Safety Alert: Workers At QUBE Take A Stand Over Lead Exposure

Workers unloading steel from the Donaugracht in Melbourne on Friday were shocked to discover they had come into contact with a powdery black substance.

Workers unloading steel from the Donaugracht in Melbourne on Friday were shocked to discover they had come into contact with a powdery black substance. 

By the time the alert was raised, they had it all over themselves, on their clothes, and had very likely breathed it in. The captain revealed that the substance was a lead concentrate.

Work on the vessel stopped. A QUBE representative urged them to complete the vessel. Witnesses said the QUBE representative told them it would be OK, as long as you don't breathe in too much. They offered to provide workers with blood tests afterwards. But the workers, who were legitimately concerned about poisoning, refused to deal with the contaminated cargo until adequate arrangements could be made.

An inspector from AMSA attended the scene and issued a certificate. The fact that the lead was within a confined space was a significant concern. Witnesses said the QUBE representative disputed that it was a confined space, but was overruled by AMSA. Two WorkCover inspectors and an expert hygienist were also called in.

The hygienist outlined the dangers of lead exposure. Workers, or their families, must not interact with contaminated overalls, or sleep on any pillowcase with this substance on it, because you will continually breathe it in while you sleep.

Work on the vessel only resumed once the correct Australian Standard masks, overalls, and gloves were supplied, with stringent handling procedures in place, taking into account the wind.

Bob Patchett, MUA Assistant Secretary, Victorian Branch supported members at the scene, 'The MUA members at QUBE should be congratulated for taking this stand. Lead contamination is an extremely serious issue, and the workers were totally within their rights. Their actions saved many more workers from being exposed.'

At one stage, witnesses were stunned to see the crew hosing the lead into the sea.

Members are reminded that:

  • Any worker can legally refuse to perform unsafe work, if there is a risk of serious illness or injury that is immediate or imminent.
  • You must raise the issue with management and make yourself available for suitable alternate duties.
  • It is offence to discriminate against an employee who has raised a concern about health or safety.