27 September 2023
Recent statistics from WorkSafe Victoria indicate that nearly one in six Australian workers will experience a significant level of mental ill health within a four-week period. Each year, two in five Australians report leaving their jobs due to a poor mental health environment.
In May 2021, the Victorian Government proposed new regulations that set out employers and other duty holders’ obligations to manage risks posed by psychosocial hazards in workplaces, but those regulations were delayed. A year later, Safe Work Australia issued its own regulations dealing with this subject matter. These have been adopted in four states. Victoria will not be adopting these because it is not part of the harmonised laws regarding occupational health and safety.
Meanwhile, WorkSafe Victoria has established a specialist Psychosocial Inspectorate to investigate psychosocial hazards and has released information on the risk categories that are more likely to lead to a WorkSafe investigation and potential prosecution.
The hazards more likely to attract attention are reports of aggression and violence, high job demands, bullying, exposure to trauma and/or sexual harassment/gendered violence. An inspector is likely to arrange an interview with the complainant to discuss the allegations and make enquiries at the workplace about their systems and processes to manage the risk in these cases. Depending on the outcome, the employer may receive an improvement notice and a follow-up onsite inspection. The case will then be closed or referred for comprehensive investigation and potential prosecution under the Occupational Health & Safety Act 2004 (OHSA).
An example of WorkSafe intervening in response to workplace bullying is its 2019 prosecution of a security company and its director for failing to provide a safe and healthy working environment. This followed a WorkSafe investigation that found the director led a culture of entrenched bullying. Improvement notices were issued but when WorkSafe inspectors returned, they found that the bullying behaviours continued. The company was fined $97,000 and the director $19,250 after guilty pleas.
Other lesser psychosocial hazards may attract a less interventionist approach from WorkSafe. These include reports of low job demands, low job control, poor support, poor organisational change, poor organisational justice, poor workplace relationships, low reward and recognition, remote and isolated work, poor environmental conditions, and/or low role clarity.
A WorkSafe inspector called to a workplace following a complaint or report of a psychosocial safety issue will look to see if the employer has a system to identify, assess and control the risk posed by psychosocial hazards and then review the control measures put in place.
Employers that have followed these steps are less likely to have a WorkSafe inspection turn into an investigation.
Employers can identify psychosocial hazards through human resources information, such as sick leave and absenteeism, exit interviews, staff turnover data, staff complaints and employee engagement surveys. Other useful information include OHS Committee meeting records, complaints and investigations reports, psychosocial risk assessments, records of past injuries and workers’ compensation claims.
Once identified, the hazard is assessed in terms of its seriousness of the risk (i.e. frequency and duration of the hazard and the likelihood of potential harm), who is exposed and whether the risk is systemic or isolated to a specific task, work location or event. Often there are multiple risks, e.g. job demands and isolated work.
The employer then needs to assess the adequacy of existing controls and determine whether additional controls or modified controls are required.
Such measures can be categorised as follows:
Effective control measures can be as simple as ensuring employees who are potentially at risk are adequately informed of hazards identified in the workplace.
In 2021, WorkSafe prosecuted a health service provider after a female nurse was exposed to inappropriate, sexualised behaviour while attending to a patient with impaired cognitive condition. The employer was fined $20,000 after a guilty plea to contraventions of the OHSA, which included a failure to inform staff about completing a document that records problematic patient behaviours identified during earlier shifts.
Finally, regular meetings and discussions should be scheduled to monitor and review the control measures put in place. Corrective measures should be implemented as required, including:
If you have any questions about how to manage or address psychosocial hazards in your workplace, please get in touch with a member of our national Workplace Relations & Safety team below.
The information in this article is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this article is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.