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Waste industry finds lack of exemptions frustrating as NSW govt dithers

“The waste and recycling sector needs to be included in the definition of critical workers for all purposes, especially the current NSW Public Health Orders for Covid-19 quarantine exemptions as close contacts.”

So says Tony Khoury, the executive director of the NSW Waste Contractors & Recyclers Association (WCRA). Speaking to Inside Waste, Khoury said there are many issues that need to be addressed with regards to exemptions for the waste industry, which are not being sufficiently addressed by the NSW government.

“Our industry provides a critical and essential service and if all waste is not collected in a timely manner, there will be potential health, hygiene and sanitary impacts,” he said. These impacts will potentially be felt across all parts of NSW as the WCRA’s members provide services across all of the 128 NSW local government areas.

According to Khoury, many members have reported staff shortages of 20 per cent to 30 per cent, which is mainly due to drivers and waste facility workers being close contacts and having to isolate for seven days.

“Waste and recycling collection services are falling behind and finding appropriately trained replacement drivers in this environment is just not possible,” said Khoury. “Many staff are also doing extra shifts (including weekends) to cover those that are off quarantining, adding extra stress.

“This is not sustainable and will likely lead to unsafe fatigue management outcomes, along with health & hygiene issues. We also require urgent access to Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) kits.”

In response to a query by Inside Waste as to why the exemptions hadn’t been extended to the industry, a statement from a spokesperson from the media Department of the Premier and Cabinet didn’t clarify the situation and appears exemptions will not be happening any time soon.

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“The NSW Government is committed to protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of the public,” the statement said.

“We recently responded to the significant strain on our food manufacturing and distribution networks by exempting asymptomatic people who are household contacts from the seven day isolation period. Workers will only be eligible to leave self-isolation if their employer determines that their absence from the workplace poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities linked to agriculture, food manufacturing or food distribution.  These workers must wear a mask and comply with risk-management strategies put in place by their employer, including daily Rapid Antigen Tests.

“This allows us to bring more certainty to food distribution, food manufacturing and supply chains to make sure that supermarkets can continue to function.

“The arrangement is also in place for emergency services workers who are necessary for the delivery of critical services and who cannot work from home, as well as critical healthcare workers. The NSW Government will continue to adapt to the conditions before us. We are in consistent dialogue with industry and will put in place exemptions to other sectors as and if required.”

WMRR is also not happy about the lack of exemptions. While it supports the national plan to review quarantine and isolation rules for essential workers, it calls on both the Prime Minister and state premiers to ensure that frontline workers in the WARR industry are also included in all isolation and quarantine exemptions so they can keep collecting material and avoid another type of public health crisis.

“The collection, transport, and processing of waste are essential to protecting community and environmental health. At the moment, a third of our frontline workers are out of action due to the closed contact quarantine rules, which risks services being ground to a halt. If this were to happen, Australia will face significant environmental and hygiene issues,” WMRR CEO, Gayle Sloan, said.

Sloan said that the industry is finding alternatives, including running limited services on weekends, but this is only a short-term and unsustainable measure given the forecasted continuation of staff shortages. As federal discussions continue this week, the industry is urgently seeking exemptions for frontline waste workers and it asks that the Prime Minister include in his definition of essential, those that provide WARR collection and transportation services across retail, clinical, and kerbside settings.

“The WARR industry is an essential sector that provides vital services to communities and businesses,” said Sloan. “The same flexibility that is safely awarded to other essential industries must also be provided to frontline WARR workers. This extends to priority supply of rapid antigen tests to ensure that WARR services can continue in a safe and sustainable way to mitigate any risk on the health and safety of communities across Australia.

“We call on all levels of government to work with us to ensure the continued safe provision of our essential service to the community.”