OHS Matters: Public Transport


Last week we discussed some of the issues relating to returning to work, including the necessity that employers consult with workers and their representatives to ensure measures are taken to minimise risks of infection at the workplace (for example: the physical layout; air conditioning; cleaning and sanitisation; etc).

There are other risks workers may be exposed to when returning to work over which the employer has no control. A big one is the commute. We’ve seen reports of the congested public transport system in the UK as their restrictions are being lifted and workers urged to return to work, and the outrage this caused to the public and the transport unions in particular. This is an example of how things should NOT be done.

UK’s Unite, representing over 80,000 public transport workers, has criticised the government’s unclear guidance on maximum passenger capacity and how to protect passengers and workers during the pandemic. The union has been demanding for months that it be mandatory, not ‘recommended’, for passengers to wear face masks to keep buses and other forms of public transport safe during the pandemic. They are also demanding proper PPE for their members; strict rules on maximum capacity and that government clearly direct transport operators on how to police these rules. Late last week the unions had a win, with the UK government announcing that from June 15 it would be mandatory for public transport users to wear masks. This is a case of ‘better late than never’, but it is clear the government has been too slow to act.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of confusion in Australia as well, with different rules applying in different states.

In Victoria, Daniel Andrews has urged employers to keep workers working at home at least until the end of June, if possible. This should initially reduce the numbers on the state’s public transport – but numbers are increasing already with the gradual return of students to schools, and more employers now expecting workers to start going in to work.

Melburnians have been asked to “reconsider (their) travel” – but a full timetable of buses, trams and trains has been in operation for several weeks. The advice from Public Transport Victoria is that if people must travel then they should do so outside traditional peak hours. To encourage this, train fares are free if passengers touch off before 7.15am. But this won’t be possible for all workers heading back to work.

Many offices are looking at staggered starting and finishing times, and many will need to limit the number of workers on each level, depending on space. Other considerations are numbers of people who can use the lifts at any one time. These measures should help in keeping the numbers of people on Melbourne’s buses, trams and trains a little lower than ‘normal’ - but this still means potentially a very crowded, and therefore potentially very unsafe, commute.

The Department of Health is said to be ‘meeting daily’ with public transport agencies, developing plans to ‘safely’ move millions of commuters around the city and state each day as the economy re-opens. Dr Annaliese van Diemen, Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, has flagged “fundamental changes” for public
transport, but at this stage said that the current medical advice from ‘the nation’s top infection control experts’ was that masks were not needed by public transport users but that the final position was not yet finalised. The ABC’s health journalist and physician, Dr Norman Swan, however is of the view that all public transport users should wear masks.

Victoria’s Rail Bus and Tram Union (RTBU) has said it is deeply concerned by the lack of clear policy and substantive measures to address social distancing on public transport.

Luba Grigorovitch, the union’s Victorian Branch Secretary said, “With passenger numbers rapidly increasing, advice from medical experts is that more needs to be done to protect the public moving through congested spaces.” After consideration of the available information, she said the RTBU supports calls for clear benchmarks for cleaning and social distancing, as well as measures such as the wearing of masks to be mandatory for commuters using public transport.

Luba said, “In lieu of leadership from the Government, commuters and staff are right to be concerned for their safety. We have written to the Minister for Public Transport regarding numerous key concerns but are yet to receive a response. With RTBU members working on the front line of service delivery, ensuring that essential travel is possible, the increased risks due to unmanaged passenger numbers and additional mitigation strategies begs an urgent response from the Department or Minister.”

According to the union, the government has a responsibility to ensure that all citizens feel safe around public transport. Clear measures like those implemented in NSW are required if Victorians are to be able to continue moving safely.

The RTBU is calling on the government, department of transport and major operators to engage in immediate consultation to ensure the safety and reliability of public transport into the coming weeks.