18 Aug 2020

Covid-19: WorkSafe steps in to ensure safety of isolation facility staff

3:02 pm on 18 August 2020

The workplace safety watchdog is stepping in to investigate if quarantine hotels are keeping their staff safe, four months after these workers became a new front line against Covid-19.

Police at the Grand Mecure Hotel in Wellington, which is being used as a managed isolation facility.

Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

This follows the debacle over the lack of testing of frontline border staff for the virus.

Last week it was revealed that more than 60 percent of border staff had never been tested.

WorkSafe is beginning assessments that would cover all isolation facilities. It would start off by inspections over the phone, not in person.

"Should our inspectors identify any concerns in relation to compliance with HSWA [Health and Safety at Work Act] then on-site inspections will be undertaken," the agency said in a statement.

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

But Unite Union national secretary Gerard Hehir said phone checks would miss out workers in favour of managers.

He said it had not worked well asWorkSafe's primary response to distancing breaches at fast food outlets in April and May.

WorkSafe should put inspectors on the ground and have had them there from the word go, he said.

"The key is we actually have a very sophisticated system for dealing with health and safety risks at work, but for some reason, we're constantly scrambling in regards to Covid.

"We're ignoring the systems we already have in place."

There had been plenty of time under alert level 1 to get health and safety systems set up properly, Hehir said.

'Extra pair of eyes and independent analysis'

The Health Ministry has been leading on-site inspections of hotels as part of their infection control process, including worker testing.

But it has no powers under the Health and Safety at Work laws.

WorkSafe told the unions previously that with the Health Ministry in charge it saw no need to get involved, Hehir said.

The Council of Trade Unions said WorkSafe's move now was "to ensure workers' broader health and safety are being looked after - for example, there have been reports in the media of some workers being fatigued".

The workplace safety regulations require businesses to have a health monitoring plan and an exposure monitoring plan, and if any worker were to catch Covid-19, to provide those plans to WorkSafe.

The union had asked to see hotels' plans, but they had resisted, saying these were part of their contract with Health Ministry, Hehir said.

Normally, unions and workers have full rights to be consulted on these plans.

"These are hotels, not health systems or prison systems" so the plans were even more crucial, he said.

"We're now trying to do this under [level 3] restrictions which makes it a lot harder.

"It's all about an extra pair of eyes and independent analysis of it, and crucially, also reminding employers they have an obligation to consult with employees and their representatives."

WorkSafe's inspection record since first lockdown

WorkSafe has not responded to RNZ's question about why it has decided now, to step in, four months on from hotel staff taking on this unusual work.

"WorkSafe wants to seek assurances that the isolation facilities are taking the appropriate steps to minimise any risk to worker health and safety," it said.

When fast food breaches occurred in April and May, WorkSafe kept its 180 inspectors at their desks, arguing it did not want to expose them to Covid-19 or risk them spreading it.

Eventually, it did on-site visits of 80 fast food outlets in May and warned 11 about physical distancing.

By contrast, around this time, the Ministry for Primary Industries undertook 2730 on-site verifications.

Yet it still said in a report to the government that beyond these checks there was "limited information" and "we do not have data on whether other essential workplaces have robust plans and processes in place".

Many members had told Unite that WorkSafe's fast food response was "a joke", Hehir said.

"We said to WorkSafe, 'Look at the [workplace] cameras', but there's no evidence that happened either."

WorkSafe said it had made more than 21,000 calls to businesses to ensure they had plans for managing the virus.

Early on in the isolation hotels, there was a lot of fear over PPE supply and that "things weren't being done properly", Hehir said

"That has improved dramatically ... it has taken some time and I think there's a bit of luck to be honest."

What was now key was that if any worker felt unwell, that there were "absolutely no barriers" to them speaking up, he said.

So, assurance that staff would keep their income if forced to self-isolate was welcome, he said.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins had previously been reluctant to enforce testing on staff at hotels.

Hehir said Unite's members thought testing would be mandatory.

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