Inspectors tasked with overseeing a blitz on workplaces in Victoria are conducting ‘virtual’ inspections from home, rather than randomly visiting aged-care sites.
And the Victorian government has repeatedly refused to answer questions about it.
Despite insistence from state and federal governments that high-risk workplaces are being investigated in a coronavirus safety blitz, The New Daily can reveal WorkSafe inspectors are being held up by having to get permission from management – then apply for a government permit to work and travel in lockdown – before they actually set foot in a facility at the centre of COVID-19 concerns.
Meanwhile, the crisis in aged care is continuing as workers detail the unsafe practices still confronting them when they arrive at work to look after some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people.
Out of the 17 coronavirus deaths confirmed in Victoria on Tuesday, 13 were from aged care homes. The threat to aged care workers is very real; more than 1000 healthcare staff have the virus.
Nursing home staff have told The New Daily about inconsistencies in infection control and a lack of personal protective equipment.
Melbourne aged-care worker Lina described how infection bags filled with contaminated PPE were sitting in a “big pile so high it was literally up to the neighbour’s fence line”.
Sometimes when I get to work at 10pm, there’s no PPE, no gloves, no nothing,’’
– Lina, Melbourne aged-care worker
Claims also emerged on Tuesday that aged care provider BlueCross asked staff at The Boulevard in Mill Park to work across multiple sites as recently as last week.
“No employer should be doing that,” Premier Daniel Andrews said of the allegations.
Lina said she wanted WorkSafe to do random spot checks at all aged-care homes, and for management to install signs explaining how to correctly put on PPE.
Government could face legal action
The crisis is set to head to court in coming weeks – and the government may not be immune.
Heritage Care, the operator of state’s worst-hit nursing home Epping Gardens, is facing a class action filed by the son of a deceased resident.
Personal injury law firm Carbone Lawyers have launched legal action in Victoria’s Supreme Court against Heritage Care Pty Ltd, the parent company of Epping Gardens.
There have been 205 coronavirus cases to come out of the centre in Melbourne’s northwest, with 177 residents and staff infected.
More than 20 infected residents are believed to have died including 92-year-old Carmela Agnello, whose son Sebastian Agnello is leading the civil claim on behalf of about 25 families.
In the writ filed on Monday, Mr Agnello claims the home breached its duty of care by permitting staff and residents to not wear personal protective equipment and move freely within the home.
Tony Carbone, managing partner of Carbone Lawyers, said government authorities could be tacked on to the lawsuit if it comes to light they knew of the centre’s problems.
Government won’t answer questions about inspections
In the first week of an ‘‘enforcement blitz’’ that started in late July, WorkSafe was celebrating reaching its target’ of inspecting more than 100 workplaces.
These included construction sites, factories, healthcare services and retailers.
But after multiple inquiries, the state’s work safety authority has been unable to say how many of those inspections took place on site.
Confusion remains in the industry, and in the public mind, about who is actually in charge of overseeing aged care.
Aged care is solely a federal government responsibility, with the Department of Health funding providers as well as administering regulation of the sector.
However, as has been pointed out by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in recent weeks, state governments are responsible for public health measures, such as responding at a ground-level to the pandemic itself.
At a federal level, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, which is responsible for monitoring government-funded aged care services in Australia, confirmed to The New Daily that it undertakes ‘‘telephone assessment contacts’’ along with on-site spot checks to ensure compliance with protocols.
Between August 3 and 18, the commission’s infection control monitoring team conducted on-site spot checks at 59 aged-care facilities in Victoria, Australia’s Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson said.
In addition to ticking off a “comprehensive” coronavirus safety checklist, she said inspectors asked questions about the storage, use and disposal of PPE.
Workplace inspections from afar
WorkSafe inspectors have been phoning bosses and questioning them about personal protective supplies and coronavirus safety measures, The New Daily has confirmed.
If the inspector is concerned by the company’s answers, they must raise the issue with WorkSafe management, which performs a risk assessment.
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An inspector may then be sent on site to check coronavirus compliance – but only if managers deem it safe, and they apply for a work permit from DHHS.
In an email in July, WorkSafe managers told their teams that training on personal protective equipment would be provided, but explained: “consideration will be given to a combination of in-person inspections and virtual enquiries where it is not possible or safe to visit a site”.
Better for some than others
Despite workplace checks and damning evidence at the aged care royal commission, workers are still reporting poor infection control procedures.
Lina, who wished to remain anonymous, works in an aged-care home in Melbourne where one resident has died from COVID-19.
Speaking to The New Daily on Tuesday, she said piles of infection bags filled with contaminated PPE were sitting in a “big pile so high it was literally up to the neighbour’s fence line”.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I’m surprised it hasn’t gone over into the neighbour’s house.”
Lina added the lack of PPE was still a major issue.
“We hardly have any gloves, and the gloves we do have are small. Sometimes when I get to work at 10pm, there’s no PPE, no gloves, no nothing,” she said.
I’m surprised there haven’t been more cases at the nursing home to tell you the truth, because the lack of education around PPE is ridiculous.’’
Another worker in Geelong told The New Daily they were told not to wear gloves, highlighting the inconsistent advice given to different aged-care homes.
But the reports emerging from nursing homes were not all negative.
Laura, who works at a nursing home in Greensborough where at least eight residents have died from COVID-19, said her workplace “definitely had plenty of PPE and adequate training”.
“Outside every resident’s room is a tub with tonnes of face shields, gloves, gowns and everything,” she said.
The biggest issue for her has been a shortage of staff over fears of getting sick – and contracting the coronavirus herself.
“I’m a very fit, healthy young person with zero health issues and I still got (the coronavirus),” she said.
“It was actually nice to have a break from work because I was doing 15-hour shifts. I was exhausted.”