Following news that ASIC would investigate Qantas, SafeWork NSW has launched a probe into the suspension of an aircraft cleaner who was employed by the national carrier.
The NSW branch of the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) said the incident related to a Sydney worker, who happened to also be an elected health and safety representative, being stood down in February, after raising concerns workers could be exposed to a potentially infectious disease.
The TWU claimed Qantas stood the worker down for advising colleagues on their concerns amid growing fears relating to COVID-19, and for giving the direction to cease unsafe work on flights arriving from China, which was at the time where the largest cluster of cases were occurring.
According to the union’s timeline, the airline had days earlier sent a letter threatening to terminate an unclarified number of cleaners who refused to work on flights from China.
Travel Weekly has contacted Qantas for comment.
In reports published by News Corp, the national carrier denied any wrongdoing at the time, and said the workers performed duties in line with the medical advice of the company and federal government.
A Qantas spokesman told News Corp that SafeWork NSW had written to the airline confirming the investigation and said that it would assist the health authority with its inquiry.
“A union delegate was stood down pending an investigation after incorrectly telling employees it was not safe to work on aircraft arriving from China in early February,” he said.
“This was against the advice of health authorities and despite additional safety equipment being provided to employees.”
The Qantas spokesman said the employee was stood down on full pay and investigations were continuing, but could not confirm if the worker was still being paid following current staff stand-downs due to COVID-19.
In March, SafeWork NSW issued improvement notices to Qantas, with an inspector advising they observed aircraft cleaners required to handle “wet and used tissues, used face masks and soiled nappies”.
In addition, workers occasionally had to clean vomit and blood off surfaces without protective gear.
Seven further cases of COVID-19 at Adelaide Airport
Meanwhile, the TWU has served Qantas with a legal request for information and documents under workplace health and safety laws regarding the infection of baggage handlers at Adelaide Airport.
SA Health on Wednesday reported seven new cases linked to six Qantas baggage handlers who tested positive to COVID-19, taking the cluster to a total of 13.
The first case related to the cluster received a positive test result on 27 March.
The union has used the incident to slam Qantas for “negligence” in protecting its workers from the virus.
“We are informed that, following an initial infection, not enough protections were put in place to stop the spread,” TWU South Australia branch secretary Ian Smith said in a statement.
“This is very serious, as it means Qantas allowed its workers and workers in other companies to become exposed through its own negligence.”
The TWU has also written to Adelaide Airport and SafeWork SA, since up to 100 workers from various companies have potentially been exposed to COVID-19, it said.
Travel Weekly does not suggest Qantas was negligent in this case, and has contacted the airline for comment.
Speaking to 9news.com.au, a Qantas spokesperson said the airline had “put enhanced safety measures in place” to protect employees and customers since the outbreak.
“We are conducting additional cleaning of airport facilities and aircraft on a daily basis,” the spokesperson said, adding all Qantas employees had been advised to stay home if they were feeling unwell.
“It’s a shared responsibility,” the spokesperson said.
“We can provide the safest workplace in the world, but if people come to work when they know they are sick, they can still spread their infection around.”
Featured image credit: iStock/TkKurikawa