On 8 February 2010, four workers at Café Vamp, a small restaurant in Melbourne Victoria, were fined a total of $A335,000 for repeatedly bullying, or allowing bullying to occur to, 19-year-old Brodie Panlock. Brodie jumped from a building in September 2006. Her family watched Brodie die from head injuries three days later. They were unaware that Brodie was being bullied at work.
Due to the amount of information already out there on the internet about this case, other than a quick paragraph below, the details are not going to be repeated here. A range of links to further information, audio, video and media reports is at the end of this blog post.
“WorkSafe [Victoria] told Melbourne Magistrate Peter Lauritsen waitress Brodie Panlock, 19, was bullied by three workmates while her employer allowed it to go on. An earlier Coroners inquest found Brodie committed suicide after being bullied in 2006.
Magistrate Lauritsen said the working environment at Hawthorn’s Café Vamp was poisonous and the persistent bullying of Ms Panlock was in the worst category, yet nothing was done to stop it.
Magistrate Lauritsen convicted and fined the four individual defendants, including the director of the company that owns Café Vamp a total of $115,000 and her employer, Map Foundation trading as Café Vamp, $220,000.”
Brodie’s death, the coronial inquest in 2009 and the WorkSafe prosecution of the café workers and employer illustrate many issues related to occupational health and safety.
At the core of this case is a lack of respect for a worker from colleagues. The male workers actively bullied Brodie Panlock or failed to stop the abuse. They did not respect Brodie, they did not support Brodie.
Regardless of the OHS obligations on employers and workers, these people made Brodie feel unsafe to such an extent that the only option she felt was left was to jump off an apartment building to her death.
There are wider questions that people who knew Brodie need to ask, certainly not her parents who have been asking the questions since she died. Quotes in some media show that some of Brodie’s friends were aware of the bullying but no one told her parents, no one reported the issue to WorkSafe. There are broad social issues that need discussing.
Awareness of bullying as a workplace safety issue
The workplace relevance was not apparent to the Victorian Government until the Victorian Coroner began the inquest into Brodie Panlock’s suicide, and yet here we are with such a strong case of breaching OHS law that a record penalty is applied for what the judge described as a most serious case of bullying.
How did the treatment of Brodie Panlock not get on the OHS radar? OHS regulators cannot say that hospitality is just part of the hardest sector to penetrate with marketing – small business. That’s been the reality for decades. Regulators claim substantial levels of awareness of OHS issues and the regulators’ actions in the community but the “vicious and persistent behavior”, described by Magistrate Lauritsen, was not reported to WorkSafe Victoria.
There have been graphic ads throughout the indoor and outdoor media targeting young workers over the last year or two, in Australia and Canada, but none of the ads targeted bullying.
All of us need to rethink our approach to workplace bullying. We need to go beyond the anti-bullying policy on the office wall at reception or buried in the corporate intranet, and stamp out actions and words that belittle, reduce self-esteem and that can lead to suicide.
At the end of January 2010, SafetyAtWorkBlog flagged that mental health in workplaces may get a fillip from the Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry. He stepped up to the plate this morning with an interview the ABC Radio news program AM in the context of youth suicide. McGorry called for an improvement in the reporting of suicides and said:
“Someone dies in Australia from suicide every four hours and every 15 minutes someone attempts suicide so it is a very big public health problem and the response has been puny to date, I must say. If you look at the amount of money that is spent on reducing the road toll, the amount of resources devoted to suicide prevention are puny and really need some serious attention.”
Given the societal links between work and non-work activities it is fair to also describe Professor McGorry’s “very big public health problem” as just as big a workplace issue.
Initiative is needed but some politicians are always politicians and others are just clumsy.
Victorian Premier John Brumby’s “Respect Agenda” (not directly related to Brodie’s suicide) seems to be political opportunism with no great backbone
The issue of suicide and workplace bullying requires much more sensible investigation than the maladroit inquiry proposed by Senator Stephen Fielding who clearly thinks workplace bullying is an extension of schoolyard bullying and cyberbullying. Senator, read the newspapers. These bullies were in their twenties, and older, who chose to abuse a 19-year-old.
One link that the media has not made (yet) is to realize that the workplace bullying occurred in a café/restaurant. In 2009, Australian media were in a frenzy over the bombast of chef Gordon Ramsay and the lack of respect he showed on his promotional trip to Australia. In 2004, The Independent newspaper wrote about Ramsay’s “bullying” temper. It goes on to quote Ramsay himself:
“I don’t just yell for effect. It isn’t to sound like a hard man. When I was training in Harvey’s or Le Gavroche, a bollocking made me try harder.” So Gordon Ramsay learned from that other kitchen bully, Marco Pierre White, who previously learned from his oppressors at places of training.”
An analysis of Ramsay’s management skills is provided in the article –“Does Gordon Ramsay Have Good Management Skills?”
There is no suggestion that Gordon Ramsay’s action had anything to do with the activity at Cafe Vamp but Ramsay is being seen as the worst example of the toxic workplace culture in many parts of the restaurant trade. Chefs can have an arrogance and disdain that people forgive for the bizarre reason that the food produced is good. This culture of abuse should not be tolerated.
On issues of workplace bullying, OHS regulators, more often than not, respond to issues because the prevention of bullying sits with the workers and managers in the hospitality trade. If no-one blows the whistle, unsafe behaviour continues and young workers continue to be abused and some die.
OHS regulators need to incorporate the prevention of psychosocial issues into their safety promotion campaigns.
WorkSafe notices in papers
Many of the media reports end with a cross-reference or mention of mental health helplines for those who may be considering suicide. These are important but a noticeable absence in these cross-references is any mention of reporting workplace bullying to the OHS regulators, even though the core of the media reports, at least in 8 & 9 February, is the record OHS penalty. In this case, WorkSafe needs to work harder to have its hotline promoted to the same extent as psychological helplines. If this doesn’t occur, OHS prosecutions for workplace bullying will again occur after a death.
The mainstream media need to give strong consideration to the comments of Professor McGorry above and to review its reporting of OHS issues.
Access to information
Many OHS prosecutions occur in the Magistrates Court in Victoria. Unlike other higher courts, judgments are not published. This substantially reduces the capacity of OHS writers to support the OHS aims of preventing incidents, deaths and injuries. The prosecution of the owner, operator and workers of Café Vamp illustrates how significant and potential preventative OHS prosecutions can occur in Magistrates Courts.
Elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog you will find article based on judgments from the County Court, High Court, Federal Court, Industrial Courts and tribunals. Most of these are supported by links to the online judgments so that the original evidence and information can be viewed to support the article and to provide content that can be used to help illustrate hazards and risks in workplaces.
The 2000 prosecution over the bullying of a 16-year-old apprentice who was set on fire is an “unreported” case from the Frankston Magistrate’s Court. The July 2000 prosecution of a 19-year-old apprentice who was abused is “unreported” in the Dandenong Magistrate’s Court. There are other cases as well that have only come to the attention of the community because WorkSafe publicised the prosecution
For some reasons the Magistrates Courts in Victoria have not embraced the electronic world and, as such, OHS issues get less prominence than they deserve.
The days of a Court Reporter sitting through an entire trial are increasingly rare but the information is stored electronically in the Magistrates Court databases and can be shared, or released with limitations, as do other courts and tribunals.
In relation to Coroner’s Findings into the death of Brodie Panlock, the Coroner cannot release the document because the defendants have 28 days in which they can appeal the Magistrate’s decision. The Coroner’s Findings could have been released by the Court Registrar but says they cannot because the documents are not theirs. We were referred back to the Coroner’s Court.
The Magistrate’s decision could be freely obtained in hard copy if a written request was hand delivered to the Chief Magistrate. No timetable for delivery of the hard copy judgement could be provided.
The Herald-Sun newspaper ran an editorial in its 9 February 2010 edition calling for criminal charges. The murder charges it proposes are understandable after the outrage that the case has caused in many sectors but the outrage would need to be sustained to generate enough interest in pursuing criminal charges.
Also, to what end? They will not bring Brodie back. It is unlikely that Cafe Vamp will continue, given the publicity. Many of the workers will find it hard to gain employment in the hospitality industry with a conviction for workplace bullying against their name.
There is the deterrence argument but perhaps more positive outcomes could come through enforcement and education on the matter of workplace bullying.
Brodie Panlock’s death is now gaining worldwide attention. This may provide little comfort to the family but could be the base for a thorough review of the application of OHS law in relation to psychosocial hazards.
SafetyAtWorkBlog expresses our deepest sympathy to the Panlock family.
UPDATE: 15 February 2010
Brodie Panlock’s parents are interviewed on the Neil Mitchell radio program in Melbourne on 15 February 2010
The Age – When darkness comes –
The Herald-Sun – – http://www.theage.com.au/national/when-darkness-comes-20100208-nnfn.html
The Age – December 2009 reports – http://www.theage.com.au/small-business/four-men-face-charges-over-teens-suicide-20091210-km91.html
The Age – Why bullying is a small business problem –
The Age – Brodie’s torment –
The Age – Workplace bullying leads to death –