Union News

COVID Update 
The number of new daily Omicron infections is jumping around a bit, with the state recording 8,159 cases today. However, the active cases are steadily decreasing, as are those in hospital. 

Victorian figures, February 16:

  • Active cases: 49,936 (last week 57,022)
  • Deaths reported today: 18
  • Total of 2,324 COVID-related deaths so far
  • 397 are in hospital, 68 are in ICU, and 13 of these are on ventilators 

You can check the Victorian live update here.

Australia wide: there have been 2,946,681 COVID cases in total (2,780,440 last week) and 4,668 deaths. 
Worldwide: as at February 16 there had been 415,712,429 worldwide infections (400,234,714 last week). There have now been 5,854,581 official COVID-related deaths.  (Source: Worldometer.) 
Read more: Coronavirus; COVID-19 Victorian situation

Masks: No-one is above the law 
We remind our readers that there are still some restrictions in place in Victoria: under current COVID-19 restrictions all Victorians are required to wear masks indoors.

Victoria Police this week issued penalty notices to six people not wearing masks at State Parliament on February 8. Victorian Coalition MPs Matthew Guy, Peter Walsh, David Davis, Gary Blackwood and Melina Bath were fined $100 after being photographed not wearing masks during a function where former AFL coach Kevin Sheedy gave a motivational speech.

The Victorian Liberals and Nationals have advocated for the removal of face mask mandates in low-risk settings.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews was fined $400 in October last year after he was filmed maskless before attending Parliament. Source: ABC news

NSW nurses and midwives strike over horror conditions, wages 
Thousands of nurses and midwives from about 150 public hospitals walked off the job in NSW on Tuesday in protest against staffing levels which have pushed an already stretched system to its limit during the COVID-19 pandemic. They rallied outside state parliament, expressing fury at ‘unsustainable’ work conditions as pleas for pay rise and more staff ‘ignored’.

The workers, their union, the NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association defied an order issued on Monday by the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to call off the industrial action. The intervention came after the NSW government took the matter to the IRC, arguing that the planned strike would disrupt health services across the state.

However, the  union had organised for skeleton staff to remain on duty to ensure the sickest patients were cared for. 

Last minute crisis talks between the nurses union and Health Minister Brad Hazzard failed to resolve the stalemate in negotiations over pay and staffing levels in hospitals.

For many nurses and midwives across NSW, the statewide strike was a chance to tell their horror stories. Union assistant general secretary Shaye Candish read out stories from nurses detailing extreme cases of understaffing and burnout. “This government is under-resourcing the health system and it’s creating trauma for us,” she said. “It’s time for the premier to listen. [Nurses] are saying that the system’s not coping and it’s not OK. We are not going away until our demands are met. We will come back bigger and angrier each time we are ignored.”

A midwife from Wollongong boarded a bus to Sydney with 150 colleagues. "We're drowning...we've been drowning for a long time and COVID has really just pressed that point home that this health system is just not working," she said.  Read more: NSW nurses and midwives converge on Sydney's CBD in protest over pay and work conditions during COVID-19 pandemic and Nurses' and midwives' horror stories behind the placards at NSW strikeABC news online. NSW nurses at breaking point as staff at 150 hospitals strike over pay and patient ratios, The Guardian

Vaccination update 
As of February 16, 92.72 per cent of Victorians over the age of 12 had been fully vaccinated, 94.23 per cent had received their first dose, and 48.37 percent had their third dose (note that this has just recently been approved for 16 and 17-year-olds). Australia wide, the figures are 93.14 per cent, 95.28 per cent respectively, and 46.56 per cent had received the third shot. Check the ABC Vaccine tracker and The Age for daily updates.

Please organise to get your third, or 'booster', shot as soon as possible: boosters reduce your chance of hospitalisation by 90 per cent against Omicron and your chance of death by even more. ATAGI has just provided advice that to be considered fully vaccinated, we need to have the three shots. To book your third shot today, go to the Victorian government's vaccine booking portal hereFind out more: ATAGI statement on defining 'up-to-date' status for COVID-19 vaccination, ATAGI media release  

Survey reminder: Is your workplace doing enough to prevent the spread of Omicron?
The COVID-Safe workplaces team is currently surveying health and safety reps and workers across Victoria to understand how Omicron has affected their workplaces and what employers are doing to limit the spread. Have your voice heard and be part of making our workplaces safer and better for all by completing the survey here!

COVID sessions for HSRs 
Online COVID Safe Training for HSRs has returned this year. VTHC is running four (4) sessions over the coming weeks:  

  1. February 21 - 1 to 3.30 pm 
  2. February 28 - 1 to 3.30 pm
  3. March 10 - 12.30 to 3 pm 
  4. March 21 - 12.30 to 3 pm 

The sessions are geared towards Victorian HSRs, and aim to provide resources and information on how to exercise your powers as an HSR in helping prevent workplace outbreaks of COVID-19. They have been updated to cover the Omicron wave and the importance of Rapid Antigen Tests and booster doses - however if you attended the course last year the conversation around your powers at work is the same.

VTHC Ventilation webinar
For two years, HSRs have been fighting tirelessly to make sure all workers are safe from COVID-19 at work - and the fight isn’t over yet. 

Proper ventilation is now considered one of the most important risk controls to ensure workplaces are safe from the spread of COVID. 

What does "proper ventilation" mean? 

It's not straightforward and most of us don't really know. That’s why we have ventilation expert, Meaghan Flack from the AEU joining us for a special HSR webinar and workshop.

When: Tuesday 1st March at 4pm. Online via Zoom Everyone is invited, so RSVP here

Ask Renata

Hello OHS team,

I have a question about my desk location in the workplace. My desk is currently in what is basically a passageway used regularly by other staff, where I am bumped and need to move my chair when others pass. There had been arrangements for the office layout to be rebuilt to suit all parties, but the day before hand my employers canceled the work. They have have chosen not to make any changes at all. What are my rights? 

The OHS/WHS legislation does not specifically address office layout, but this is because the duties on employers are generic, and cover everything in a workplace/working environment. 

Under the OHS Act, the employer has a general duty of care to provide and maintain (so far as is reasonably practicable) a safe and healthy working environment, and also safe and healthy systems of work. 

So, basically what this means is that if the current arrangements are putting your health and safety at risk, then your employer must take action - and must consult with the health and safety reps (if any) with or without the employees about any OHS related matters. If you don't have an elected HSR, then your employer must consult with affected employees. From your question, I would say that your health is being affected - it is clear that you are stressed by the interruptions, which also would/could affect your work performance - and so cause you more stress.  

With regard to what your employer should be providing with regards to office space/layout, there is a lot of guidance - the best is Officewise. Check this page for more information on Office Space, and also a link to Officewise.  

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.  

Last chance: Come work in the VTHC OHS Unit 
If you're experienced in OHS and have strong commitment to unions and workers, then don't forget about the exciting job in the VTHC's OHS Unit. The role includes producing SafetyNet, answering 'Ask Renata' queries, writing content for the OHS Reps@Work website and liaising with affiliates and WorkSafe. Closing date for applications is February 20 - so if you're thinking about it, check out the job description on Ethical Jobs here.

Two short term positions at VTHC 
There are two short-term vacancies currently being advertised in the Jobs Team working on the Women Onsite program. The two roles vary slightly, are both located in Melbourne, and are currently funded to June 30, 2022. 

  1. Project Organiser - Project & Participant Support - Women Onsite 
  2. Project Organiser - Partners & Events - Women Onsite

Applications close on February 21, so if you'd like to try out what working at VTHC might be like, here's your opportunity!

Cash consulting on outstanding Jenkins recommendations 
Ahead of the expected May federal election, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has set a five-week deadline for feedback on some of the Jenkins Respect@Work recommendations it is yet to act on, including the "positive duty" for employers to stamp-out sexual harassment.

Senator Cash this week released consultation paper and a survey - responses due March 18.

The consultation does not extend to recommendation 28 – to amend the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment – because the Government committed in its Jenkins response to consider it after assessing the impact of recommendation 16, which she said is now largely in operation. According to the consultation paper, the Respect@Work Act, passed in last year implemented "most aspects" of recommendation 16. 
Source: Workplace Express

Asbestos News 
Unscrupulous developers dump asbestos contaminated 'clean fill'  
A NSW family's property has been rendered worthless when unscrupulous developers dumped more than 2,400 tonnes of contaminated material as 'clean fill'. A news item on 9's Current Affair reveals that after carrying out testing, the EPA issued the family with a clean up notice in 2018, just a year after the material was dumped. It warned of a $250,000 penalty if the clean up notice was not complied with. Now the family, which believes there is much more waste than has been found, believes it faces a clean up bill of up to $9 million. Perhaps rightly, the family believes the EPA should do more to control illegal dumping. 
See more: Contaminated land nightmare for family struggling with dementia, A Current Affair.  

Annual Asbestos Conference 
This year's Asbestos Safety and Management Conference, will be held from 19–20 May 2022 at the Fairmont Resort & Spa in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Blue Mountains. Run by the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA), it is being jointly hosted by the Blue Mountains City Council (BMCC). 

This important national event, which will have a special focus on those on the front-line of asbestos safety management, will comprise a 2-day conference including a series of plenary sessions, workshops and networking activities, as well as optional pre-conference activities held on 18 May.

The conference will be a hybrid event, offering delegates the opportunity to either attend in-person or livestream the event. Read more: 2022 Asbestos Safety and Management Conference.

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

International union news 
Global: Final push for ‘fundamental right’ to safe work 
Unions worldwide want their demand for health and safety to finally become a globally recognised fundamental principle and right at work. “It’s a no-brainer. Every working person should know that they have the right to expect that everything is done to keep them safe at work. We demand that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopts occupational health and safety as a fundamental right at work. It’s as important as freedom of association and the elimination of forced labour, child labour and discrimination in employment,” said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow.

Three years have passed since the ILO Centenary Conference agreed that this would be done. In that time over 8 million people have died as a result of their work, and even more now live with life-altering injuries and illnesses because their employer did not protect them. A final decision is expected at ILO’s June 2022 conference. Sharan Burrow continued: “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated beyond doubt that working people can’t wait for this any longer. Workplace deaths are preventable deaths and the latest figures show that a worker dies at least once every ten seconds. By doing this the ILO will be making a start on cutting this appalling toll of death and injuries.”

To press its case, ITUC is urging unions worldwide to again take up the issue of health and safety as a fundamental right on International Workers’ Memorial Day, 28 April. The global union body is also pressing for other improvements. “Employers must take responsibility for assessing and eradicating risks in their workplaces and in their supply chains, and consulting unions on prevention through workplace health and safety committees,” Burrow said. “And we need the ILO to do more and address challenges like stress at work, musculoskeletal disorders and a convention on biological hazards like COVID-19. It is urgent that COVID-19 is recognised for the workplace threat that it is. Health and safety should be the first priority at work, not an occasional after thought.” Read more: ITUC news release  and 28 April #iwmd22 webpages

Global: new COVID-19 guidance for hotel workers  
The danger posed by COVID-19 to hotel workers and guests drove critical discussions with international institutions, IUF has said, leading to groundbreaking new guidance. In the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting in March 2021, the global union for the sector called upon governments to “develop and implement protocols – negotiated with trade unions - to protect hotel workers.”

The result is the IUF Guide to COVID-19 Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in hotels  (in EnglishFrench & Spanish) is a resource which is the product of discussions and consultations with leading industrial hygienists, occupational health experts and specialists from the WHO and ILO. The IUF Guide brings together evidence-based knowledge about the transmission of COVID-19 with international safety and health standards and:

  • complements and updates interim guidance from the WHO issued on August 25, 2020 on “COVID-19 management in hotels and other entities of the accommodation sector”
  • takes into account the specific health risks posed by the aerosol transmission (spread of respiratory particles) of COVID-19
  • includes trade unions’ demands for workers on income and job protection

IUF assistant general secretary James Ritchie commented the guide “has been developed to enable IUF affiliates and others that are involved in negotiating and implementing safety protocols in hotels to protect both workers and guests during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.” Read more: IUF news release Source: Risks 1031

UK: Firefighters and contaminants 
Firefighters in the UK have been urged by their union to protect themselves from toxic fire contaminants. The firefighters’ union FBU has highlighted a study finding rates of cancer in firefighters were more than four times higher than in the general public.

The research by the University of Central Lancashire involved 10,000 serving firefighters. FBU’s response – a new DECON training and guidance programme – encourages firefighters to take actions before, during and after every fire incident to help reduce their own, their co-workers’ and their families’ exposure to fire contaminants.

UK firefighters are also being encouraged to fill in a University of Central Lancashire firefighter cancer and disease registry. FBU national officer Riccardo la Torre said: “In the past, firefighters have been let down by a lack of information and a lax safety culture being allowed to prevail. DECON guidance and training helps firefighters protect themselves through simple actions like better cleaning of gear and making sure to always wear breathing apparatus when it’s needed, never putting it on too late.”
Read more: DECON training and guidance. Source: Work Cancer Hazards  

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