COVID fears not addressed by Campaspe Shire Council: report

By Andrew Johnston

MULTIPLE concerns of staff members of Campaspe Shire Council were not acted on in relation to protecting them from COVID-19, a report has shown.

In an ‘Improvement Notice’ document issued by WorkSafe Victoria on September 2, of which the opening two pages have been obtained by the Riverine Herald, a WorkSafe-appointed inspector stated the council was “reasonably believed” to have breached two sections of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

But council chief executive Declan Moore rejected the suggestion staff were more at risk at work than anywhere else in the community.

The most damning section of the report found the council’s Business Community Response Team had not addressed multiple issues regarding employee safety raised by staff members.

The section of the report states council's Pandemic Emergency Management Plan had not been activated, and employees who had the ability and were technologically able to work from home — such as the fully mobile planning and environmental teams — had not been permitted to work from home.

It also states sanitiser had not been provided at all employee entrances, while also saying there were concerns over the effectiveness of the current cleaning contractors who were cleaning the workplace twice daily.

Employees who worked in the library and reception area were concerned about their ability to physically distance from members of the public, and the report notes screens were not provided, and nor was sanitiser for members of the public at entry points.

Currently department teams have been split, with employees working from locations not open to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions; however, employees have stated concerns about their health and safety when they return to a centralised office location, believing they won’t be able to practise physical distancing in the workplace.

According to the report, council enacted its Business Continuity Plan on March 23 and had formed the Business Community Response Team comprising of the executive management group, communications manager and HR manager.

The report says the team had “up until now made decisions on COVID-19-related matters on behalf of employees”, but that neither employees nor health and safety representatives had been consulted on COVID-19-related matters.

It further states COVID-19 risk assessments had not been undertaken at the council's workplace at 2 Heygarth St, nor at other council workplaces, in consultation with employees and health and safety representatives.

The report says employees and health and safety representatives were not consulted about identifying or assessing hazards or risks to health and safety, or making decisions regarding measures to be taken to control risks to health and safety.

“Therefore employees at the workplace are at risk of contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) and as a result may suffer from severe respiratory related illness and/or fatality,” a WorkSafe Victoria inspector wrote.

“I reasonably believe that Campaspe Shire Council is in contravention of Section 21 (1) and 21 (2) (a) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 because a safe system of work associated with controlling the risk of employees contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) has not been provided, so far as is reasonably practicable.”

The second page of the report finishes by stating council “… must provide a safe system of work associated with controlling the risk of employees contracting coronavirus (COVID-19) at the workplace, so far as is reasonably practicable”.

The report begins to list measures of compliance, which appear to continue on another page.

A WorkSafe spokeswoman said: “WorkSafe has visited the site and inquiries are continuing.”

Mr Moore said the council did not accept the assertions in the report.

“Council rejects outright any assertion that staff are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace than elsewhere in the community,” he said.

“Council notes that WorkSafe has contacted council on two previous occasions (about similar allegations) in the last few months and (each time) the inspector acknowledged that council was providing a safe workplace for staff in accordance with the directions from DHHS.

“The standard process for dealing with allegations and assertions, whether made by staff, the media or government agencies, is to first establish their veracity. The contents of the report forwarded to the media were not subjected to such basic checks, which are now being conducted through review by WorkSafe at council’s request.

“Council will deal with WorkSafe, not the media, in this regard, and suggests that caution be applied before promoting untested allegations. Council will continue to operate consistent with DHHS directions as the various steps in the Roadmap to Reopening are taken.”