Executive Director says WorkSafe has been reactive on workplace mental health

Ian Forsyth, Health and Safety Executive Director, for WorkSafe Victoria spoke at a breakfast seminar on 7 February 2012.  As a report on what WorkSafe has been doing and what they plan to do in 2012, it was reasonable but there were several issues that raised eyebrows or confused some in the audience.

Workplace Bullying

Ian Forsyth spent some time speaking about the importance of workplace bullying, repeatedly stressing that most calls to WorkSafe about bullying do not fit the definition that would allow WorkSafe to act.  No mention was made of the divergent views on workplace bullying coming through the public comment phase of the draft national code on workplace bullying over the last few months.

Several times Forsyth stressed that there were other avenues for action or appeal on matters that do not fit the WorkSafe definition, such as the Fair Work Ombudsman and other authorities.  This is the reality but the comments provide no real solution to handling the thousands of calls WorkSafe receives on workplace bullying each year.  Is WorkSafe proposing an advertising campaign  that explains potential options?  Is there any move within the Victorian Government to coordinate responses to this, obviously, time-consuming and important social issue?  Is the State Government asking the Federal Government for assistance or leadership on the issue?

Business as usual on workplace bullying is insufficient.  Where is the innovation?

Mental Health

SafetyAtWorkBlog was surprised that such time was spent on workplace bullying but with no mention of the broader context of psychosocial hazards of stress and mental health.  When asked, Ian Forsyth, started talking about the development of the next five-year strategy, mentioned that psychosocial hazards are a substantial challenge, said that WorkSafe is aware of the complexities and admitted, amazingly, that WorkSafe has “been more reactive than proactive” on mental health and stress.

Ian admitted that his answer was “fudgy” but it was more than that, it did not acknowledge that WorkSafe Victoria released one of the first Australian stress-related guidances in April 2007 – “Stresswise- Preventing Work-related stress, A guide for employers in the public sector“.  He failed to mention that WorkSafe is one of those providing funding to the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR), and is a participant in ISCRR’s Research Strategy 2015, launched in August 2011, or that work has been occurring between WorkSafe and BeyondBlue on depression and anxiety in the return-to-work area.  An earlier incarnation of WorkSafe was well aware of the ACTU’s 2003 Stress at Work guide that developed out of the 1997 trade union survey.

Ian Forsyth’s comments may have been ill-informed but the confused ending to his presentation, and his statement on being reactive, did not go down well with the large audience of OHS professionals.

Harmonisation

At the front of mind of all occupational health and safety (OHS) professionals in Australia at the moment is the harmonisation of OHS laws.  The introduction of these laws in Victoria has been postponed pending a review of the economic impacts of the laws being undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Forsyth reiterated many of the public and media statements over the last few months.  He repeatedly stated the fact that the economic impact information for Victoria provided by Safe Work Australia fell “well short of expectations”.

He described what this means for Victorian workplaces:

“It means that any changes to Victoria’s OHS laws that take place will be based on the outcome of that supplementary assessment now being undertaken.  It has been described in some quarters as being a twelve month delay of national reform, so will national reform be adopted or will it not be adopted? Twelve months will tell the story.

I’m not reading it that way.  My reading of it is that the government is undertaking a regulatory impact statement to understand the impacts of reforms, and it could be reforms as a total package, or it could be splitting up that package. I wouldn’t assume its either nothing or complete adoption of model laws.  The purpose of that regulatory impact statement is to look at what the impacts of specific things are and you may find that we’re in a position where there could be a selection of those reforms that might come into Victoria. [emphasis added]

Now, again, I’ve got to be careful.  I am not saying that is what’s going to happen but just don’t assume that there is a twelve month delay and then we’ll see the whole package implemented in Victoria.”

These comments have generated some discussions in legal and OHS areas,  Some have taken Forsyth’s comments as an indication that the Victorian Government will follow the New South Wales path by accepting most of the model laws but will retain, or introduce, some business-friendly elements.  Others took the comments as WorkSafe being as much in the dark as anyone else.

What is clear is that the comments did little to reassure Victorian businesses, or the OHS profession, that the OHS law reform strategy in this State will ease the burden of compliance for companies operating across Australia.

Kevin Jones

5 thoughts on “Executive Director says WorkSafe has been reactive on workplace mental health”

  1. I am disappointed that the issue of bullying is still being “passed on”! No one wants to deal with it, and sadly too many are left out to dry and feeling isolated in the painful state of being bullied.

    I think that the issue really is that no one really understands the subtle aspects of bullying so it is not ever explored or dealt with in a humane manner of understanding or wanting to do something about it.

    When a staff member complains of being bullied to managers the walls go up, and the fear abounds..no one is trained in the area of human conflict in all it’s forms!!!!!

    Sadly I have too many families who has lost a loved one to suicide from work related issues and the subtle bullying is highest in the ranking of the issue.

  2. In response to a comment just received and not approved, Ian Forsyth made no comment on the alleged bullying issues inside WorkSafe and reported in the media last year, nor was he asked any questions about the allegations.

  3. This indicates that the Victorians, who are in my opinion the leaders and have the best track record of all the States and Territories in implementing good regulation making practices, have determined that the SafeWork Australia federalies indeed stuffed up the WHS RIS.

    Excuse my judgement, but the lousy Safework RIS for WHS was subbied out to a consultancy firm (not PWC) who I am sure delivered precisely what was asked of them. It was also published late – well after the regulations. But worst of all, instead of fairly working the process, it was founded on the “false dilemma” logical fallacy, which in this case was essentially; a) do nothing or b) do everything. Beyond that, the federalies gave little more than lip-service to the COAG legislation design process and I reckon the boys over at COAG would be pretty cranky about that now.

    Good on the Vic’s for not “drinking the kool-aid” and instead splitting the horns of that dilemma. The other States ought to contribute to the consultancy fee.

    On cue, various big media lately contain bullying advertorials pining that the Victorians are just being difficult now. I disagree. The Vic’s are resolutely doing the work now that those federalies should have done properly in the first place.

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