Serious safety concerns stop work again at Australia's largest infrastructure project.
We didn’t get the result we were hoping for in the NSW election, but there are plenty more fights still going in the state that the ETU will turn its attention back to.
One site where the battle continues is Sydney’s $16.8 billion roads project, WestConnex, where workers have been given respirators following a toxic fungal contamination – the latest in a long list of serious safety concerns on the project.
In mid-March more than 600 electricians and pipe-fitters stopped work and evacuated the tunnel site at Habberfield in the city’s inner-west after the release of an air-quality report that the ETU had pushed for.
The independent study suggested there was “probable health risk” after an “extremely high” fungal contamination was found during air monitoring.
ETU NSW Secretary Justin Page said that workers were justified in evacuating the tunnel over serious fears for their health and safety from the contamination.
“Workers have been raising concerns about moist conditions and inadequate ventilation combining to cause a serious mould problem in the tunnel, but no one realised just how bad the situation was or how great a health risk was posed until this testing was finally undertaken,” Mr Page said.
“After finally agreeing to undertake independent testing, management are now refusing to recognise the results which have shown extreme levels of contamination that are posing a significant risk to workers.”
The fight landed the ETU in the Fair Work Commission against CPB Contractors, who were told to engage and industrial hygienist to assess and danger areas and give the all clear while workers would be provided respirators for work underground.
The Commission also recommended the hygienist sign off on above-ground tool cleaning while the contractors must “undertake all decontamination and remedial action in accordance with the recommendations of the hygienist”.
ETU Construction Organiser Stewart Edward said it was good the FWC sided with workers on health and safety concerns, and CPB should have done the same.
“This is a massive project with hundreds of workers deep underground in confined environments who have had to stop work several times over concerns for their safety,” he said.
“And instead of taking those concerns seriously, CPB claimed it was illegal industrial action and took us to the commission only to be told exactly what we’re saying in the first place.”
Organiser Antony Stegic said CPB managers should have listened to workers instead of rushing off to the commission.
“These bosses should stop ignoring workers and listen to their concerns when they arise, instead of fighting us all the way to Fair Work and losing anyway,” he said.
Despite the independently noted health risks, WestConnex construction managers initially refused to meet with the workers at the time.
Secretary Page said the bosses were “instead insisting workers go back into areas that have been identified as unsafe by the independent industrial hygienist”.
“Our members need to know that they are not being exposed to a serious health risk before they return to working in what they now know is a dangerous and highly contaminated worksite.”
The NSW Secretary said there was an urgent need for the NSW Liberal Government to address the ongoing concerns over workers’ health and safety at its multi-billion-dollar, signature infrastructure project before the public began using the facilities in coming months.
“Premier Gladys Berejiklian must take urgent steps to address these extreme fungal contamination before the general public begin using these tunnels, otherwise it risks becoming another mess like the light rail,” he said.