There have been many claims of a workplace bullying epidemic in Australia but there has always been a lack of evidence. Research has been targeted into specific industry sectors or regions but broad ranging studies have been few. This lack of evidence was a major frustration for the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workplace Bullying that concluded in late 2012. However useful evidence is beginning to appear.
A recent edition of the Journal of Health Safety and Environment included a report (subscribers only) entitled “The prevalence and nature of bullying: A national study of Australian workers”. The authors, Dr Sarven McLinton, Maureen Dollard, Michelle Tuckey and Tessa Bailey, wrote that the study
“… shows that nearly 7% of Australian workers reported bullying and harassment in the past six months.” (page 283)
Next month Australia hosts the G20 but there is always a lot of activity leading to this meeting and labour relations is part of that preparation. In September 2014 the G20 conducted its Labour and Employment Ministerial meeting at which a Declaration was released that includes some occupational health and safety (OHS) information. The Declaration is full of “weasel words” and “soft verbs” but it is worth noting so that the actions of governments on OHS in the future can be referenced, even though tangible results will be few.
On promoting safer workplaces, the Declaration states:
“Improving workplace safety and health is an urgent priority that protects workers and contributes to increased productivity and growth. We agree to take further steps to reduce the substantial human and economic costs associated with unsafe workplaces and work-related illnesses. We endorse the attached G20 Statement on Safer and Healthier Workplaces (Annex C), and we commit, as appropriate, to implement its recommendations in collaboration with governments, international organisations and social partners.”
If we were to deconstruct this statement, accepting that the paragraph is extracted from the labour relations context, the Australian Government, and other parties, does not accept that OHS is an “urgent priority”, only that improving it is. Any government can prove that it is “improving” OHS even when controls are removed due to red tape reduction or by the ideological strategy of increasing employer control through increased flexibility.
Little of the recent commentary on the findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) have mentioned the opinion of the Royal Commissioner Ian Hanger that the Australian Government acted in a “grossly negligent” manner. Such a comment deserves considerable analysis by a specialist lawyer but it remains a remarkable criticism in terms of obligations under OHS/WHS laws.
Commissioner Hanger wrote:
“To encourage inexperienced young people to work in an environment where there was a risk of defective electrical wiring, and allow them to install conductive material was, in my opinion, grossly negligent. It is no answer for the Australian Government to say that it was the responsibility of those young people’s employers to protect them.” (para 5.2.20, emphasis added)
Gross negligence has been equated to the term “reckless endangerment” included in Australia’s Work Health and Safety laws. One legal website site says that:
“Reckless endangerment is the offense of engaging in activity that has a disregard for risks with foreseeably dangerous consequences.”
Commissioner Hanger’s comments certainly seem to fit reckless endangerment as the risks, not only of electrocution but simply from working in domestic roof spaces, were well known.
The findings of the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) deserve a great deal of analysis by the safety profession. Amongst the lessons are important ones concerning leadership, culture and consultation.
The final report identifies major deficiencies in the design and administration of a major project regardless of the politics and jurisdictional argy-bargy. Although many are disappointed the report did not identify any big name politicians as the major evildoer, Commissioner Ian Hanger is brutally forthright when necessary.
In the introduction of the report, there are several references to what a “competent administration” would have done, clearly implying that the government of then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was incompetent in the management of HIP. In fact Hanger writes:
“It ought also to have been obvious to any competent administration that the injection of a large amount of money into an industry that was largely ‘unregulated’ would carry with it the risk of rorting and other unscrupulous behaviour.” (para 1.1.19)
“It ought to have been obvious, to any competent administration, that such an exponential increase in work to be undertaken would require a similarly huge increase in the workforce to do it.” (1.1.9)
“The reality is that the Australian Government conceived of, devised, designed and implemented a program that enabled very large numbers of inexperienced workers—often engaged by unscrupulous and avaricious employers or head contractors, who were themselves inexperienced in insulation installation—to undertake potentially dangerous work. It should have done more to protect them.” (1.11.18)
SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously about the evidence of Margaret Coaldrake to the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program (HIP) given at the public hearings and also the occupational health and safety role of risk management and risk registers. The release of the Royal Commission’s final report on 1 September 2014 provides further details on a risk management process that is common to all large projects.
Commissioner Ian Hanger spent considerable time on the issue of the risk register as this was one of the crucial elements in the project’s whole decision-making process up to Ministerial level.
Commissioner Hanger was scathing of the risk management process that not only ignored the risk of worker fatalities but purposely dropped this risk from the register. He was unforgiving in his criticism of Margaret Coaldrake. He criticised her judgement. In working with her Minter Ellison colleague Eric Chalmers:
“it was up to [Coaldrake] to make sure that she and the people working with her were qualified to provide the service that Minter Ellison consultants had been retained to do.” (para 7.11.15)