Qantas has been slammed by Safe Work NSW for potentially exposing passengers and workers to the coronavirus in an investigation which revealed aircraft cleaners are forced to wipe tray tables with the same dirty cloths and handle blood, vomit, soiled nappies, used masks and tissues without protective gear.
The investigation follows Qantas’s suspension of an aircraft cleaner at Sydney airport last month who raised concerns about the coronavirus.
The investigation states that “workers and other persons may be exposed to a risk of injury or illness from the inadequate system of work used to clean planes that may have transported passengers with an infectious disease”.
The inspector reported they “observed workers wiping over multiple tray tables with the same wet cloth with no disinfectant and cleaning unknown liquids on floors and surfaces.” It says cleaners were “required to handle wet and used tissues, used face masks, soiled nappies and the workers advised they occasionally have to clean vomit and blood off surfaces. PPE [personal protective gear] was not mandated for the majority of these tasks.”
Safe Work NSW has issued Qantas with an improvement notice which must be complied with by March 30th. Qantas has been directed to consult with an expert on hygiene and infection control, to consult with aircraft cleaners on implementing a safe system of work, provide protective gear to workers and assess how they come into contact with bodily fluids.
TWU NSW Branch Secretary Richard Olsen said Safe Work NSW has confirmed the concerns raised by the suspended aircraft cleaner and he called on Qantas to reinstate the worker. “The Safe Work NSW improvement notice reflects the concerns the worker, an elected and trained health and safety representative, raised on the day Qantas stood him down, including the lack of safety systems and the risk of contracting the virus. His colleagues shared his concerns and 100 of them have signed a petition calling for him to be reinstated. Workers are worried about the risk to passengers, themselves and their families because of Qantas’s refusal to provide training and protective gear since this outbreak began. Instead of suspending workers and trying silence them Qantas needs to start consulting with workers and help reduce the risk of exposure,” said Olsen.
TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine called on Qantas to engage infection control experts and to meet the Safe Work NSW demands urgently. “Qantas must immediately and thoroughly follow all of the Safe Work NSW demands. It must start listening to the concerns of its workers and engage experts to minimise the risk of exposure of passengers and workers to the coronavirus. The coronavirus is a serious outbreak that has countries around the world on high alert and Qantas has failed in its duty of care to passengers and workers. The idea that workers are forced to use the same wet cloth with no disinfectant on surfaces and floors inside aircraft in the midst of this outbreak will sicken many people and should alert all aviation regulators and the Federal Government that there is a problem in this airline,” said TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine.
Yesterday (March 4) Air China resumed flights into Australia with Qantas Ground Services employees cleaning and servicing the flights. At some airports Qantas has been issued with guidelines around the resumed flights while workers at other airports have received no updates. Waste truck workers in Melbourne airport have been provided with surgical gowns and masks while cleaners have the option of wearing them. Other workers have been told to “perform their duties as normal and as directed”. Workers have contacted the TWU over concerns that they are not being given time to clean themselves after servicing the aircraft and have not been told how to wear the gowns or how to remove them safely.
Workers have also contacted the TWU after Qantas forced them to perform tasks it had previously said were voluntary, in contravention of its own policy.
“Workers are worried and are contacting us daily about their concerns. They live in fear about contracting or spreading the virus but are terrified to speak out because of the corporate bullying attitude of Qantas. This must end so Australia can deal with this virus in a calm and responsible manner,” Kaine added.