Union News

Two workers killed in the past week.

It is with great sadness that we report the first two workplace fatalities of 2022. Both occurred in the past week.

A 40-year-old truck driver was killed at Karramomus, near Shepparton on Thursday 13 January. The tip truck he was driving veered off the road, struck a tree and caught fire.

A 49-year-old worker was killed in Dandenong South on Monday 17 January. The worker was crushed by a shipping container when a component failed and the container fell back on the driver’s cabin.

This brings the workplace fatality toll to 2 in 2022. No worker should be killed at work. Every death is preventable. Mourn the dead; Fight like hell for the living.

COVID update

The Omicron variant continues to spread across Victoria extremely quickly, with the state recording 20,769 new COVID-19 infections today. The good news is that this is a significant drop in case numbers from previous days, signalling that this current wave may have approached its peak. However, the official case numbers still represent an underestimation of community transmission with epidemiologists speculating that actual case numbers could be up to 5 times higher. There are a number of reasons for this. Testing centres are being overwhelmed, many cases of Omicron are asymptomatic and many people are either not reporting results from Rapid Antigen Tests or unable to access these tests due to supply issues.

The real toll of the pandemic is reflected in the state’s hospitalisation numbers. Victoria's COVID-19 hospitalisations are currently at 1,173 with 125 in intensive care and 42 on ventilators. Almost half of those in hospital are unvaccinated, a significant overrepresentation given that 94% of Victorians over the age of 12 have received two doses of the vaccine. Proportionally, the rate of hospitalisation is lower compared to earlier waves in part due to the reduced severity of the Omicron variant and the fact that the variant is less likely to reproduce in the lungs. 

Staff shortages have continued to affect supply chains and essential workplaces across Victoria. This has led to an expansion of the close contact isolation exemption to include a number of new workers. As of 18/01/2022 workers in emergency services, education, critical utilities, custodial facilities and transport and freight have joined the food production and distribution industries in being exempt from isolation if they are a close contact with the following conditions;

​​- Close contacts will be able to leave the house to go to work only, for the rest of the time they will be in quarantine.

- Social activities will not be permitted.

- Close contacts must take a rapid antigen test before attending work across five days.

- They must be asymptomatic.

- Workers must wear a mask the entire time while at work, preferably an N95 mask.

- They must take meal breaks separate from other workers.

Additionally, workplace reporting rules have changed. For a full overview of what a workplace is required to do if there are cases in the workplace, see the Victorian government’s advice. Unfortunately, staff shortages have led some employers to abandon their health and safety obligations to workers, coercing workers to return to work even though they are COVID-positive. As was said in the last SafetyNet, if you believe your employer is violating their OHS obligations, contact your union.

Code Brown declared for Victorian hospitals.

A Code Brown alert has been activated across all metropolitan and six regional hospitals in the state. 

From midday yesterday, healthcare staff and resources can be redeployed to different sites and non-essential services will be postponed. ADF personnel have been called upon to drive ambulances and assist planning.

The alert is to help streamline emergency services and ease the strain on health resources from growing COVID hospitalisations. Health authorities are anticipating up to 100 hospitalisations everyday in the coming weeks.

This will be an extreme burden for the healthcare workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic since the beginning. Many healthcare workers don't have access to the rapid antigen tests they need, are working with extreme staff shortages, being deployed in areas outside their area of expertise and having leave cancelled or renegotiated.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (Victorian Branch) Acting Secretary Paul Gilbert said ‘Nurses and midwives have had the week from hell, on top of two years of intense difficulty. These coming weeks will only be worse."

ANMF media release. Read more: ABC

Tey’s Meats 

Last week it was revealed that hundreds of workers at Tey’s Meats processing plant South Australia were being subjected to an unsafe COVID workplace. At least 140 of their nearly 400 strong workforce had tested positive. Many of these workers are in insecure work with the majority on temporary visas and about 90% of workers born overseas. 

SA Health issued an exemption that would allow infected asymptomatic workers to work, putting other workers, their families and wider community at risk. Despite Tey’s assurance that only asymptomatic workers would return to work, it’s been claimed that several staff were clearly still unwell, “They still have a runny nose, they have coughs, they still have sore throats.” All workers continued to use communal eating and toilet areas, making exposure and potential infections more likely. Colour coded hairnets were issued to staff based on COVID status, with ACTU President Michelle O’Niel calling it “demeaning and dystopian”. 

In response to the unsafe work conditions at Tey’s, workers, their Union and the community put pressure on Woolworths to suspend sourcing meat from Tey’s, whilst workers COVID safety was at risk and by Monday after a phone conversation with Michelle O’Neil and Woolworths Chief Executive Brad Banducci, Woolworths announced that they would suspend supplies from Tey’s South Australian and source produce from other meat works. 

Finally on Tuesday of this week, the ACTU was advised that no COVID-Positive worker would be forced to work at Tey’s after the company agreed to the Union’s demands, that workers with COVID will be able to isolate, rest at home and recover. This is an important reminder the best way to be safe at work is to join your union. 

Ask Renata

Hello, I work in a heritage listed building with no air conditioning. I am curious to know what is the recommended inside temperature to work in?

Heat, whether 'seasonal' or part of the 'normal work environment', can be a hazard - working in heat can lead to workers suffering serious illness and can also lead to increased accidents. At the very least, it is very uncomfortable for workers having to work in heat.
 
While there is nothing specific in the law about working in heat, your employer has a duty to provide you with a workplace that is safe and without risks to health. If you and your colleagues are working in very hot conditions, this could be a risk to your health. 
 
Given the risks of climate change, this problem is only going to get worse in the future, so your employer should take action to address the hazard now - before it gets any worse!
There's no legal temperature that is considered too hot to continue working, however the Victorian Compliance Code for Workplace amenities and work environment gives a guide of between 20 - 26 degrees Celsius for sedentary workers. Workers performing physically strenuous work will likely prefer a cooler work environment. Indoor workplaces need to be capable of maintaining a comfortable temperature range suitable to the work, whether through air conditioning, fans, insulation, airflow control etc.
Speak to your employer about arranging some temperature control at work. Installing air conditioning may be expensive, but this is an issue that is going to arise every summer and only get more extreme in the future, so it's a worthwhile investment. If air conditioning is not feasible in the short term, pursue other forms of temperature control, such as fans. Also consider other measures such as increasing the number/frequency of breaks, have cool water available within arms reach and (if you have certain dress standards) relaxing dress codes and allowing lighter clothing/shorts.
Don't forget, under s35 your employer must consult with you as the HSR, either through an agreed upon issue resolution procedure or the one laid out in the OHS Act.

Heat can be a really serious hazard. Less than a month ago, a worker was killed at a Perth laundry as a result of heat stress. The 55-year-old worker died after working a 60 hour work week in extreme heat. Inside the factory, machine exhaust fans blew hot air directly onto workstations and the only source of drinking water was broken. Several workers had reported that they suffered from heat stroke, difficulty breathing and panic attacks while working in the factory before their coworker was killed.

If you're concerned about heat at your workplace, you can find more information and an action plan on our heat hazard page here. Learn more about climate change as an OHS issue here.

If you have any OHS-related questions send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. Your questions will be answered by Renata or one of the other members of the VTHC's OHS Unit. 

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