Law firms are a focus for sexual harassment reforms

This year coverage of The Australian newspaper’s annual Legal Partnership Survey has focused on the number of women partners in law firms. This increase has generated discussion on sexual harassment, which has revealed some of the activities that law firms use to prevent the psychological harm (and brand damage) from sexual harassment; many strategies that are already very familiar to the occupational health and safety profession

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has been paraphrased in the article (paywalled), saying

Non-disclosure agreements should be used to protect people who have been the subject of sexual harassment, rather than to reduce brand damage to organisations…..”

[link added]
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Latest Psych Health Code released

The big occupational health and safety (OHS) news in Australia has been the New South Wales release of its Code of Practice for Managing Psychological Hazards at Work. This Code is not mandatory but is a very good indication of what the OHS regulators (and perhaps eventually the Courts) believe are reasonably practicable measures for employers and business owners to take. These measures are discussed in detail below.

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Australia gets serious on psychological health at work

Below is an article written by Carlo Caponecchia and published originally on May 25 2021. Caponecchia is a leading figure in workplace psychological hazards and strategies. The article is reproduced with permission.


Employers are about to ramp up their efforts to protect mental health at work.

Last week, workplace health and safety (WHS) ministers from around Australia agreed to changes that will formalise what’s expected of employers in relation to mental health in Regulation. 

These changes respond to a review of the model WHS laws by Marie Boland, former Executive director at Safework South Australia. The model WHS laws are a “blueprint” used since 2011 to make safety laws more consistent across the States and Territories. 

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New workplace mental health info but no new strategy

On May 20, 2021, Australia’s Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers to discuss a range of occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. One matter will be the inclusion of a specific requirement on employers that, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU):

“…. would finally require employers to identify and address risks to mental health, in the same way, they are required to with risks to physical health.”

What the ACTU fails to make clear is why this regulatory change is required when the duty to provide a physically and psychologically safe and healthy workplace already exists in the current OHS/WHS laws in Australia.

The ACTU does, however, with the help of the Australia Institute and Centre for Future Work, provide more data on work-related mental health. The union movement is one of the few voices that acknowledge the structural elements of OHS but fails to consider any options other than regulation and, with a federal conservative government in power, it is unlikely to receive an attentive audience.

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A traditional farm safety campaign with tweaks

For the last few years, farm safety has been dominated by arguments over the safety of quad bikes. Squabbles continue in Australia, but that topic is largely over, and many are returning to a broader and more contemporary approach to health and safety in farming.

It looks like WorkSafe Victoria has begun to roll out its farm safety ambassadors with Catherine Velisha on the cover of a recent edition of Stock and Land newspaper and in a Youtube video. This is supported by a full article on page 3 with an additional article in a glossy supplement provided with WorkSafe’s support.

The article is a blend of promotion for Velisha’s farm management training company and media releases from WorkSafe Victoria. The occupational health and safety (OHS) statistics are new but not very different from previous statistics. Middle-aged men continue to be a feature of the fatality statistics, and 58 on-farm deaths happened in 2020, the same as the year before. Quad bikes have been a major factor in those deaths.

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OHS is “… more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Occupational health and safety (OHS) may not be a common subject in the mainstream media but there is plenty of political discussion on the topic in Australia’s Parliament.

The current (conservative) federal government seems very slow to accept and respond to recommendations from official inquiries that it sees as a secondary political priority, such as sexual harassment and workplace health and safety. The hearings of the Senate’s Education and Employment Legislation Committee on March 24 2021, were, as usual, enlightening.

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Now there is too much mental health information, and it’s like toothpaste

Australia is experiencing a boom in occupational health and safety (OHS) information about work-related psychological harm, including sexual harassment at work. This level of information is long overdue, but a consequence of this “boom” is that employers can be very confused about which information to use and which source they should trust or even what relates to their specific circumstances, especially after years of denying there is a problem.

Putting on my consultant hat, I would advise any State-based organisation to comply with the OHS guidances issued by that State’s OHS regulator. If a national company, look towards the guidance of Comcare or Safe Work Australia for the national perspective. The challenge is greater for companies that operate in multiple States, but these have been rumoured to be less than 10% of Australian businesses. If multi-State, they should be big enough to have the resources for OHS compliance.

However, some State-based mental initiatives have evolved into a national platform.

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