Union News

COVID Update 
The number of new daily Omicron infections is jumping around a bit, with the state recording 6,926 cases today. However, the active cases are steadily decreasing, as are those in hospital. The state hit a milestone this week, having recorded over a million cases of the infection since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Victorian figures, February 23:

  • 42,016 active cases  (last week 49,936)
  • 17 deaths reported today
  • 2,409 COVID-related deaths so far
  • 319 are in hospital, 48 are in ICU, and 8 of these are on ventilators 
  • 1,011,475 total number of infections

You can check the Victorian live update here.

Australia wide: another milestone with over 3 million (3,074,283) COVID cases in total (2,946,681 last week) and 4,966 deaths. 
Worldwide: as at February 23 there had been 427,885,338 worldwide infections (415,712,429 last week). There have now been 5,923,006 official COVID-related deaths.  (Source: Worldometer.) 
Read more: Coronavirus; COVID-19 Victorian situation

How we live 
On Friday February 18, several restrictions which had been in place to mitigate the impacts of the Omicron wave were lifted.

  • Density quotients no longer apply for hospitality venues and indoor dance floors re-opened;
  • QR codes were removed for all venues except restaurants and entertainment venues
  • Requirements for hospital worker bubbles have been scrapped.

As of 11.59pm February 25, the recommendation for Victorians to work or study from home will be removed and face masks will no longer be needed in most indoor settings. Masks will only be required in the following settings: 

  • People on public transport, in taxis and rideshare, on planes, and indoors at an airport
  • People working or visiting hospitals, and indoor areas at care facilities
  • Workers in hospitality, retail and the court system
  • Workers at justice and correctional facilities
  • Students in year 3 or above at primary school, and workers at early childhood centres and primary schools (masks can be removed in secondary school)
  • People working indoors at an event with more than 30,000 people attending
  • In special circumstances, such as if you have COVID-19 or are a close contact and you're leaving home

Finally, from Saturday February 26, all elective surgery will resume across Victoria’s public and private hospitals. This easing of restrictions comes off the back of a stabilization in hospitalizations and a significant reduction in the number of people in intensive care and on ventilators. Doctors had been calling for Australia’s elective surgery backlog to be addressed with the AMA president calling the approach “increasingly unsustainable” and a reflection of governments failure to properly invest in public hospital capacity and secure long-term funding arrangements to address the issue.

Vaccination update 
As of February 22, 92.85 per cent of Victorians over the age of 12 had been fully vaccinated, 94.39 per cent had received their first dose, and 52.21 percent had their third dose. The government is concerned that vaccinations of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have slowed down somewhat.  Australia wide, the figures are 93.39 per cent, 95.46 per cent respectively, and 50.05 per cent had received the third shot. Check the ABC Vaccine tracker and The Age for daily updates.

As of Monday this week, Novavax became available for anyone who was waiting for it to get vaccinated. Novavax is Australia's first protein-based COVID-19 vaccine, and while over 95 per cent of Australians over the age of 16 have received two doses of one of the other approved vaccines, the federal government hopes the introduction of Novavax will encourage those holding out to finally come forward. Novavax is available to be used as a first and second dose — to be given at least three weeks apart — but at this stage isn't recommended as a booster. 
Read more: ABC  news online

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. Remember that ATAGI has said 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 here 

HSR Survey Results  
The COVIDSafe Workplaces team has been surveying health and safety reps on the impact of the Omicron variant on the workplace. The survey has now closed, and the team is working through the findings.

Common issues included health and safety being compromised due to staff shortages, COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, and a lack of access to rapid antigen tests resulting in staff attending work while positive.

Early results suggest that HSRs are crying out for more resources on how to combat the spread of COVID-19 within their workplace. The team is working on a variety of digital resources including short videos, fact sheets and posters on how HSRs can get their employer to be COVIDSafe.

COVID sessions for HSRs 
Online COVID Safe Training for HSRs has returned this year. There are three sessions over the coming weeks:  

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

March 1: VTHC Ventilation webinar 
Don’t forget to RSVP to the We Are Union: OHS Reps Ventilation Workshop.

Ventilation is now regarded as one of the most important control measures to ensure your workplace is COVID-Safe. 

Not sure what proper ventilation looks like? Join the OHS Network and Meaghan Flack from the AEU to find out more about ventilation and how to use your HSR powers to push for proper ventilation at work.
When: Tuesday 1st March at 4pm. Online via Zoom Everyone is invited, so RSVP here

Is your workplace still COVIDSafe? 
Now that restrictions are relaxing even further, it can be hard to keep up with what your bosses’ obligations are, and what you can do as a worker. It’s important to remember that workers must be consulted as their COVIDSafe plan changes, if you’re worried or unsure about this, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our COVIDSafe team here. All workers deserve to have a COVIDSafe Workplace.

Ask Renata

Hello Renata,

I am a young, casual worker with a job in a large food retail store. 

I have problems at my workplace with exposed wires around the store, heavy items left on the ground, an unsafe loading dock which I’m expected to work around. I am expected to lift heavy packages, which I cannot always do. Rubbish is left around the place by managers who then arrogantly tell me to do things I haven't been trained to do. I am expected to climb onto the roof storage which has holes in the floor, it is hot and slippery, filled with stock and no railing which means I could fall onto hard concrete. And if I say it is unsafe, my concerns are dismissed and I am told to continue with my work.

On top of all this, I am expected to come in immediately even when I am not on the roster, and am unable to as I have another job, studies and appointments. 

Your employer is clearly not meeting their health and safety obligations under the OHS Act by a long shot. Under s21 of the OHS Act, your employer has a legal obligation to provide you a working environment that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health. 

This covers the entire workplace and the systems of work - so things like exposed wires, manual handling (lifting, pushing, etc.), working at heights, vehicles and mobile plant (forklifts, etc.). You are facing many hazards that are a clear and serious risk to you and to other workers. What your employer is asking you to do is against the law - they are putting not just your safety, but your life at risk. In addition, your employer's management practices are a risk to your psychological health as you are continually under stress and in fear. 

First of all, you have a right to say no to unsafe work. Your boss cannot lawfully fire or discipline you if refuse unsafe work. You are protected both under the Fair Work Act and the OHS Act for raising a health and safety issue. You also have Common Law protection for refusing unsafe work. If you don't feel safe, say no. Your job is not worth risking injury or death. Find out more about your basic OHS rights here.  

But it sounds like your employer is not at all concerned with their OHS obligations, so it will be up to you and your colleagues to stand up to enforce your OHS rights, and fight for a safe workplace. Do you have an elected HSR? If not, then you should talk about electing one - contact your union for help to do this.. if you're a member. If you are not a member, then I strongly recommend that you join as soon as possible. 

I would also urge you to reach out to the Young Workers Centre for assistance. The Centre provides advice and support for young workers to make change in their workplace. Get in touch 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.  

Mind Your Head resources 
Mind Your Head is a joint initiative of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Employers Mutual Limited, the Centre for Workplace Excellence and supported by WorkSafe Victoria's WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

  1. OHS checklist for psychosocial hazards Mind Your Head OHS checklist for psychological hazards, for activists and HSRs to use to assist in identifying psychosocial hazards in their workplace.
  2. Mind Your Head WHS Guidance Booklet - provides guidance on psychological hazards

Go to the Mind Your Head website for more information and resources. 

No prosecution after mine explosion causes anger 
Mineworkers are angry and dismayed by the Queensland Workplace Health and Safety Prosecutor's failure to lay charges over the May 2020 Grosvenor underground mine explosion that seriously injured five workers and traumatised many more. 

A Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry report last year into the incident at Anglo American's coking coal mine found that labour hire and contract work is "entrenched" in the State's coal mining industry and recommended that employers and labour suppliers bear joint responsibility for safety compliance.

Mining and Energy Union Queensland President Stephen Smyth said the findings of the inquiry were damning of the mine’s management and repercussions should follow.  “I am personally devastated at this decision, having worked very closely with the Grosvenor miners as they have recovered from the explosion and dealt with the fallout,” said Mr Smyth. 

“I know that workers across our industry, especially those at Grosvenor mine who have just this week restarted longwall production, are angry. In an environment where our members get sacked for minor policy breaches, it’s deeply unfair that a management team that oversaw a mine blowing up should face no consequences whatsoever.

“The report painted a picture of an accident waiting to happen. It was a foreseeable event and no action was taken to protect the miners at Grosvenor," he said. “Mineworkers put their lives on the line every day and they deserve to know that the people responsible for their safety will be held accountable for meeting their obligations." Read more: CFMEU Queensland Branch media release. Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry Report [pdf]. Office of the Work Health and Safety Prosecutor media release.

Asbestos News 
Alcoa, Monadelphous fined after workers exposed to asbestos  
Alcoa Australia and engineering contractor Monadelphous have been fined a total of $55,000 after two workers were exposed to asbestos at Alcoa's Pinjarra alumina refinery.

Both companies pleaded guilty in the Mandurah Magistrates Court to failing to provide a safe work environment. Alcoa was fined $30,000 plus $5,000 costs and Monadelphous was fined $25,000 plus $6,000 costs.  

This is the second time in just over a year that Alcoa has been fined for safety breaches. In January 2021 it was fined $210,000, plus $75,000 in costs, after a contractor fell to his death at the company's Kwinana alumina refinery in 2015. Read more: Business news 

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.

UK: Asbestos exposure during Houses of Parliament renos 
Botched renovation works in the UK Houses of Parliament may have exposed dozens of people working on the Speaker’s apartments on the estate to asbestos. Parliamentary staffers and contractors are among those who have been warned they may have been exposed between October and November 2021. Authorities have called a "temporary pause" to renovation works on the Victorian gothic palace to ensure "lessons" are learned and implemented.

Parliament's buildings are in a very poor state of structural repair and an official report found in 2016 that it was “riddled with asbestos”. Visitors to the estate are often surprised to find a complex of buildings permanently propped up by scaffolding and in a state of constant renovation.
Source: The Independent

Johnson & Johnson (J&J): talc bankruptcy strategy 'rotten' 
A J&J subsidiary has come under attack in court for trying to use the bankruptcy process to resolve tens of thousands of claims that its baby powder and other talc-based products caused cancer.

The subsidiary, LTL Management, is fighting to remain in bankruptcy, arguing that is the best way to reach an "equitable, efficient, and consensual resolution" of more than 38,000 claims alleging that J&J's talc-based products caused cancers including mesothelioma.

Meanwhile, J&J maintains that its consumer talc products are safe.

J&J used a legal maneuver known as the "Texas two-step," which allows companies to split valuable assets from liabilities through a so-called divisive merger. Lawyers representing cancer patients say that the bankruptcy case is meant to delay and frustrate lawsuits that would otherwise go to a jury trial against J&J directly. 

J&J secretly launched "Project Plato" last year to shift liability from its pending talc lawsuits to the newly created subsidiary, which was then to be put into bankruptcy.

If J&J gets bankruptcy-court approval, such a strategy, while rarely used, could be adopted more widely by big companies facing liability, according to lawyers for talc plaintiffs, as well as some legal experts. 
Read more: Yahoo Finance 

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

International union news 
UK: Ending isolation rules is going ‘too far too soon’ 
Despite daily COVID infections still in the tens of thousands, the UK will end almost all COVID restrictions across England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that from Thursday this week, the country will move to a new phase of "living with COVID" – this is a month earlier than originally planned.

People infected with COVID will no longer be legally required to self-isolate and routine tracing of people's contacts will end. Free rapid and PCR tests will also be scrapped, except in the case of older people and for those who are immune compromised. From April 1, people with COVID-19 symptoms will be encouraged simply to exercise personal responsibility in the same way as those with flu would be encouraged to be considerate of others.

Abandoning COVID isolation rules early is going too far way too soon, UK UNISON has said. The public sector union said everybody wants to get back to normal, but COVID risks haven’t disappeared. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Everybody wants to get back to normal, but COVID risks haven’t disappeared. This is going too far, way too soon. Infections are still rife in schools. Large numbers of pupils and staff are off. Allowing a premature return could lead to a further jump in infections and disrupt learning for thousands more children and young people.” Department of Education (DfE) figures showed almost a tenth (9.1 per cent) of all teaching staff in England were absent in the first week of February, a new record. The union said ministers must give clear, detailed guidance to prevent a “super spreader free-for-all” in workplaces when COVID isolation requirements end. Read more: ABC news online;  UNISON news release  and follow up news release

Brazil: Meat worker safety under attack 
Unions say health and safety regulations for meat and poultry processing introduced in Brazil in 2013 were a major advance for workers’ rights, but these are now under attack. According to global foodworkers’ union IUF, meat companies are lobbying Brazil’s government to withdraw or weaken the regulations. The 2013 law – known as NR36 - came into force after 15 years of national and international union campaigns for safer meat and poultry workplaces. IUF says NR36 was enacted to halt an epidemic of repetitive strain and other injuries and required an overhaul of work practices, including introducing new provisions for regular breaks. The law also requires the participation of workers and their representatives in developing and monitoring health and safety in the workplace.

IUF assistant general secretary James Ritchie stated: “Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, Brazilian authorities, backed by powerful corporate interests, are preparing to withdraw or seriously weaken NR36. We urge all IUF affiliates to send a message to the Brazilian authorities to ask them not to withdraw or amend the existing regulations.” Read more: IUF news release. UFCW Canada news release. ACTION: Sign the petition. Source: Risks 1033 

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