand production and to access therapeutics, vaccines, and other medical products needed during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Read more: UNI Global Union news

Meanwhile, Victoria is still under some restrictions following the lifting of the 5-day lockdown on February 17 - mask rules and gathering limits will remain in place. 

  • Schools are open;
  • Workplaces remain at 50 per cent capacity
  • Victorians are allowed to leave the house for any reason, but are still only allowed five visitors to the home each day;
  • Masks will remain mandatory indoors when keeping a physical distance of 1.5 metres is not possible;
  • Up to 20 people will be allowed at public gatherings.

It is expected that the restrictions will be somewhat relaxed by Friday of this week. We have updated the information on the website: Coronavirus the Victorian situation including information on the Vaccine Program, and Masks and face coverings.

Australia has had a total, to date, of 28,937 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed.

Internationally, the numbers of infections and deaths are still climbing, although it appears that the vaccines are beginning to take effect, with the increases reducing. The cumulative number of infections was last Wednesday was 110,015,844  - the number today is 112,636,741 (note: the numbers are updated continually). There have been 2,495,290 COVID-related deaths around the world. In sobering news, this week the USA exceeded 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19, more than double the number of deaths of the next worst-hit country, Brazil.

COVID-19 Vaccines - Live Show

The rollout of vaccines began around the country on Monday, February 21.

Many people have been asking questions about the vaccination program - so if you missed last night's Live Show you can still take a look at what was a very informative and even fun event (yes, fun!). The show featured two very special guests:

  1. Professor Ben Cowie: infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist, holding appointments with the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service, Royal Melbourne Hospital, and the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. In addition, Ben is a medical epidemiologist with Communicable Disease Epidemiology and Surveillance, Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, and is a Professorial Fellow in the Department of Medicine at the University of Melbourne.
  2. Mr Leigh Hubbard: Director, Engagement (Industry Settings); COVID-19 Community Engagement & Testing Command,  Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Leigh was also Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council from 1995 - 2005.

One of the questions asked was whether employers would have the right to make vaccinations mandatory. both the Commonwealth nor the State governments have made it clear that the vaccination is voluntary. On Friday last week, Safe Work Australia updated its vaccination advice to warn that the vast majority of employers will not have a WHS right or obligation to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, while most workers will not be entitled to refuse to work because a colleague has not been inoculated.  

Go to the We Are Union - OHS Reps Facebook page, here to catch up or watch it again. There is also a Frequently Asked Questions document which accompanied the Live Show.

A reminder though: Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O'Brien welcomed the start of the program, but reminded workplace stakeholders that it "will not happen overnight".  He said, "It is essential that all workers – especially those in high-risk industries – continue to be kept safe in their workplaces by the social distancing and other procedures which have saved so many lives over the last year."  
Read more: ACTU media release . New webpage: COVID-19 Vaccines 

Ask Renata  

Hello Renata, 

Are there are any restrictions with lifting above your shoulder in warehousing. Is it there a maximum weight limit to lift above your shoulder or is deemed unsafe to lift above your shoulder? 

The OHS Act and the Hazardous Manual Handling regulations require the employer to identify and eliminate/or minimise the risks of hazardous manual handling. Lifting above the shoulder is a risk factor and can lead to a musculoskeletal injury (see page 16 of the Compliance Code which provides advice to employers on what the risk factors are, how to do an identification and assessment of these, and how to address them)

This is an extract from the code with regards to minimising the risk to a person moving an object:

72. Where possible, place work items so they are:

  • in front of the employee
  • between waist and shoulder height
  • towards the middle of the body and facing the employee
  • on the employee’s preferred side
  • positioned within comfortable reaching distance
  • positioned to avoid double handling and to avoid moving loads over long distances

There are no weight limits in the regulations – but this is because even a light weight can be hazardous if someone is reaching up or the object is a distance from the body. See: Weight limits and p34 of the code. Also check the site for general information on Manual Handling (Strains and sprains). On this page there are the links to the summary of the regulations and also to the Compliance Code.

Basically then, lifting anything above the shoulders can create a risk of an injury. The heavier the object, the higher the risk. The more often the movement is made, the higher the risk. The employer has a duty to eliminate the risks so far as is reasonably practicable - irrespective of the weight. 

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

Asbestos news  

Victoria: Last two chimneys at power station fall

This week saw the last two chimneys at the former Morwell Power Station demolished. The demolition went according to plan and with the weather being mild and calm. EBAC remediation general manager Barry Dungey said "All of the chimneys contain steel and brickwork with virtually no asbestos in the chimneys themselves, but there is asbestos in the base which is still intact so then we go in at the end and remove that." Read more: Latrobe Valley Express 

NSW: ADRI named WHO Collaborating Centre in World First

In a world first, the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute based in Concord, Sydney has been designated by the World Health Organisation as a Collaborating Centre for the Elimination of Asbestos Related Diseases.

This recognition by WHO confirms ADRI as a global leader in asbestos related diseases and asbestos mitigation. Its world class team of researchers, scientists, public health experts and lung nurses have been pro-actively training and teaching health professionals through workshops in developing countries aimed to detect, diagnose and treat asbestos-related diseases since 2017.

Assistant Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Naoka Yamamoto says, ‘The World Health Assembly Resolution has called for global campaigns to eliminate asbestos-related diseases and take action on the preventable cancers associated with this exposure. This requires building capacities in countries to improve knowledge and practices. The WHO has worked with ADRI and Professor Takahashi (Institute Director, ADRI) for many years on this important topic and we are pleased to see this working relationship is now formalised.’ Read more: Mirage News 

US: Johnson & Johnson faces thousands of lawsuits

Johnson & Johnson is facing 25,000 US lawsuits over its baby powder, which some users claim caused their cancers. The company said this week it had set aside $US3.9 billion (AD$4.9b) in “litigation expenses,” including dealing with a years-long battle over its talc baby powder. This amount is substantially higher than the $US400 million (AD$504m) it set aside for litigation expenses in 2019. According to the J&J, the number of pending personal injury lawsuits related to its baby powder “continues to increase”. 

In 2018, a Reuters report suggested Johnson & Johnson knew for years that its baby powder potentially contained small amounts of asbestos, a human carcinogen. The article prompted a stock selloff that erased about $US40 billion from J&J’s market value in one day. 

Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder contained talc, which is often found and mined near asbestos. According to company documents reviewed by Reuters, Johnson & Johnson knew about the potential contamination of asbestos in mining of talc as far back as 1971. Read more: Business Insiders Australia 

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

UK Uber decision: implications for Australia

There was a UK employment tribunal ruling as far back as 2016 that Uber drivers were entitled to basic protections such as minimum wage and paid holidays. However many Uber deliverers' claims for sick leave, holiday leave and more have been on hold while the company continued to appeal the decision. Throughout the years of appeals, Uber denied these protections to its drivers. Last week, however, six justices of the UK Supreme Court gave the final decision on the lead Uber case and, like the three rulings that came before it, held that Uber drivers are entitled to basic workers’ rights.

The court of appeal referred to “the high degree of fiction in the wording” of Uber’s contractual documents, as well as to “the air of contrivance and artificiality which pervades Uber’s case”. The supreme court also rejected Uber’s contracts as showing that the drivers were not entitled to basic workers’ rights, noting that: “Laws such as the National Minimum Wage Act were manifestly enacted to protect those whom parliament considers to be in need of protection and not just those who are designated by their employer as qualifying for it.”

Part of the decision states:

“(The) purpose (of relevant employment legislation) is to give protection to vulnerable individuals who have little or no say over their pay and working conditions because they are in a subordinate and dependent position in relation to a person or organisation which exercises control over their work [71 - 76]. The legislation also precludes employers, frequently in a stronger bargaining position, from contracting out of these protections [79 - 82]."

However in reality governments both in the UK and in Australia have left it to employers to decide who got entitlements, with no prosecutions of these companies. We've seen in Australia how such workers put their lives at risk daily. This decision is likely to have implications in Australia as well. The TWU has been taking up issues for gig workers, with some success.  Read more: The decision Uber BV and others (Appellants) v Aslam and others (Respondents) and the summary [pdf]; The Guardian UK; TWU News

International Union news

UK: Quarantine hotels policy will not protect workers

While Australia has had a hotel quarantine system in place for many months, this has only recently been introduced in the UK. As we saw in Victoria and elsewhere, workers in the hotels and those transporting people from the airports to the hotels are at increased risk of infection. An item in this week's Risks e-journal sets out the concerns of UK unions.

The health of hotel staff and the wider public will be put in jeopardy as a result of ‘inferior’ safety rules in the UK’s quarantine hotels, unions have warned. The unions were speaking out in response to reports the government’s quarantine hotel policy is far less stringent than Australia’s, which had itself sometimes been found wanting. Unlike the Australian system, the UK allows quarantined guests the opportunity to leave their rooms when escorted by a security guard. In Australia, this is prohibited as it creates an avoidable risk to staff. The UK recommends surgical masks for staff, as opposed to the far superior FFP3 respirators required in Australia.

The UK is also not following the recent Australian practice of daily COVID tests for quarantine hotel workers, nor does it prohibit workers from working in more than one quarantine hotel, to prevent cross-transmission.

UK union Unite hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson said: “The revelations that the UK’s guidelines for preventing the transmission of COVID are far inferior to those in Australia are deeply alarming for hotel workers. Once again, the government has been found guilty of prioritising headlines over the safety of workers.” He added: “If improvements are not made immediately, Unite will advise our members of their legal right to withdraw their labour if their health is being placed in immediate danger.” GMB national officer Nadine Houghton said: “We have seen clear examples from Australia's quarantine hotels where the virus has spread amongst guests and staff who have had no direct interaction with each other when doors into the hotel halls have been opened. Without proper safeguards, ministers risk jeopardising the UK’s recovery from COVID with new strains running riot through communities.” 
Read more: 
Unite news releaseGMB news releaseGovernment guidance on red list travel ban countries, updated 11 February. BBC News OnlineThe Guardian and related storyThe Independent. Source: Risks 985

UK: Health staff thing pandemic has not been handled well

Less than 5 per cent of the UK's National Health Service (NHS) staff think the government has handled the pandemic well, a GMB poll has found. In the survey of almost 3,500 health workers, only 4.9 per cent answered that the government was doing a good job during the Covid crisis. Almost half (47 per cent) said they thought the government had handled the pandemic badly and had made the situation worse. GMB says it “has campaigned throughout the pandemic for NHS workers to have proper PPE, Covid testing and pay justice after a decade of Conservative cuts which has seen their real terms pay slashed.” GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said: “NHS staff have been badly let down by ministers throughout this pandemic – it's no wonder they don’t think the government is doing a good job. It’s a year into the crisis and we’ve still got ambulance workers attending patients with flimsy gowns and paper masks instead of proper PPE and nurses in hospitals working amongst Covid patients given only the most basic of surgical masks.” Commenting on the government’s promised NHS reforms, she said “the first change they must make is to give staff the pay and protection they need to carry on saving lives.” 
Read more: 
GMB news release. Source: Risks 985

US: Leading experts call for immediate action to address COVID inhalation exposure

Leading scientific and medical experts have called on the Biden Administration to take immediate action to address inhalation exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a cornerstone of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

In a letter to the Biden administrations’ top officials heading the response, the experts from the fields of aerosol science, occupational health and infectious disease urge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and other government agencies to fully recognize inhalation exposure as the primary way the virus spreads and to take immediate action to protect against this source of exposure.

Commending the Biden administration COVID-19 plan that ramps up availability of life saving vaccines and calls for widespread use of masks, stronger measures to protect workers and the public, the experts emphasize that to be successful the plan must also strengthen measures to address inhalation exposure to the virus.

They say the scientific evidence is clear: inhalation of small aerosol particles is one of the primary sources of exposure and transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. CDC guidelines and recommendations are out of date and do not fully recognize inhalation exposure or include the necessary control measures to protect the public or workers from this mode of transmission. Read more: George Washington University news release. Read the full letter here [pdf].

Morocco: Supply chain pressure behind factory disaster:

A 14-year-old girl was among the 28 garment workers killed in a factory disaster in Tangier, Morocco, on 8 February. Her mother reported the child had worked at the factory, an illegal sweatshop, for three years. The workers were drowned or electrocuted after a flood caused a short circuit. Seventeen others were injured. The facility operated in an underground garage in a residential area with 130 workers, most of them women.

“How could this factory have been a secret? Where were the labour inspectors? Where were the local government authorities? Where were the investors?” said Amal El Amri, a representative in Morocco’s upper house of Parliament and Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) member. “We must ensure a voice for these workers who have died, and for the many thousands more women workers who toil under the same dangerous conditions.”

The factory’s owner has been arrested, according to media reports. The UMT and Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) have demanded an immediate investigation into the tragedy, and the CDT said in a statement that it holds the state, the government and the employer fully responsible for the workers’ deaths. A statement from the US-based Solidarity Center said “illegal factories are a direct response to the demands of the fast fashion industry, in which large brands demand quick response to fashion changes and customer demands and so draw on subcontractors whose workforce is cheaper and its work arrangements informal." Read more: Solidarity Center news releaseMorocco World News. Source: Risks 985

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