Australian health and safety authorities have sharply criticised airline Qantas for potentially exposing workers and passengers to coronavirus.
An investigation by SafeWork NSW, a state body in New South Wales, found the country’s flag carrier put cleaning staff at risk by not requiring them to wear protective equipment when cleaning planes that might have transported people with an infectious disease.
The report, seen by the Financial Times, said investigators observed workers who were “required to handle wet and used tissues, used face masks, soiled nappies and the workers advised they occasionally have to clean vomit and blood off surfaces. [Personal protective gear] was not mandated for the majority of these tasks”.
“I observed [cleaning crew] wiping over multiple tray tables with the same wet cloth with no disinfectant and cleaning unknown liquids on floors and surfaces,” said one investigator, who compiled the report on February 26, several weeks after the coronavirus outbreak began.
SafeWork NSW has directed Qantas to develop a safe system of work that covers the risk of disease, including from Covid-19.
The cleanliness of planes has become a global concern due to the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 3,200 people and infected 92,000 worldwide.
On Wednesday US airline executives said during a meeting with President Donald Trump they were taking extra measures to improve sanitation of aircraft.
The global airline industry has come under severe financial stress as passengers cancel flights and businesses cut discretionary travel due to the virus. The UK regional airline Flybe collapsed on Thursday after failing to secure a £100m loan from the UK government.
Australia’s Transport Workers’ Union said Qantas had failed in its duty of care to passengers and workers.
“The idea that workers are forced to use the same wet cloth with no disinfectant on surfaces and floors inside aircraft in the midst of this outbreak will sicken many people and should alert all aviation regulators and the federal government that there is a problem in this airline,” said Michael Kaine, TWU national secretary.
Qantas flew two flights carrying Australian residents back from Wuhan in China last month at the request of the government.
The airline said it is investigating the claims by SafeWork NSW.
“Our aircraft are thoroughly cleaned after each international flight,” said a Qantas spokesman. “All . . . teams are provided with personal protective equipment for cleaning the aircraft and for more hazardous items, we have additional equipment such as masks and safety suits.”