Centrelink staff risk being stranded in desert

Desert Safari

By Julian Bajkowski

Centrelink staff working in the remotest parts of Australia could be placed at risk after the agency ordered the removal of survival tools like car recovery kits carried in vehicles working in the outback according to the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

The union is taking the Department of Human Services (DHS) to task over what it claims is a ruling that more than 100 staff servicing far flung communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland no longer need the equipment – even though cars have already been fitted with it.

The dispute is understood to centre around a localised DHS decision to pull the car kits out following what the CPSU said was an “internal assessment [that] said staff were not at risk if their car got bogged down.”

The union is demanding an independent review of the decision and the risks to staff.

CPSU Regional Secretary Kay Densley said that staff were concerned they will no longer have the ability “to get themselves out of trouble.”

“Centrelink staff are properly trained and equipped to deal with tough conditions whilst travelling to remote communities. Human Services first attempted to remove survival kits from their vehicles, which contained basic essentials such as matches, can openers, and tarpaulins. They are now proposing that staff no longer have access to vehicle recovery kits, which contains snap starch, a device used to recover 4WD vehicles,” Ms Densley said.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this decision. It’s a bad decision made all the worse by the fact that management made it without consulting the very people who are doing the job,” Ms Densley said.

The car recovery kits are not the only pothole DHS management have hit with staff working in remote regions.

The CPSU is also pushing for an audit of all accommodation for staff working in remote communities “to ensure there are working telephones, clean mattresses and locks on the doors.”

Ms Densley said that workplace safety agency Comcare needed to “step-in” to review the decision by Human Services.

“We need an independent review. The risk assessment carried out by Human Services rather conveniently says there is no risk. Given that they won’t share the methodology around the review with us we would like a second opinion.”

However the DHS has rejected the CPSU’s claim that the Department has removed car survival kits from its remote servicing vehicles.

DHS general manager Hank Jongen said that the kits which include items such as water purification tablets, tarpaulins and a torch will remain with the vehicles.

Instead, the DHS decided to remove snatch straps from the car survival kits after a risk assessment determined it was safer and more appropriate to use professional, qualified recovery organisations in the event of vehicle recovery, Mr Jongen said.

He said the snatch straps were rarely used and their removal will reduce the risk of injury to staff.

“Prior to the removal of the snatch straps the department undertook consultation with staff and the Community and Public Sector Union,” Mr Jongen said.

Mr Jongen asserted that the safety of staff is “paramount” and the Department has “well established health and safety protocols in place”, including comprehensive training and tools including first aid kits, satellite phones and satellite location devices in all remote services vehicles.

With Paul Hemsley.

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