OHS largely overlooked in National Outlook Report

The National Australia Bank and the CSIRO have released their National Outlook Report for 2019. It should be no surprise that the only mention of occupational health and safety (OHS) in this report is in relation to “employee wellbeing” – reflecting the current corporate approach to OHS in Australia. The discussion on employee wellbeing in this report is selective and could have been stronger in its recommendations for change.

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Family violence at work, looking at trees instead of forest

Victoria’s Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy, has released a media statement about the occupational health and safety (OHS) context of family violence, referencing a WorkSafe Victoria guidance note from January 2018.

Hennessy is quoted saying:

“Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for their employees – and that includes doing whatever they can to support workers experiencing family violence.”

But what level or type of support is expected from employers? Family violence is damaging and insidious but also a crime. It is also a subset, or maybe a special type, of workplace violence as is evident by WorkSafe’s reference to its broader violence publication at the end of the family violence guidance note. The publication, A guide for employers Preventing and responding to work-related violence, outlines the employers duty of care, which includes prevention.

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Business groups miss the target on sexual harassment

Two business associations have released the submissions they provided to Australia’s National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces – the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and the Australian Industry Group (AiG). These submissions have been eagerly anticipated as these two groups are politically influential.

ACCI has based its submission on 13 “principles”:

  • Employers oppose sexual harassment
  • Sexual harassment is not good business
  • More Australians need to be able to recognise sexual harassment
  • We need to improve the attitudes Australians bring to work
  • The law needs to support employers in turning values into action
  • We need to recognise/reward learning and change
  • Individuals must be made more accountable for their own behaviour
  • Greater effectiveness does not demand more law
  • Regulation needs to be smart, simple, clear and balanced to be effective
  • Jurisdictional overlap / repetition detracts from effectiveness
  • Businesses have differing capacities and cultures
  • Sexual harassment can be challenging to manage
  • This is a moving target; new sexual harassment risks are emerging

Each one of these sound positive but can be argued over. For instance “sexual harassment can be challenging to manage”. This is less of a principle than a reason, or even an excuse. Sexual harassment is complex to manage as it is not just about poor relationships, it involves a sexual element which involves power and disrespect; power that is sometimes misinterpreted as leadership or part of a manager’s entitlement.

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Workplace sexual harassment inquiry releases more submissions

The National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces has released another block of public submissions. many of them involve examples of horrible harassment and psychological harm, but several offer research, suggestions for improvement and, a little bit of, prevention.

Those making the recently released submissions seem to be realising that the inquiry’s terms of reference focuses on Australian workplaces.

Non-disclosure agreements and communication barriers

One submission is from Professor Judith Bessant, AM, of RMIT University (Submission 188) in which she addresses the application of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). NDAs have been in the press lately as some of those who experienced sexual harassment were unable to make submissions to this Inquiry without contravening the NDA they had with their employer. Professor Bessant asserts that

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Submission to the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces

Australian research into occupational health and safety (OHS) is a lot less than research into other areas of business and management, especially in relation to the psychological wellbeing of workers at all levels of the corporate structure.  As such, it has become common for experts, advocates and researchers from the social, non-work, public health areas to overlay general and broad research findings on to workplaces – they are, in effect, filling a vacuum.  But just because the OHS research into psychological harm is thin or immature does not mean that work does not have its own characteristics.

Over many years OHS has produced research and guidelines that include the psychological effect of sexual harassment, but it has been ineffectual or ignored for may reasons.  This submission is an attempt to illustrate the potential already in existence in Australia that could be used to prevent sexual harassment-related psychological harm.

This submission has drawn almost exclusively on Australian-based documentation and research to better satisfy the title and aim of this Inquiry.  This is not saying that actions and data from overseas are not relevant: there is some excellent information on the matter from the European Union[1], for instance. But quite often people seem to look overseas for evidence and solutions when Australia already has good research and advice, if one looks.

Summary of key points

  • Sexual harassment often results in psychological harm to workers, and employers and PCBUs already have a legislative obligation under OHS/WHS law to eliminate (prevent) risks to health and safety, including psychological risks.
  • By accepting that sexual harassment is a form of workplace violence, new prevention options may be available.
  • Australia has a range of general and specific guidance on the systematic prevention of the psychological harm generated by sexual harassment, produced by Federal and State or Territorial health and safety regulators.
  • Prevention of sexual harassment may be extremely disruptive to workplaces even though it remains the most effective control measure.
  • Any strategy to prevent sexual harassment must have a multidisciplinary and cross-agency approach.
  • Independent assessment of sexual harassment risks can be determined to internationally-recognised Standards
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