WorkSafe Victoria provides insight into bullying investigations

It has been known for some time that OHS regulators struggle with handling reports of workplace bullying.  Investigation of these hazards requires new inspectorate skills and take considerable time.  Investigations of bullying involve people and this is always more involved than inspecting a missing machine guard or assessing the operation of a forklift.  However, in an article in the Fairfax media on 24 July 2011 WorkSafe Victoria provides some surprising statistics that show a new perspective on workplace bullying and a contrast to recent statistics from Comcare.

The most significant statistic is that, of the 6000 reports of workplace bullying within the last 12 months, only 600 warrant further investigation and, of those, around 60 generate a physical inspection of the workplace.  These statistics may indicate a range of issues:

  • OHS regulators require greater number of inspectors.
  • Workplace bullying is being critically misunderstood by the community.
  • Workers are confused about where to report their treatment and choose WorkSafe as the agency with the highest profile for workplace issues.
  • Other workplace-related agencies and authorities, such as Fair Work Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission, need to raise their profiles on this issue.
What is missing from the WorkSafe statistics above is the next level of intervention.  What action is being taken by the inspector?  Will prosecutions occur?  Are improvement notices applied?  There may be just as wide a gap between the 60 inspections and an appearance in court.

For readers’ interest searching for “bullying” on the Fair Work Australia site reveals no results however the Australian Human Rights Commission site results in several references – a clarification of violence, harassment and bullying (with links for further information) and a workplace bullying factsheet.

Curiously the factsheet refers people to Jobwatch and makes no mention of State OHS authorities.  Jobwatch is also undergoing a substantial reduction in its funding and is likely to need to curtail some of its activities, even though a recent survey for Jobwatch indicated that

“46 per cent of part-­‐time workers were either aware of bullying and harassment in the workplace, or had been bullied and harassed themselves.”

However, as WorkSafe’s Ian Forsyth in The Sunday Age article points out,

“I think what we are seeing is that the term bullying is being used quite loosely in the community now in many instances to describe something that has ‘gone against me’ or ‘that I haven’t liked’ or something that ‘I haven’t wanted to do”.

There is a circularity to the issue that is often seen when dealing with workplace safety and workers’ rights, few government agencies who have the authority to step forward do.  The cycle is not being broken.

And the issue of workplace bullying will become even more heated and prominent over the next 12 months as a Draft Code of Practice on Bullying is planned for release by Safe Work Australia as part of the harmonisation of OHS  laws, according to its December 2010 Issues Paper.

WorkSafe is to be congratulated for providing some statistics on a workplace issue that reveals a reality with which the community may be uncomfortable but one that needs governmental attention and a coordinated strategy.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

12 thoughts on “WorkSafe Victoria provides insight into bullying investigations”

  1. Thanks for starting this blog, Kevin. I\’ve been concerned all week about the messages people might take from the Age article – basically:
    1 – what people think is bullying, isn\’t, because it doesn\’t satisfy the \’legal definition\’
    2 – only 1 per cent (10 per cent of the 6,000 complaints were referred to the bullying unit, and of these, only one in ten resulted in an inspector visiting the workplace) of complaints warranted a closer examination at the workplace
    3 – this explains why there have been no prosecutions that did not lead to physical injury
    4 – there\’s no point reporting bullying to the regulator

    In my view and experience, by the time someone makes a complaint to WorkSafe, very often that person has already been through a lot and is quite distressed… although of course not every complaint does necessarily qualify as \’bullying\’. Further, even where the situation does involve bullying, there are real problems for the regulator – lack of witnesses, unwillingness of workers who either witnessed or experienced bullying to come forward, conflicting stories, etc. This, rather than the behaviour not being bullying may explain why so few cases get very far. And in at least one case that I know of where a WorkSafe suggested external investigation supported several serious allegations, no \’real\’ action, much less prosecution, eventuated.

    The way in which WorkSafe investigates bullying allegations must change. It\’s a serious problem and equating lack of prosecutions to lack of a problem does not wash.

  2. Hi Kevin. I did specifically say \”psychologically injured victims of workplace bullies\”. In every one of the cases you raised there was physical injury involved as well as psychological injury . If there is blood on the floor they might!!! do something. I appreciate I might have been a little unclear in my wording but not in its intent. A few more points. WorkSafe did not take on the Cafe Vamp case until the Coroner told them to. All the investigation was done by the Police.
    Your guessing that the case I mean is concerning the Police is incorrect. The case at VCAT currently is a new one. The case is just another example of WorkSafe spending more public money to deny victims of psychological injuries. In fact they have spent more money denying these types of victims than they have ever spent on investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators.

    Dr Doug Osborne

  3. Thankyou so much for your your article. It raises so many points I would like to address.
    Why have there been absolutely no prosecutions by WorkSafe, on behalf of the psychologically injured victims of workplace bullies, against bullying employers in the past 10 years?
    As well as the 6000 cases in this past year, there must be many more thousands in previous years.
    Why did WorkSafe stop an internal review into their failures and misconduct by using a quirk in the law that the victim was not eligible because the victim was no longer employed. The fact that the victim was employed at the time they asked for WorkSafe\’s help before beig sacked was irrelevant to them.
    Why is WorkSafe now claiming at VCAT, that they cannot be guilty of discrimination by treating psychologically injured victims in a manner that is so much less favourable than those with physical injuries because they do not provide a \”service\” even though the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner has told them of course they provide a service.
    Mr Forsyth of WorkSafe says if the issues are not addressed at the workplace you can call on them. If you do, they proceed to deny the victims their rights at every twist and turn they can come up with.
    If anyone is interested in further details about WorkSafe and its disgraceful conduct, please feel free to contact me by email.

    Dr Doug Osborne

    1. I have allowed Doug\’s comment with trepidation as it relates to the WorkSafe/bullying article but does not, necessarily, further the issue of workplace bullying.

      Part of my trepidation is that Doug says there have \”been absolutely no prosecution by WorkSafe….\” But the prosecution of the workers and proprietor of Cafe Vamp was specifically about workplace bullying.
      Other prosecutions include this 2003 prosecution about bullying an apprentice.
      Radio Ballarat was famously prosecuted in 2004 after the bullying and violent behaviour of an announcer:

      \”The defendant employed Reg Mowat as an announcer from 14 February 2000 until 21 October 2003 when his employment was terminated.
      Mr Mowat was found to have been responsible for incidents of bullying, including acts of violence, starting with an incident on or about 12 March 2001.
      The last reported incident on 16 October 2003 resulted in the termination of his employment.
      Breach: Sections 21(1) & (2)(a) and sections 21(1) & (2)(e) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1985.
      Result: Without conviction fined an aggregate of $50,000 plus $5,000 costs.\”

      In 2006, Wagstaff Cranbourne was fined without a conviction for workplace bullying.

      There are many more examples of workplace bullying prosecutions in Victoria and there are several in other Australian states that can be readily located through internet searches.

      WorkSafe itself would admit that in relation to investigations of workplace bullying, its record has been variable. Doug alludes to at least one instant in his comment. I guess that it may be in relation to its investigation of the Victoria Police.

      I don\’t mean to be an apologist for WorkSafe. There are plenty of instances of criticism of the authority in this blog but I do think that inaccuracies in comments need to be addressed as much as possible. I also believe that the OHS regulators in Australia continue to struggle with the application of OHS laws to current psychosocial hazards, including mental health and bullying, but that in the coming months there is a great opportunity to progress the understanding of workplace bullying and the enforcement strategies on a national basis through the harmonisation process.

  4. Thank you so much for posting this article. I look forward to updates. Can I say where people are saying it is about under performance and the supposedly crying bullying THIS IS INCORRECT!
    To lodge a complaint is NOT easy and very stressful. Look at TARGETS of Bullying and their personalities types. They are high achievers, work hard, love their jobs and stick up for themselves and others usually more qualified also then their bosses as well.. I work a great deal in this area being a target myself.
    Please be aware that most of the time this is the TRUTH and the real reason for bullying is others insecurities and jealousy or perceived threat from the target for some reason. Targets are unaware of this until it is too late and the damage is done psychologically to career and reputation. I won 2 Claims for being bullied and went through HELL fighting this. The lies and what the organization did to try and stop my Claim is unbelievable. I won with out tribunal etc first up.
    PLEASE research this to fully understand what is truth and what is not on this tyranny and sabotage for that is what it is!
    Thank you

    I have shared this article and links.

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