Union News

Worker fatalities

It is with much sadness that we report the deaths of two Victorian workers. 

On September 13, a 67-year-old suffered a fatal head injury after falling through a stairwell void while working alone at a townhouse construction site in Sandringham. WorkSafe has just announced the fatality and is investigating the incident. WorkSafe has stated that this fatality brings the State's total to 39.

Also on September 13, an ASU member and long-term Serco Mill Park employee died in hospital  of COVID-19. He became ill after his workplace was identified as a Tier 1 site 
Read more: ASU media release

No worker should die at work; no worker should die as a result of work. Every death is preventable. The VTHC OHS Unit sends our sincerest condolences to the family, friends and work colleagues of the deceased workers.

New rights for HSRs in changes to the OHS Act

In amendments passed in Victoria's Parliament last week and granted Royal Assent on September 21, HSRs and ARREOs now have enhanced powers.

HSRs are now able to "take photographs or measurements or make sketches or recordings at any part of a workplace at which a member of the designated work group works, other than during an interview" (new section 58(1)(ab)). Similarly, ARREOs (union officials with entry permits) are now able to "take photographs or measurements or make sketches or recordings at the place" as long as they do not "intentionally use, disclose or provide to another person, for a purpose not reasonably connected with the exercise of a power under this Part, photographs or measurements taken or sketches or recordings made."

In addition to these changes, the amendments include:

  • providing additional protections in relation to labour-hire workers - including extending the definitions of 'employer' and 'employee' to ensure labour-hire workers are considered employees of their hosts, and requiring labour providers and hosts to cooperate on their shared OHS responsibilities.
  • amending various Acts (OHS, Dangerous Goods, and Equipment Public Safety) to prohibit  insurance against safety fines
  • various other technical amendments with regard to the serving of notices and ensuring that the forfeiture provisions work as intended.

“Labour hire workers perform vital work and deserve the same safety rights and protections as other workers,” said the Minister for Workplace Safety Ingrid Stitt. “This legislation will make important improvements to our existing OHS laws – closing gaps that were being exploited by unscrupulous employers and imposing fines for those who continue to do the wrong thing.”

The VTHC OHS Unit will amend the information on the OHS [email protected] website as soon as possible to reflect these changes. Read more: Ministerial media releaseOccupational Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021

VTHC Health and Safety Reps' Conference - Thursday October 28

Announcing Health and Safety Month's biggest and best event - the VTHC's annual HSR Conference. This year the theme is: HSR Super Sleuths: Exercising Your Powers To Uncover Hidden Hazards And Risks.  Unfortunately, due to the ongoing lockdown and the uncertainty of when we will be able to gather in large numbers again, the event will once again be an online event. Register online now!

Even though we won't be meeting in person, HSRs will learn a great deal and after hearing from a few very knowledgeable speakers, will be able to actively participate in smaller workshops and hone their skills. We will also be able to discuss using the new powers under the Act. 

The conference has WorkSafe approval as a training course under s69 of the OHS Act, meaning that as long as HSRs give their employer at least 14 days' notice, the employer must release them on paid leave to participate. While the employer has no legal obligation to release deputies on paid leave, ask anyway - you are welcome to attend, and many employers are happy to do so. 

When: Thursday October 28, 8.30am - 2.30pm
Where: Online
Cost: Free!
Open for all Victorian HSRs and Deputy HSRs 
Register here, now! (and then let your employer know!)

Coronavirus Update

Victoria

Last week the state saw a very slight easing of restrictions: up to five fully vaccinated people from a maximum of two households can now meet outdoors. The time we can spend outdoors has increased to four hours, and the distance we can travel from home has increased to 10km.

However, the number of new infections in the state has continued to grow, with 628 reported on Wednesday September 22.  The number of active cases: 6,223. 

Of the active cases, 241 are in hospital, 60 in ICU - 39 on ventilators.  Our vaccination rates: as of September 21, 44.66 per cent of us are fully vaccinated, and 73.51 per cent partially vaccinated (41.44 per cent and 67.62 per cent last week). There have now been 836 COVID-related deaths in Victoria - another eight in the past week. 

There are many exposure sites listed -  but DHHS has said that they cannot list them all. So while it is crucial to keep up with these, and comply with the directions (eg to isolate and get tested), everyone must ensure they sign in with the QR codes as they will receive text messages. Go to this Victorian government page to check the sites.

This week the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, announced what the state's 'roadmap' to come out of lockdown looks like. The first milestone will be when the vaccination rate in the state reaches 80 per cent first dose. There will be more opportunities for Victorians to catch up. The indicative date for schools to reopen is October 5th. Read more: Victoria's Roadmap  

In other news, on Sunday the Chief Health Officer declared the City of Greater Geelong, the Surf Coast and Mitchell Shire would enter a seven-day lockdown commencing at 11:59pm on Sunday 19 September, with restrictions the same as those in the City of Ballarat and metropolitan Melbourne, excluding the curfew.

In news from around Australia:

  • NSW:  Over the past week, the numbers have continued to be over 1000 daily, though the trend seems to be stablising. There were 1,035 new community infections in the state in the 24 hours before Wednesday morning, and sadly five more deaths.   There have been a total of 260 deaths since the beginning of this outbreak - sixty two in the past week. There are 1,232 COVID-19 cases admitted to hospital, with 242 people in intensive care, 122 of whom require ventilation. 
  • ACT: On Wednesday 17 new cases were reported, and the territory is in lockdown until October 17.  

As at September 22, Australia has had a total of 90,391 cases of coronavirus diagnosed (76,292 last week). There have been 1,186 COVID-19 related deaths. 

Worldwide: as at September 22, there had been 230,313,402 infections (226,618,955 last week) and 4,722,750 COVID-related deaths. (Note these figures are updated constantly - check the Worldometer website for latest figures and trends). Read more information on Coronavirus   

Vaccinations update

According to the ABC Vaccine tracker as of September 21, 47.73 per cent of Victorians have been fully vaccinated (72.76 per cent have received one dose).  Supplies of the third vaccine approved, Moderna, should be in pharmacies soon. 

Breaking news: The State government has announced that vaccinations will be mandatory for all staff at schools and early childhood centres - they must have a first dose, or a booking within one week, by October 18. Last week it was announced that workers in construction, freight, and health care needed to be vaccinated. 

Developments in the construction industry

Last week the Victorian government announced that workers on construction sites had to have at least one dose by September 23, plus restrictions on sites which led to a demonstration of a few hundred people. This prompted the government to close down the industry for two weeks, which in turn has led to more demonstrations and violent behaviour. The anti-vax and anti-lockdown rallies have been condemned by both the construction union and the broader union movement. There is ample evidence that certain groups outside the union movement have been organising over the past few weeks, putting up fraudulent posters saying the union had called for demonstrations, and fake Twitter accounts and websites.

In an opinion piece in The Age on September 21, VTHC's Secretary Luke Hilakari, confirmed the union movement's support of vaccinations. In relation to the hesitancy felt by some, he said,  "We absolutely understand that this is a complex issue and a lot of people have strong opinions.

"But we are not going to let a tiny minority of anti-vaccination members put the rest of the workforce at risk. Nor will we be intimidated by neo-Nazis in construction cosplay turning up at our offices, trying to force their extreme views on our movement and undo the heroic work of Victorians who have kept this virus at bay for almost two years."  Read more: Luke Hilakari, VTHC Secretary Opinion piece in The Age: Unions support vaccination to keep workers safeACTU media release

Ask Renata  

Hello Renata,

Several months ago my employer engaged a consultant to write a report for my workplace. At a staff meeting two months ago we were told by our manager the report confirmed that everything at the workplace was fine. As the HSR, I asked for a copy, but was told it was only a draft, and that I would be given a copy when finalised.  At the next staff meeting  a month later I again asked for a copy but this time the manager said he couldn't provide it. I then contacted the OHS team who told me they were not able to provide the report but it had been reviewed by management and any of the hazards identified had been acted on. I have again requested a copy but I'm still waiting a reply. Am I within my rights to ask for a copy of this report and what would be the next step to take if I don't get it?

The continued failure of management/the employer to provide HSRs with access to information as required under the OHS Act astounds me! 

You need to challenge this formally - put the request in writing and cite this section of the OHS Act:
69   Other obligations of employers to health and safety representatives   
  1. An employer, any of whose employees are members of a designated work group must 
    (a) allow a health and safety representative for the DWG to have access to information that the employer has relating to: 
    (i) actual or potential hazards arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer or the plant or substances used for the purposes of that undertaking; and 
    (ii) the health and safety of the member of the DWG...  

The only excuse that I can think of for management NOT to provide it is that they may quibble that the information is on actual or potential hazards, or the health and safety of the DWG - but this is ridiculous as the response you got from the Health and Safety team clearly indicated that the report did in fact identify hazards, and that these are have been 'acted upon'.

It seems to me that they are concerned that the consultant's report points out shortcomings. 

Remember too that under section 35 of the Act the employer has a legal duty to consult with HSRs when identifying and assessing hazards and risks, and also when making decisions about controls to be implemented AND when proposing any changes to just about anything!! So if they did go ahead and act on the identified hazards, without consulting with the HSR and affected workers, then there has been a breach of the Duty to consult.

If management still refuses to provide you with a copy, let them know that you believe they are in breach of several legal obligations under the OHS Act and then be prepared to issue PINs on the matters - breaches of both s35 and s69. (see Resolution of issues, How to use a PIN)

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

Megaphone feature on Industrial manslaughter 

For those subscribers who would like to read about how we achieved the workplace manslaughter laws in Victoria, check out this article in the VTHC's Megaphone newsletter: Workplace Manslaughter and the Long Fight for JusticeIt is well worth the read.

Asbestos news

National: Asbestos Awareness Week

Every year in Australia, in the last week of November, activities are held to promote the awareness of asbestos - which is endemic in our built environment.  This year the VTHC will be running a number of events, including a Live Show. Keep your eyes on SafetyNet over the next few editions to find out more.

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

International union news

UK: Union body warns of huge COVID class divide  
The coronavirus crisis has been “a tale of two pandemics”, Britain's peak union council the TUC has said. It wants an urgent “economic reset” to tackle the huge class divide exposed by the pandemic. New research from the union body has revealed how low-income workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic with little or no option to work from home, no or low sick pay and reduced living standards, while better-off workers have enjoyed greater flexibility with work, financial stability and increased spending power.

The TUC polling, conducted by Britain Thinks, identified a stark pandemic class divide with the high-paid more financially comfortable than before, but the low-paid thrust into financial difficulty. The polling also showed:

  • low-paid workers are four times more likely than high-paid workers to say they cannot afford to take time off work when sick (24 per cent compared to six per cent)
  • Only a third (35 per cent) of low-paid workers say they get full pay when off sick compared to an overwhelming majority of high-paid workers (80 per cent).

The TUC has long been calling for an increase to statutory sick pay from a “derisory” £96.35 (AUD$180) per week, and from which more than two million low-paid workers – mostly women - are currently excluded because they do not earn enough to qualify. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Without fundamental change, the government’s own levelling up agenda will be doomed to failure. And we risk repeating the same old mistakes of the past decade – allowing insecure work to spiral even further. Ministers must start by banning zero hours contracts, raising the minimum wage with immediate effect and increasing statutory sick pay to a real Living Wage, making it available to all.” Read more: TUC news releaseThe Guardian. More on the hazards of low pay. Source: Risks 1014

Firefighters mark 9/11 twentieth anniversary 
UK firefighters and emergency fire control staff commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, with a minute’s silence at fire service workplaces across the country. UK firefighters’ union FBU said the disaster holds particular poignancy for firefighters and emergency fire control staff, as 343 out of the 412 emergency workers killed on the day were firefighters. Many more firefighters have since suffered and some died from diseases linked to toxic substances present at ground zero. Other health issues connected to the tragedy have also affected many firefighters.

Extending solidarity and sympathy to the families, friends and co-workers of the dead, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said, “It’s also worth noting that 9/11 is continuing to kill firefighters today. Toxic contaminants present at ground zero have likely caused disease in thousands of firefighters, and killed hundreds. Authorities in every country need to be conscious of the constant threat of contaminants to firefighters. We mourn the firefighters who have passed away as a result of this aspect of 9/11, and extend our sympathies to those who are suffering today.” FBU said toxic contaminants causing disease in firefighters is an issue on both sides of the Atlantic. The union has just launched a DECON campaign, which aims to train firefighters in techniques which will mitigate the effect of these contaminants  (Risks 1013). Read more: FBU news release. Source: Risks 1014 

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