Construction industry bullies

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Workplace bullying is a possibility in all workplaces but more so in the blue collar construction industry than elsewhere, it seems. 

The front page report in The Australian confirms the blue-collar bully stereotype that the former conservative government tried to gain political mileage from, most noticeably in political advertising, but also in political rhetoric over the years.

The article reports threatening language and physical imposition towards inspectors from the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).  There was verbal abuse and insults to both the male and female inspectors.  John Lloyd, head of the ABCC, is quoted as writing in a letter to the building company Brookfield Multiplex, that his inspectors:

“”feared for their safety and believed they would be assaulted if they had left the vehicle”.

The article also says that John Lloyd believes the incident, being investigated by the police, to be

“the worst abuse encountered by his inspectors in 1400 building site visits.”

The ABCC has draconian powers and there is, obviously, tension between the ABCC and construction workers however there is no excuse for workers breaching their OHS obligations to visitors to their worksite, regardless of the organisation the visitors represent.

The industry and unions have tried to eradicate it for safety and political reasons but on some sites it persists.  The Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union says that no CFMEU employee or officer was involved in the incident.  That is good news but it was very likely that many of the participants were CFMEU members.  The union should remind its members that the ABCC inspectors have the right to carry on their work tasks in a safe and healthy manner even if their presence is objectionable.

The construction workers involved in this incident are doing their case against the ABCC no good at all by their threatening behaviour.  Indeed it allows the Labor government the chance to use similar rhetoric to that used by the Liberal Party – construction industry bullies and union thugs.  Let’s hear the CFMEU discipline their members on their OHS obligations to others.

Politicians’ workplaces

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Western Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter, is to be applauded for stating that the Parliament is a workplace.  This sounds like stating the bleeding obvious but Parliament has often turned a blind eye to this fact.

Certainly, the Premier is in election mode so there is an additional context in this period to everything he says. On 22 August 2008, he was talking about a working bar that exists in the State Parliament and how inappropriate it is. The media reported him saying:

“Parliament House is a work place, the members of parliament should not be able to drink freely during working hours,” Mr Carpenter said.  “Having a bar serving alcohol during working hours is completely out of step with community expectations. It is completely unacceptable that members of parliament are able to sit in a bar in their workplace and drink when they should be working on behalf of the community.”

There may be good reasons for having a bar in a workplace, but it may be inappropriate for workers to use the facility during business hours.  For years, many workplaces have introduced policies concerning drugs and alcohol to, in my opinion primarily, to cover themselves against legal action.  Thankfully such policies can also have a workplace safety role in the reduction of impairment.

Impairment relates to one’s fitness for work and is easiest to understand in the transport industries where one person is responsible for the safety of many members of the public.  But I have never understood why the logical extension of impairment to decision making in other workplaces has not be made.

In a workplace, such as a Parliament, or a goverment building, where decisions are made that will affect the safety and welfare of the public, decisions should be made with no impairment,  Policies should not be decided over a couple of bottles of scotch which was reported to be done by an education minister in Victoria several years ago.  Another politician was “under-the-weather” in Federal parliament some years ago, even though the current Federal Parliament has no bar onthe premises.

Considering that Parliaments are workplaces, the governments should review other hazards that are being addressed in other Australian workplaces.  The top of the list would be reasonable working hours, fatigue and stress.  In most Parliaments, the security issue is being dealt with but workplace bullying could be applicable.

Alan Carpenter’s comments were political statements in an election campaign so they have a dubious weight but let’s start thinking of Parliaments as workplaces and start seeing our politicians as exemplars in OHS.  If safety culture starts with leaders and safety champions, then can we blame workers and business operators who follow our leaders’ examples?

Media reporting of workplace bullying

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As a publisher my mailbox is constantly bombarded by media releases.  Some are irrelevant but most relate to safety in some way.

Over the years the amount of attention given to workplace bullying has grown phenomenally.  In my opinion the attention it garners is way beyond the level it deserves.

That is not to say that those subjected to workplace bullying are not seriously harmed, they are, but the big-picture issue is disproportionate.

This is partly because many people who talk about workplace bullying do not apply the definition of the hazard, and as a result other non-bullying matters get included.  A media release I received today, 14 August 2008, illustrates this point.

Workpro has undertaken a survey of

“2,146 employees applying for work through recruitment agencies across Australia, to gain an understanding of the experiences and beliefs about bullying and discrimination among Australian employees today”.

The survey found

“almost one in three (30%) employees claiming they have been bullied at work; one in four (24%) claiming they have been discriminated against, and 44 per cent stating they have witnessed their colleagues experience either of these”.

That data is pretty clear and you can expect the Australian media to run articles on the survey results tomorrow.  These surveys usually get a good hit rate.

The media release provides the impression that 30% of employees have been bullied at work.  This is not the case.  Thirty per cent of employees who are looking to change jobs say they have been bullied at work.  This does not represent 30% of the workforce but that is the impression we are given.

Another part of the release is annoying.

“27 per cent of respondents say they feel bullying or discrimination has happened to them within the past two years.”

Bullying and discrimination are very different interactions.  Discrimination can be a one-off event, bullying must be a repeated action.  To ask about these two disparate items within the one question is inappropriate or, if the results of two questions are combined, it provides a false impression.  Did 10% nominate bullying and 17% say discrimination or was it vice versa?

The media release says

“When asked about their peers, almost half (46%) of respondents say they have seen their colleagues bullied or discriminated against within the past two years; 31 per cent of this group say multiple times.”

The point about definition made above applies here but why ask about other people anyway?  The multiple times quote muddies the water because it is impossible to be bullied once, a single attack is just that an attack or in OHS parlance, “occupational violence”.

A spokesperson for WorkPro, Tania Evans, says

“It’s quite shocking to hear from employees that this sort of behaviour continues to happen in modern times, but organisations need to realise that bullying and unfair treatment of staff is occurring and could be impacting their own workplace culture or worse still, exposing them to the risk of liability, possible fines and even brand damage.”

Now we have something called “unfair treatment” in the mix.  (And I hate “impact” as a verb) The penalties could be liability, fines or brand damage, what about workers compensation claims for stress and bullying?  Not only is this a substantial business cost, the cause of the claim may result in the employee never being able to work again or lead a functional life?  I place these risks higher than brand damage.

Media releases are not the be-all and end-all of a survey.  Press statements are intended to generate contact in order to provide further information and hopefully generate business opportunities.  Alarmism is an effective tool and this media release is unhelpful.

You can imagine the articles in tomorrow’s papers where the journalists, if they can be bothered, will have asked the OHS regulators or unions for their response to the statistics, even though it may only be those statistics in the media release that they have seen.

I would have liked this survey to be reported in two parts, bullying and discrimination, to reflect their difference but also to report on the different control mechanisms for the harm that each of these hazards can generate.

But, I forgot, that’s my job.

Kevin Jones

Using workers compensation claims as exit strategies

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There have been two instances in Australia in the last week where workers compensation claims have made the news. The first was in relation to the suicide attempt by Tasmanian politician, Paula Wriedt.  She has revealed that after the break-up of her marriage she had an affair with one of the government chauffeurs, Ben Chaffey.

According to one media report, Chaffey has argued

“that his employment became untenable as a result of the relationship and his employer’s response to it.  He is seeking a severance payment thought to be about $A140,000 to compensate for this, and for stress and harm suffered.”

It is also reported that he has been on “stress leave” for several months.

The other case involves unfair dismissal action being taken by public transport ticket inspector, Glenn Hoyne in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) against his dismissal by Connex.  Hoyne made accusations on a Melbourne talkback radio show about Connex setting quotas for issuing ticket infringement notices and that inspecting was a revenue-raising exercise only.

Connex investigated the claims and described the allegations as “bribery, blackmail or extortion”.

Hoyne took leave in December 2007 and submitted a workers compensation claim due to work-related stress.  The situation was clearly tense.

The AIRC Deputy President, Brian Lacy, described Hoyne’s actions as not a threat to Connex but

“some sort of industrial claim, albeit misguided, for a severance payment.”

These two cases illustrate how murky human relations, and human resources, can be.  Both parties are seeking recompense for actions that are work-related and both actions will result in a resolution.  But neither will generate any real preventive action.  One claim has been described as a pitch for a severance payout and the other is stress from a broken work-related relationship and the employer’s response to a sexual relationship.

When did people begin to expect a monetary payout above their entitlements for leaving a job that they didn’t like or for when a relationship with a work colleague ended?

A law firm newsletter from 2005 reported on a case of a stress claim, which may provide a counterpoint to the situations above:

“The employee claimed, and was successful in establishing that his stress was directly caused by his employer’s failure to keep him informed of changes in the workplace. In essence, the prospect of redundancy was seen as a sufficient causative factor in the employee’s work related injury.”

The newsletter goes on to advise

“employers must assess the circumstances and sensitivities of individual workers when making management decisions in order to avoid stress claims being made or where claims are made, to avoid liability for such claims.”

Maybe this is the only safety management lesson we can learn from the unhappy ticket inspector and the stressed-out chauffeur, manage your people well.