Another Australia emergency organisation faces bullying claims

Emergency service organisations, like the military, are susceptible to accusations of bullying due to the hierarchical command structure on which they are based. 

For decades this type of structure has been seen as a requirement for efficient emergency response or other activities under tight timelines and high expectations.  It would not take much to perceive one’s supervisor saying “move it, move it, move it” or similar, over time as a repeated insult and, being repeated, an instance of bullying.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is reporting on claims by the former president of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Board (MFB), Adrian Nye, who was stood down in April 2010.  The ABC says Nye has accused the MFB of having a culture of bullying. 

CEO Graeme Fountain has called in KPMG to investigate Nye’s claims.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the hierarchical command structure is no longer compatible with contemporary expectations of respect, health, safety or wellbeing.  Bullying claims have been rampant in the emergency services in Australia for some time. – the New South Wales Ambulance Service, Victoria’s Rural Ambulance Service, New South Wales Fire Brigades.  And the issue is not restricted to Australia with similar issues being noted in England.

This workplace hazard seems to be less prevalent in the United States but the US fire services seems to have a different culture to that in Australia.  US fire fighters seem far more “heroic” in that they are more likely to risk their personal safety for that of others.  Australian emergency services are more cautious and deter high-risk action wherever possible.  As a result of the US approach to high-risk actions, there is a stronger camaraderie in those emergency services than is evident elsewhere.

The different approaches to workplace bullying between the US and elsewhere was noted recently by Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute.  In a podcast (podcast 16) he mentioned how Europeans see workplace bullying as clearly under the control of the employer where America is more likely to see it as a personal issue or even a personal failing.  This is a useful differentiation when thinking about bullying and the emergency services.

In some ways, it seems like it is Victoria’s “turn” for a bullying inquiry into its emergency services but with so many inquiries in the same type of industry over similar issues, it must be time to undertake a broader cultural study into emergency service OHS.  Just as importantly we must be seriously prepared to follow where the inquiries go and not be frightened to embrace cultural AND structural change so the social respect that emergency responders currently gain is not lost.

4 thoughts on “Another Australia emergency organisation faces bullying claims”

  1. I agree with Kevin. It seems that despite extensive media coverage generated as a result of litigation stemming from various incidents involving a range of inappropriate workplace behaviours (sexual harassment and bullying), it does appear that even this is not enough to trigger an audit. It should come as no surprise then when a claim is made, questions may be asked regarding systems or processes used to stay informed regarding trends and issues, or even Court, Commission or Tribunal decisions. I would think that being called to justify actions or inactions could be damaging to individual or organisational reputations. It might be a moot point but it does appear that the GFC is being used as a reason to cut back on critical areas. As Kevin has indicated, good OHS and business principles should have broadened the knowledge pool. Even asking some basic questions following an Inquiry in another organisation may highlight an opportunity for improvement. Questions such as \”What impact will that decision have our business?\”; \”What exposures do we have in our systems or processes?\” might be trigger to a bigger audit. After all, no one wants to be sitting in a Court, Commission or Tribunal trying to answer questions that perhaps they should have known the answer to.

  2. It strikes me that every time another \’Review\” or \”Inquiry\” is conducted into allegations of systemic bullying practices, organisations are not considering learning from the lessons of others. In this day and age, it should be easy enough to read a Review Report from another organisation and see whether or not any of the issues could exist in your organisation, and whether or not any of the Recommendations or Findings have application in your organisation. It also seems to me that the Model Work Health and Safety Act provides a very strong argument that \’officers\’ stay abreast of trends and issues relating to work health and safety. This would include workplace bullying. I would also think that effective systems for the prevention, detection and resolution of workplace bullying (an other forms of inapproriate workplace behaviours) would ensure that Court, Commission or Tribunal decisions are read and reviewed regularly, and internal policies and procedures updated accordingly. Who knows whether or not organisations have started reviewing existing workplace bullying policies and procedures to meet the requirements of the Work Health and Safety Act. Leaving it until January 2012 might be a bit late.

    1. As a consultant, my business came from addressign safety in a range of industies and applying solutions in one industry to another. It is one of the joys of consulting. It is very easy to remain in only one industry due to workload, culture, history or qualifications.

      I found it odd that such a politically sensitive and widely reported issue as bullying in one emergency service did not generate an audit or, at least, a reassessment of other arms of the services or the same service in other States.

      I agree that the new Act may help in this area but good practice existed under previous legislation and regardless of laws, good OHS and business principles should have broadened the knowledge pool.

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