Employers need guidance on psychosocial hazards, says minister
Two Association members recently met with Kevin Anderson, the NSW Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, to discuss the urgent need to combat non-physical hazards in the workplace.
Nick Howson, an RN and branch president at Cumberland Hospital, and Skye Romer, secretary of the Prince of Wales Mental Health Branch, spoke to the minister about their harrowing experiences of psychosocial hazards at their workplaces.
Nick and Skye, accompanied by NSWNMA professional officer Veronica Black, met with Kevin Anderson at his Martin Place office, ahead of a meeting of all Australian ministers responsible for workplace health and safety laws.
The ministers will be voting on the 34 changes recommended by Marie Boland, a former executive director of SafeWork SA, who recently conducted an independent review of Australia’s model workplace health and safety legislation. In her review, Boland found that workplace health and safety laws lacked regulations and specific guidance for managing psychosocial risks.
“In submissions to Boland’s review process, the NSWNMA argued that occupational violence and other psychosocial hazards were not being effectively addressed and prevented under the existing system,” said NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary, Judith Kiejda.
“A lot of psychosocial injuries in the workplace occur when there are feelings that there is no organisational justice, leaving workers feeling unsupported,” Judith said.
“When Marie Boland’s recommendations came out, she was really clear that employers don’t have any guidance to help them understand what their obligations are in managing hazards such as workloads, bullying and sexual harassment. SafeWork inspectors can’t write notices for things that aren’t in the law, so we argued that psychosocial injuries must be clearly identified and be notifiable injuries.”
Currently, the onus is on workers in the healthcare system to follow up if they need mental health support. Nick told The Lamp, “If big organisations like health aren’t able to psychologically protect workers, what chance do other organisations have?”
Skye spoke to the minister about the lack of workplace support she received after an attack by a consumer that resulted in surgeries and an ongoing recovery process.
“I’ve had firsthand experience of what it is like to be injured in the workplace. It has been absolutely horrendous. Coming into work after you’ve already been injured, your body is in a flight-or-fight response. At the same time, you are investigated by the insurers in a way that is verging on stalking.”
A lack of support
Skye has had to attend multiple medical appointments and undergo numerous treatments.
Skye also suffered a “massive drop in pay” and had to move out of her home when the workers’ compensation system did not take into account her history of overtime.
“In my mind, I was paying for being assaulted at work.”
Nick said they asked the minister to support all 34 of Boland’s recommendations, as well as implement the proposed code of practice.
“When we spoke to the minister, he conceded that there is clearly a problem, and that bosses need guidance,” Nick said.
In a separate process to the Boland recommendations, the NSW government has released a draft code to cover psychological risks.
“The code gives an outline for everyone to work to, so they don’t have to make it up,” Nick said.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the minister’s willingness to listen. He even went as far to say that he thought the input of unions was of vital importance, because they see how it affects workers.”
Beefing up the law
In 2011, Australian states and territories began to harmonise the different acts and regulations covering workplace health and safety so that there was consistency between the rules and regulations in each jurisdiction.
In 2019, after a long-delayed independent review of the model act, Marie Boland made 34 recommendations for changes. Ministers from all jurisdictions will soon meet to vote on whether to update the act with each of Boland’s recommendations. Each recommendation needs a two-thirds majority vote to change the act.
In a separate process, the NSW government has released a draft code of practice for managing workplace risks to psychological health. The code – developed by a working group that included Safe Work Australia and SafeWork NSW, unions, employers and academic experts – provides detailed information on how to manage risks to psychological health in the workplace.
New South Wales will be the first Australian state to develop a code of this kind.
“We strongly support a code of practice,” NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary, Judith Kiejda, said. “It is a good document, and while it doesn’t do everything, it goes a long way to filling the gap.”
As The Lamp goes to press the WHS ministers have agreed to regulate psychosocial hazards.
The ACTU said the decision “was a major step towards the prevention of mental illness”.
“Years of campaigning from working people and their unions have gone into winning this regulation. It will make Australian workplaces safer for future generations of workers,” said ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien.