Union News

Victorian construction worker killed in fall

A young carpenter who suffered critical head injuries after a suspected fall at a Moonee Ponds construction site died in hospital last Thursday August 4.

The 23-year-old worker was found unresponsive beside a scaffold on Monday August 2. WorkSafe is investigating.

WorkSafe Acting Executive Director of Health and Safety Andrew Keen said, "The tragic death of this young carpenter and the many recent incidents highlight the very real risk of falls and the heartbreaking and life-changing consequences. WorkSafe can and will take action against employers who are not taking the risks seriously and are putting workers' lives at risk."

The death brings the workplace fatality toll to 31 for 2021. (note that this number will include a number of deaths due to occupational disease which have not been reported in SafetyNet).

The VTHC gives our sincerest condolences to the young man's family, friends and work colleagues. No worker should die at work; every work-related death is preventable. We mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.  

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -  update   

The extreme infectiousness of the Delta variant of the COVID virus has meant that on Thursday last week the Victorian Premier re-introduced a hard lockdown for the entire state. The lockdown was to be for at least a week. However, in a quick response to finding that there was no virus in regional Victoria, the government lifted the lockdown there. It remains in place for Metropolitan Melbourne - and has been extended for a further 7 days. 

Wearing masks both indoors and outdoors (unless working alone) and checking in with QR codes remain mandatory across the state. Everyone should by now be familiar with the restrictions, but to check for details, go to this page:  Coronavirus the Victorian situation 

The numbers of new infections in Victoria have fluctuated: last Saturday we had 29, none of which had been in isolation during their infectious period. By Wednesday this week, there were 20 reported: of these, six had been out in the community while infectious. The Premier announced that the lockdown would be extended for a further 7 days. It is hoped that the hard lockdown will mean that all cases will be in isolation, minimising their danger to the community.  

The current number of active cases in Victoria is 118. It's very important to keep up with the listed exposure sites and take comply with the directions (eg to isolate and get tested). Go to this Victorian government page.    

NSW: Greater Sydney is now in its seventh week of lockdown. There were 344 new infections in the state in the 24 hours before Wednesday morning. Of these, at least 101 were in the community for part or all of their infectious period. While there has not been an 'exponential' growth in cases, the numbers  have hovered around the 300 mark for a while, and there are still a large number of cases in the community while infectious. The virus has now spread to regional NSW, with Tamworth, Byron Bay, and Dubbo placed under lockdowns earlier this week.

Unfortunately there have been more COVID-related deaths in the past week: of the two on Tuesday, one was a man in his 30's. There have now been 34 deaths related to the current outbreak.  

Queensland: the state reported only four new local COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, and the government has lifted the lockdown in Cairns. These cases bring the total number of local cases in the current outbreak to 120.

As at August 11, Australia has had a total of 37,031 cases of coronavirus diagnosed, and 943 deaths. While Australia must be vigilant, particularly as our vaccination rates remain low (see below), the numbers in some countries are truly mind-boggling. The USA, for example, where vaccination rates, though higher, are very low in some states, has had a total of 36,891,691 infections and 634,662 deaths. In just one day this week there were over 100,000 new infections, and 657 deaths.  

Worldwide: there had been 204,722,211 infections (last week it was 200,235,188). This is almost 4.5 million new infections in the past week. The total number of COVID-related deaths around the world is now 4,325,691  - the upward trend in both continues, +6 per cent and +3 per cent respectively. (Note these figures are updated constantly - check the Worldometer website for latest figures and trends)  

Vaccinations update 

There has been a great deal in the press over the past few days about whether vaccines should be mandatory for workers in certain industries, whether employers have the right to make the vaccine mandatory for their workers, and also whether employers have the right to ask their employees to tell them whether they have been vaccinated.

The latest on this is:

  • the federal government has made vaccines mandatory for workers in the residential aged care sector. However, this week, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said “The vaccination program in Australia is free and it is not mandatory. That is a very important principle. We are not going to seek to impose a mandatory vaccination program by the government, by stealth. That is not what we’re going to do. There are already existing powers that employers have, both in terms of lawful directions, reasonable directions to their employers.” 
  • However, employers will be able to ask their staff if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 so they can guard against infections in the workplace, under federal guidance issued by the FWO finalised on Tuesday morning.  
  • Some states have introduced specific requirements - these are outlined on the FWO website here.

18.4 per cent of Australians are now vaccinated (22.9 per cent have received one dose). The arguments about how it went wrong and how to fix it continue, but we are still well behind our current target. We are now ranked 35/38 for OECD countries - still appalling.

It was announced this week that any Victorian over the age of 18 could book in for an AstraZeneca vaccine - and would be able to receive it with 'informed consent'.

In other news, the TGA approved provisional use of a fourth COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Moderna, which is already in use across much of the world. This is also a two-dose vaccine. According to Morrison, the first 1 million doses of Moderna are expected to arrive in September and those doses would go to pharmacies. Batches of 3 million doses are also due to arrive in October, November and December. Read more: ABC online, Vaccine rollout tracker in The Guardian, which has information on dose numbers, comparisons between Australia and the world, how we're tracking against the original and revised goals and much more.  

Union blasts Victorian canned food demand that employees be vaccinated 

Meanwhile, Victorian canned food company SPC has announced it will require that all its workers be vaccinated by October.  In an Australian first, the Shepparton-based cannery wants all its 450 onsite workers to be fully vaccinated by November, in what could be a legal test-case for the country.

The workers' union has reacted angrily. In a media release the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) said, "SPC have no clear answers to a comprehensive list of questions workers representatives have put to the canned food company over its demand workers be vaccinated by the end of October."

The union said the company, which has failed to back down, has failed to address the workers concerns that were put to them, including a call to remove the mandatory vaccination requirement as a condition of onsite work. The AMWU say it should be up to public health officials to make a call on whether compulsory vaccination of workers is needed at certain workplaces not employers and employer groups.

AMWU national secretary Stephen Murphy said “The lack of response highlights the company have not fully thought this through,” he said. “Workers have no trust and confidence in this kind of punitive approach.”

The union’s more than a dozen questions included whether the company would be liable if a worker developed health complications from taking the AstraZeneca vaccine and what would happen to a worker who refused to take the vaccine. While not against vaccination, unions are opposing mandatory vaccinations and many blue-collar unions are facing resistance from some members who do not want vaccines.  Read more: ABC news online; AMWU media release; Australian Financial Review.

We should be wearing masks - now and in the future

With research showing that vaccinations will not be enough to keep variants under control (see our Research section) it looks like we should keep wearing masks particularly when indoors - even after this current outbreak is under control. Recently the US's Centre for Disease Control updated its guidance for fully vaccinated people, recommending that everyone wear a mask in indoor public settings in areas of substantial and high transmission, regardless of vaccination status.

The advice came after official data indicated that Delta infection resulted in similarly high viral loads in vaccinated and unvaccinated people. High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus - although they may suffer minor symptoms. This is going to be particularly important in the health care sector, and government directions to wear masks must be followed. 
Read more: CDC news release. Kasen K Riemersma et al. Vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals have similar viral loads in communities with a high prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 delta variant, [Abstract] [Full text] medRxiv 2021.07.31.21261387; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.07.31.21261387  

NSW: Employers not enforcing mask wearing 

A major survey recently undertaken by Unions NSW has found many employers are not enforcing mandatory mask-wearing rules, however. Unions NSW surveyed almost 3,000 workers from a range of industries, including education, emergency services, healthcare, manufacturing and transport, found 46 per cent believe they "have been put at risk of COVID-19 transmission" in their workplace, either to "some extent" or "a great extent".

The 10-page report states: "This finding is backed up by the very low proportion (18 per cent) of workers who say social distancing is being observed at all times and that one in five workers say mask wearing is not being enforced in all indoor settings." Face masks are currently mandatory in all non-residential indoor areas in NSW, including office buildings and other workplaces.

The survey also found the vast majority of workers (83.9 per cent) believe the NSW Government responded "too slowly" to the outbreak of the highly infectious Delta strain of COVID-19, and 59.2 per cent expect the State's "health situation" to "worsen" in the "near future".

"The number one lesson of the pandemic is that when governments move fast and decisively they minimise the health and economic pain. Sadly that didn't happen in NSW," Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said. "Through a mixture of hubris and internal political conflict, the Premier [Gladys Berejiklian] delayed locking down by at least nine days," Morey said. Source: OHS Alert; Unions NSW publications

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata,  

Can you tell me whether a hazardous chemical facility needs to provide hot showers for its workers in case of spills, or any other reason?

Under s21 of the Victorian OHS Act your employer has a duty to provide and maintain so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. As part of this the employer must provide 'adequate facilities' - but there is nothing else that has been mandated. See: Duties of employers

However, there is a Compliance Code for Workplace Amenities and Work Environment that has details on what employers 'need to provide' in order to comply with their duties under the Act. Check out this page on our website for information on showers and change rooms.
There's quite a lot about showers, for example:
  • Where the nature of the work causes workers to need a shower before leaving the workplace (eg dusty, dirty, hot or strenuous workplaces), the employer should provide separate shower facilities for each sex (unless they are capable of being secured to ensure privacy).
  • In some workplaces, the work process involves substances which can be a contamination hazard, such as chemicals, lead or asbestos, or infectious agents. In some workplaces employers are required to provide facilities to enable employees to decontaminate themselves by showering and other means before leaving work.
The link to the Compliance Code is on this page, so go to it to check the exact wording. 
There could also be a requirement to provide emergency showers and eye wash stations under the Compliance Code for First Aid
Remember too that the OHS Act requires the employer to consult with workers and their elected health and safety representative (HSRs) when determining or making decisions about the facilities/amenities provided. This means that if the workers are concerned that there may be contamination issues, then their HSR needs to raise with the employer that showers should be provided. See: Duty to consult

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

Last week's Ask Renata

Last week the question asked was: Is it the law to do a pre start up check for forklifts?

One of our subscribers, Gordon Hunt, sent in the following information, which he has kindly agreed to allow to be shared:

[With regard to] the answer to the query regarding pre-start checks for forklifts:

I was a forklift Assessor for WorkSafe for 14 years. To achieve competency, the practical assessment and the written assessment required a pre-operation check to be undertaken and, in the case of the written assessment, the questions correctly answered.

The employer's Policies and Procedures must have a mandatory pre-operational checklist otherwise, the policies and procedures are not worth having. Finally, fatalities have occurred where the failure to conduct a pre-operational check, has failed to identify a fault and the worst-case scenario has happened and a worker has been killed.

Thank you, Gordon, for providing more information on the need for employers to ensure that pre-operational check ups must be done. 

Would you like to join the VTHC OHS Unit?

There are a number of new roles now being advertised in our top-notch, and expanding, OHS Team - joining the COVID-safe project.

The jobs are for 10 months (approx – until 30 June 2022) and will be working on:

  • Outreach to workers and workplaces about importance of QR codes and other COVID safe measures
  • Finding out about the barriers to COVID safe compliance
  • Tackling vaccine hesitancy if found

There are two positions as Level 3 The third position is a Level 6 COVID-Safe Workplaces Outreach Two roles are advertised as Level 3 Outreach Workers and 1 role is advertised as Level 6 - Senior organiser. – please see the job ads on Ethical Jobs for further details. 

Last chance: VTHC Migrant Workers Centre Survey

Have you ever stayed on a visa in Australia? How has your visa impacted your life?

If so, then you probably know first hand the many problems with Australia’s migration system. If you haven't yet completed the Migrant Workers Centre research survey to assist in its campaign for more pathways to permanent residency and a fairer visa system. It is collecting responses from anyone who has ever stayed on a visa in Australia. 

Responses will inform the MWC policy recommendations and most importantly, help drive its campaign for pathways to permanency. Responses will be confidential. Take the survey now 

Asbestos news

National: Children's toys recalled  
An urgent recall has been issued on a range of remote-controlled cars sold across Australia.

Slipper pads on three models of ECX hobby cars have been found to contain chrysotile asbestos and an urgent notice was issued on August 4 for purchasers to return the cars.  Asbestos in any form is banned in Australia, which means it cannot be imported. However, asbestos has regularly been found in items manufactured in other countries - and too often not discovered until the items are out in the community. Of concern, the toys have been sold since 2016, and thousands could be in circulation, potentially causing children to inhale the  asbestos. 

SafetyNet readers will be aware that inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma - sometimes decades after the initial exposure. There is no safe level of exposure and even one exposure can lead to disease. 

The importation of items with asbestos is worrying, and has happened with toys, motor vehicles, workplace machines and more.  Read more: Children's remote controlled cars recalled after asbestos fibres found. The Daily Mail

WA: Government seeks legislation to close down 'killer town'
A Bill to finalise the closure of the Pilbara’s condemned asbestos mining town has been reintroduced into WA's State Parliament as visitors continue to ignore warnings to steer clear of the deadly gorges - putting up these photos on social media. A search of the #Wittenoom hashtag on Instagram shows tourists ignoring constant health warnings from former residents and authorities. Photos posted in the past month show people entering the asbestos mine shafts, camping, and swimming in the asbestos-laden gorges.

The reinstatement of the Wittenoom Closure Bill will enable the compulsory acquisition of 14 remaining privately owned properties in the former townsite. Once the Bill is passed and the final properties have been acquired, the government will demolish all remaining infrastructure to limit people visiting and staying in the area.

Lands Minister Tony Buti said Wittenoom was one of the biggest contaminated sites in the world, has more than 2000 deaths linked to its blue asbestos mining operation in the 1960s, and remained a public health risk. Read more: The West Australian

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

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