Supermarket giants are stepping up efforts to relax contact tracing rules to avoid store closures and supply chain disruptions as Australia enters the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most important points:
- NSW Health passed several rules for Woolworths warehouses limiting the conditions in which workers had to isolate
- The department was concerned that without the changes, the food supply could be disrupted
- A union representing warehouse workers has accused the department of placing stocked shelves above workers’ safety
But an ABC study found that Woolworths has already received approval for its own definition of close and informal contacts for employees in distribution centers in New South Wales, which is less strict than official guidelines for other companies.
The NSW company and government insist that the rules be accompanied by strong safety protocols to prevent on-site outbreaks, including daily rapid antigen testing.
However, an employee of the Woolworths distribution center says the changes have exposed staff to the virus.
“I could get infected, then take it home and infect my relatives. That’s why I’m concerned,” said “David”, who asked not to be identified by his real name because he could be fired because he would speak in public.
According to NSW health rules, people who are considered to be in close contact with a person with COVID must be isolated for 14 days from the time they were last with that person.
The latest NSW Health guidelines, released this week, define close contact as a person who has spent more than a minute within 1.5 meters of an infectious person – even if both people are wearing a mask.
ABC Investigations has obtained a copy of the Woolworths rules, which were developed in August and are on display at the company’s NSW distribution centers.
Under the supermarket giant’s rules, to be considered close contact, an employee must have been within 1.5 meters of an infected colleague for more than five minutes while either employee was wearing their mask incorrectly – or spent time together without a mask in the store. canteen.
Casual contacts have a similar definition, but with less contact time between employees.
If both employees wear a good mask, the non-infectious employee is not considered a contact person, regardless of the time they spent with the infectious employee and the physical distance during the shift.
The worker does not need to isolate, but he must have a daily rapid antigen test before going to work.
In a statement, NSW Health said that at the time the Woolworths guidelines were being developed, the company reported “a significant risk of food supply disruption”.
“COVID-19 posed a particular challenge for Woolworths at the time,” the department said.
“NSW Health also had regular contact with other supermarket distribution centers and approached contact management in these centers in the same way.”
Woolworths’ competitor Aldi did not immediately respond to questions about how it defines close and informal contacts.
“Our controls ensure that we protect our people and our ability to maintain the food supply,” the statement said.
Coles has been approached for comment.
United Workers Union, the union that represents warehouse workers, wonders why Woolworths has been able to implement its own guidelines and other companies have not.
“It seems like they’ve been given a kind of preferential treatment that other distribution centers haven’t, and it’s really unclear why that’s happening,” said Alycia Economidis, the union coordinator for supermarket logistics.
“They want to prioritize getting food on supermarket shelves, while prioritizing the health and safety of their team members and the community.”
Woolworths declined to give an interview, but said in a statement that the guidelines took into account the company’s important role in maintaining the state’s food supply.
“Onsite security measures include rapid pre-shift antigen testing and physical distancing wristbands, which alert our team if they are within 1.5 meters of another person and help trace contacts,” the statement said.
“Rapid antigen testing has helped us detect 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in NSW, significantly reducing the risk of transmission for our team.”
Warehouse worker David was told earlier this year by Woolworths to isolate for 14 days if close contact with an infectious worker.
But five days into his isolation, he received a phone call and a text telling him to return to work.
“I stopped going to work, then my team called me and asked, ‘Why aren’t you at work. Do you have to be at work now?” he said.
David sought advice from Woolworths’ outside health consultants, who told him to continue with his isolation.
“They told me to stay home for 14 days. They even told me that if I go out and the police catch me breaking the rules, they will fine me.”
He says he decided to go back to work because he wouldn’t be paid if he continued to isolate.
“I went back to work because I have to put food on the table. I have bills to pay. I have no choice,” he said.
Woolworths did not respond to questions about how many COVID-19 cases had been detected in its distribution centers since the start of the Delta outbreak.
Early last month, Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci said in a staff update that more than 3,300 workers were isolated nationwide, including frontline retail and distribution center workers.
United Workers Union estimates there have been up to 50 cases in its distribution centers since July, including among Woolworths staff, workers, contractors and truck drivers.