Overwhelmed by smoke

THE union representing employees at Morwell’s Centrelink customer centre is calling for services to be relocated off site, amid reports of workers and residents becoming “overwhelmed” each time smoke floods the building.

With south facing entrance doors at the Elgin Street site allowing smoke to billow into the building when Hazelwood mine fire fallout is blown from a south-westerly direction, the Community and Public Services Union claim the Department of Human Services has not done enough to protect the health of employees and clients.

While air scrubbers have been installed in the building and some staff have had their shifts rotated to other regional service centres, the union is calling for the site to be closed and staff relocated to work out of other offices.

“While I appreciate the steps local management have taken to mitigate the risk to employees’ health and safety, our members have told us they believe that to continue to work in this office puts their health at an unacceptable risk,” CPSU deputy national president Lisa Newman said in an email sent to DHS management on Thursday.

However, Commonwealth DHS general manager Hank Jongen said on Friday morning the CPSU’s request to close this service centre on health and safety grounds seemed contrary to all current expert advice from Victorian Government authorities.

A long-term employee at the centre, who wished to remain anonymous, said about 10 to 15 employees serviced the affected area throughout the day, while the waiting area could see up to 50 people sitting for up to two hours in the smoky conditions.

“Some days you have headaches and you are just exhausted, looking at everyone sitting in the waiting area with their masks on – the smell of the building makes you pretty ill,” the employee said.

With mounting financial responsibilities on the home front, the employee said they could not afford to stay home.

“I have children to feed, I have a mortgage and everyday responsibilities that aren’t going to go away that are just stacking up,” the employee said.

The employee said they harboured equal concern for the health of clients, as they “were often among the most vulnerable” in Morwell.

“The people that we service here are not able to utilise our online services or our phone services, they need us to help facilitate the process,” the employee said.