Safety regulators have formally charged Qantas with breaches of workplace safety law after it stood down a cleaner who raised concerns about the risk of catching COVID-19 from cleaning a plane that had been used to evacuate Australian citizens from Wuhan, China at the outset of the pandemic.
On February 2, 2020, the cleaner and workplace safety representative for the Transport Workers Union was tasked with carrying out a three-day-long deep clean of a now-retired Boeing 747 that had been used to repatriate 241 Australian nationals from what was then the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The union representative raised concerns with the airline and his coworkers that they were only being provided with masks and gloves to carry out the job. He believed additional eye protection, as well as additional training and risk management, was required to carry out the job safely and reduce the risk of infection.
In April 2020, health and safety officials at SafeWork NSW said they would be investigating Qantas for “discriminatory conduct and prohibited behaviour” over the treatment of the cleaner who went on to lose his job later the same year.
SafeWork NSW inspectors called upon Qantas to do more to protect passengers and staff from the risk of COVID-19 after carrying out spot checks at the airline a short time later. They found cleaners were wiping down tray tables and other surfaces with dirty cloths and without disinfectant.
They also discovered that cleaners were made to handle soiled blankets, nappies and tissues without face mask protection.
In a statement to the Sydney Morning Herald, a spokesperson for SafeWork NSW said: “The charges relate to [Qantas] standing down a worker who raised concerns about potential exposure of workers to COVID-19 whilst cleaning aircraft in early 2020.”
“As the matter is before the court, no further information can be provided at this time.”
Each breach carries a maximum fine of A$500,000.
“We hope the court throws the book at Qantas for their outrageous decision to stand down a worker who was simply trying to keep himself and his colleagues safe at work,” commented Richard Olsen, state secretary for the NSW branch of the Transport Workers Union.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.