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ETU Take the Lead on COVID-19 Workplace Safety

Calvin Millard

Despite stark warnings flooding in from overseas, many Australians—our leaders amongst them—appear to have been caught off-guard and ill-prepared by the fallout from COVID-19.


But back when Scott Morrison was still proudly heading to the football and the WHO hadn’t yet declared a pandemic, electrical workers on a core Brisbane construction project were taking the initiative to get workplace measures into place before they became needed.

ETU health and safety representative Tommy Campbell requested a full month ago that Multiplex, the contracting company overseeing high rise development at 300 George Street, produce a policy to avoid on-site contamination.

They came back with a site-wide plan for measures many other companies are just now implementing, including making hand sanitiser available in lifts and on site, introducing extra cleaning, and dividing the trades into separate crib rooms to reduce the number of workers sharing close proximity on-site.

Although this was a strong start, the site’s electrical workers—wanting to protect themselves and their communities from potential exposure—decided to work with the company to take these measures further and lower the possibility for contraction and transmission on-site. 

Within 24 hours, Tommy and site delegate Robbie Wechsler had developed a more comprehensive plan for on-site safety, got the backing of the site’s electrical workforce, had it approved by ETU QLD Assistant Secretary Chris Lynch, endorsed by the site manager, and then gone to the Company Director to ask that more comprehensive measures be put in place. 

And it worked. 

Signs on the George Street site show different rooms for workers

The new policy for electrical workers involves a complete 50/50 split of the workforce through every step of the day: split staffing times, split smoko breaks, and a split that means workers on the lower floors only use the site’s three internal lifts, while those working on upper levels use two external hoists. 

“What we’ve done is we’ve actually managed complete isolation between the two sections of the trade,” says Tommy. 

“We have our own washing areas, our own hygiene areas, even our own areas where we walk. Half the sparkies go down one stairwell and half go down another. It’s even to the point where if you’re waiting for the lift and you see a guy from the other crib room is in it going down, you won’t get in—you’ll stop and wait for the next one. The theory being that if you were ever asked, you’d know with complete certainty who you’ve been in contact with. Because tracking is the most important thing right now.”

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“We got a little bit of stick for it from the other trades at first,” says Tommy, “but we got it across the line anyway. And now others on site can see first-hand that this is working, they’re looking to implement something similar for their trade groups as well.

“We can feel happier, safer, and when we go back to our families we know we’ve done our bit at work to keep them safe.”

Unfortunately, in the absence of Government-led universal measures, workers are needing to advocate for themselves and work with contractors to ensure adequate safety measures in their workplace. But thankfully our union is prepared for this, and ready to take the lead. 

“The longer we wait, the worse this gets,” says Tommy. “Someone’s got to make a decision somewhere and fast: with this virus, inaction is gonna be the thing that brings us undone. 

“Until the government steps up, we just have to do it ourselves, and make sure we’re looking out for ourselves and for the members.”

 


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