There is a whiff of media manipulation on recent allegations of bullying at WorkSafe Victoria

WorkSafe Victoria has been heavily criticised in the media over recent days about “revelations” of workplace bullying within the authority, a government authority that has the role of regulating workplace safety, a role that includes reducing the risk of bullying.

It would be easy to only look at the newspaper articles of this week but the issue has been bubbling away for some time.  WorkSafe has always struggled with addressing workplace bullying in its own staff, the community and other government agencies.  But this is not unique.  A 2010 report on bullying in the Victorian public sector showed a high incidence of workplace bullying across the public service going back to 2005.  What makes the WorkSafe situation different is that the hazard of workplace bullying is being alleged in the organisation who should know best how to control it.

The Age has reported previously on bullying in the public service previously in 2005.  The Age reported then that

“The Government’s own research, based on a survey of 14,000 public sector workers, found that more than one in five had been bullied or harassed by colleagues or managers in the past year. A further 40 per cent had witnessed others being abused.”

Karen Batt, a long-serving State Secretary of the Community & Public Sector Union (CPSU), has been outspoken on workplace bullying every time the matter has been raised in survey reports and the media for many years.  The recent Age articles quote her extensively and The Age’s publisher, Fairfax, has even posted recent audio of Batt’s opinions.

But it is important to ask why the issue of workplace bullying at WorkSafe has reappeared, now,  in late September 2011.

The (recent) attention on workplace bullying seems to have started with a 30 August 2011 opinion piece in the  Australian Financial Review (AFR – a Fairfax newspaper) by Josh Bornstein, a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, entitled “Time to outlaw toxic bullies“. (Curiously this article is one of the very few AFR articles that is freely accessible outside of the subscription paywall.)  Bullying at WorkSafe Victoria is not mentioned. Bornstein’s opinions also appeared in Lawyers Weekly on 29 August 2011 based on the media statement his law firm released.  The media statement encourages readers to visit a Facebook page supported by the Maurice Blackburn law firm.

The articles and statements listed above make no mention of WorkSafe however on 3 September 2011 an article appeared in a rival newspaper, the Herald-Sun, about

“Former WorkSafe health adviser Jillian Ramsden, 46, lodged the claim on July 27 after months of alleged workplace bullying….”

In the Herald-Sun article, Josh Bornstein is quoted:

“Maurice Blackburn lawyer Josh Bornstein said WorkSafe – which is running a poster campaign encouraging employees to report workplace bullying – was unfit to fulfil its charter.

“I can promise that this case will be a long, instructive and difficult journey for WorkSafe,” Mr Bornstein said.

“If there is to be fundamental cultural change at WorkCover, it will be first necessary to expose its behaviour in this case to sustained external scrutiny by Fair Work Australia and the Federal Court.”

The media articles do not specify whether Josh Bornstein, or Maurice Blackburn, is representing Ramsden in her Federal Court action but Bornstein has appeared with Ramsden in a video report on SBS news on 19 September 2011.  In a 19 September 2011 radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Bornstein mentions many similarities in the case he is representing to that of Ramsden.  (Following publication of this article SafetyAtWorkBlog received confirmation that Josh Bornstein is representing Jillian Ramsden)

(Coincidentally, the man who Karen Batt is talking with in the SBS video is a former employee of an earlier incarnation of WorkSafe Victoria, as is the author of this article, Kevin Jones.)

But a timeline of media statements, social media initiatives and mainstream media attention seems to have begun shortly after Jillian Ramsden lodged her dismissal claim in July 2011 based on allegations of bullying at WorkSafe.  The Bornstein media release appeared just over a month later as did his AFR opinion piece (both significantly without mentioning WorkSafe) and, three weeks following that, Bornstein is commenting publicly and repeatedly on the accusations of bullying at WorkSafe, often without naming Ramsden.

The front page attention given to the WorkSafe bullying allegations by The Age are unlikely to affect Ramsden’s Federal Court action but it could increase community awareness and, perhaps, sympathy for her allegations. It is difficult to not see this recent timeline as part of an orchestrated media strategy.  If this is the reality, there should have been some declaration, particularly in the August and early-September pieces, that the writer or advocate was actively involved in bullying-related actions and actions against the OHS regulator.

Kevin Jones

SafetyAtWorkBlog is in no position to question or confirm Ramsden’s allegations and, should the allegations be proven, we wish her all the best in regaining some quality of life.

12 thoughts on “There is a whiff of media manipulation on recent allegations of bullying at WorkSafe Victoria”

  1. Kevin, I agree with one statement that:
    \” it is important to ask why the issue of workplace bullying at WorkSafe has reappeared, now, in late September 2011.\”, a very valid question.

    It is of public interest that they (public) are informed that this is, in fact, occuring. Take it from me, I have experienced it personally.
    Complancency is a dangerous thing, especially harmful when people internally and externally are continually and consistantly being harmed by those they work for and to which the authority \”Worksafe\” are there to protect them. If the authority itself, have this culture within it\’s walls, then it is of no surprise that victims have sort other avenues i.e. media, in the hope that there is accountability, why should\’nt there be?
    The nature of Bullying is a hard topic to address, let alone combat, but that does not mean that we should not try to fix systems that are failing, especially if it is the authority that is failing them!
    Should there be more \”Brodie Panlocks\” to suffer before something is done?
    If the media have reported on this numerous times (regardless of whether there is self promotion for lawyers or their clients or their cases), the public need to ask themselves is there substance to it it?…. evidently there is.

    Therefore I do not believe this to be a form of media manipulation, but the media\’s duty, to serve and expose those that perpetrate this behavoir, for the benifit of public interest and hopefully, for the authority (Worksafe) to address its incompetence and it\’s culture and ulutimately be accountable for it, then we may have some chance in combating these toxic and harmful work enviroments that is so prevelant in so many workplaces in the community.

  2. please write more on the differences between WORKSAFE and WORKCOVER because it is important that injured persons know about this.
    Furthermore, why do providers have to deal with WORKSAFE (such as the physio) and not WORKCOVER

  3. There have been a number of recent incidents where WORKSAFE and its insurers have been involved in bullying. These are not isolated and their lawyers have been inundated in recent days by these complaints. many injured workers are too scared to comment until something like this happens. Also injured workers are not always told their rights including legal fees pertaining to their injuries can be paid by WORKSAFE and the insurers.
    One only has to ask health professionals why they will not register as providers for WORKSAFE and one of the reasons is the same as the physiotherapist who rang 774 ABC on Monday stated–being bullied into writing reports to suit the insurers.
    WORKSAFE do not like workers who complain and they bully them by not paying on time, by \’\’losing\’\’ correspondence, by defamation etc. Isnt it true that one provider is now suing WORKSAFE for defamation – sure is. the bottom line though that the injured workers suffer because of this

    1. I have permitted this commetn thorugh becasue it is refloective of many of the emails I have received in the last couple of days. There is a fundamental difference between WorkSafe and WorkCover in Victoria. Both are part of the Victorian Workcover Authority but the former inspects workplaces and operates under legislation that aims to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses. WorkCover operates under the Accident Compensation Act and aims for rehabilitation or compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses. One is aimed at preventing harm and the other is built around fixing injured persons or compensating them for harm.

      The recent WorkSafe bullying accusations that the blog article above discusses are specific to WorkSafe. This is not to say that WorkCover does not have a similar problem but Victoria\’s Workcover is not part of the recent spate of accusations.

      Workers Compensation authorities and insurers have a difficult task in balancing their corporate obligations and their obligations to injured workers and family members affected by workplace incidents. They can be seen as sharing many of the problems and challenges as those organisations in the social security sector.

      SafetyAtWorkBlog has written occasionally about this sector and there are many readers who have listed deficiencies in the management of workers compensation claims. The workers compensation sector in Australia needs a thorough national going-over and the government has discussed such a review and taken initial steps for the review process. If it follows the path of the OHS Harmonisation, the review will be a dismal failure because the compensation sector should not be compared to OHS prevention. Workers compensation involves the following

      National and international insurance companies
      The health profession
      People in pain
      People on low incomes
      Damaged people
      Lawyers
      Large bureaucracies

      As well as all of these, compensation and insurance is part of a social welfare contract. This allows enormous opportunities for positive change but it must also face barriers that are far higher than those in the OHS sector.

      As an aside, if any readers want to pursue any elements of this comment, please email me and I will develop a separate stream of SafetyAtWorkBlog articles and comments.

      Kevin Jones

  4. Are you kidding!!! There have been countless articles in a variety of papers prior to the series that you are mentioning. I found them by doing a very basic search so can I ask what sort of \’research\’ you are basing your comments on??
    Really a media beat-up and you who haven\’t been able to do a fully internet research on the articles that are for free!

    Really Mr Jones I think you should do your homework before having a go at the media about anything.

    Unbelievable comments by yourself in your self proclaimed position of importance.

    1. I agree there are many more articles that could be referenced over the last decade. I would recommend as many of the documents as can be found on WorkSafe\’s investigation into bullying at the Police Association, the Victorian auditor\’s reports, WorkSafe Victoria\’s annual reports, the Victorian Trades Hall OHS/HSR site and a raft of others. The repeated issues of bullying in WorkSafe demand more research and I would be surprised if the mainstream media is not pursuing the matter, particularly given that both The Herald-Sun and The Age have published articles on this in the past.

      Please accept that a comprehensive assessment of all the issues related to the current WorkSafe allegations could not be prepared by an independent blog within a couple of days of a matter occurring. I encourage all readers to use the search function for the blog which in the right-hand column of the blog articles. The results will cover over four years of SafetyAtWorkBlog articles, for instance, this link leads to all occurrences of the words \”WorkSafe\” and \”Bullying\”. By looking at the blog articles over time, a larger and more detailed picture, and references, is often available.

      May I ask you to reread the blog article as there is no mention or hint that the WorkSafe allegations is a \”media beat-up\”. I stress that the allegations are yet to be proven and that they are yet to be disproved. That is the work of Fair Work Australia and the Federal Court.

      I recommend Graham Dent\’s comment above that discusses the role of media in legal actions.

      Lastly, please note that I moderate all comments on this blog and advise that comments that are insulting to myself or the blog readers will be rejected. They may then be resubmitted in an edited and courteous form.

  5. Hi Kevin, I am out of office at the moment and so my comment is on the run. I agree with you on many issues Kevin but not on this one.

    The suggestion of media manipulation arises from what might be described as a sequence / coincidence of events. However, leaving aside the involvement of Josh Bornstein in some of those events, bullying is, and has been in recent years, a major topic of media interest. It gains headlines whenever a serious allegation arises and of course in Victoria it recently gained further prominence when amendments to the Crimes Act were passed, nick named Brodie\’s Law after Brodie Panlock who tragically committed suicide following bullying at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn.

    Bullying and related psychosocial issues are regular fare in legal firm bulletins to clients and at seminars. I know from my own practice that it remains an issue of concern and focus for many clients who are trying to get their systems and training right, and who recognise that bullying is a major issue.

    Surveys (some of dubious quality) are regularly released to the media or online highlighting the high incidence of bullying.

    It is therefore always going to be a strong interest for the media.

    I do not know Josh Bornstein, other than by his reputation. However, it is not uncommon for lawyers, when doing a case, and researching the latest developments, guidance and practice on an issue, particularly one as emotive and subject to public interest as bullying, to decide to use that up to date research to publish some articles on the issue. Doing so can serve a number of purposes: it is educational, it satisfies a public interest, there is no doubt for all lawyers an element of self promotion, and it may in some cases, also benefit a client\’s interests. That is not media manipulation. There has to be a story there, the information has to have value, and the media in the end decide whether to run it. We are not talking here of a well oiled multinational company with a PR machine that rolls out the spin doctors and books time on Oprah to sway public opinion.

    As a journalist you would be well aware that the media love a story that hits the nerve on a topic to which the public are already sensitised, such as bullying. With the new laws, fines, due diligence obligations and increased civil actions it is an area that should be of interest to readers of the Financial Review (and other outlets).

    Once news of Ms Ramsden\’s action against WorkSafe hit the news it is hardly surprising that there would be:

    (a) prominent coverage of the issue (particularly in Victoria – following Brodie\’s case, Brodie\’s law and continued strong pronouncements by WorkSafe condemning bullying); and
    (b) as a strong part of that coverage the role of WorkSafe.

    Doing so is a logical approach for the media and in fact it would be a stunning failure of the media if they did not follow the issue in that manner and put the hard questions to WorkSafe. WorkSafe may or may not have the answers, but the question about how well it manages these issues itself is a very valid one which I am sure is of interest not only to the public but also the OHS profession. I know that I for one am watching the case with genuine interest.

    As I said at the outset Kevin, I agree with most issues you comment on, and I think the role of the media in these sorts of cases is a valid issue, but let’s not let the real issue, the real questions, get lost in speculation as to whether or not someone gave these stories a bit of a push. Even if they did, the focus should be on the substance of the issues and valid questions raised – not whether it also suited someone to publish them. For example, you did not critcise the substance of any of the articles written by Josh Bornstein, nor the questions raised by The Age.

    Keep up the good work Kevin.

    1. Graham

      Thanks for a considered comment from the other side of the country. I have received several phone calls since this post was uploaded, not all have agreed with my perspective. I welcome criticism as I never profess to have The Answer.

      Several callers have stressed the hinted-at unseen mass of complaints about bullying in WorkSafe. Most have said that media will follow up on these accusations and allegations and that we should continue to read the papers and listen to the talkback radio in coming weeks.

      It is understandable that people feel that WorkSafe should have higher expectation on them over OHS matters, such as bullying. WorkSafe, with the unions, started the workplace bullying guidances over 10 years ago and so has had the maximum amount of time to get its house into order. The suggestion that it has not indicates to the community how difficult countering workplace bullying can be and each news report on bullying allegations in the authority is confirming this (perceived) complexity.

      I suspect that soon WorkSafe will realise that it may need to admit failure on organisational culture and allow itself to be an example of how to rebuild from failure. This would require a major and uncomfortable switch in attitude by the senior managers but for the long term good of the authority and to establish new harm prevention strategies, this should be considered. Of course, in the public service there are also plenty of other bodies such as ombudsmen, auditors and ministers who may involve themselves, as several have done in the past with WorkSafe.

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