New inquiry into sexual harassment – an OHS opportunity and challenge

On June 20 2018, the Australian government announced a National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, claiming it to be a world-first. Sexual harassment is not an occupational health and safety (OHS) hazard in many ways BUT the psychological harm it can create is. The job of an OHS person is to encourage employers to reduce work-related harm through prevention, so we need to prevent sexual harassment, just as we do for all the work activities that contribute to poor psychological health and safety.

The macroeconomic costs of sexual harassment in the workplace may be of interest to politicians and business lobbyists but this can be a significant distraction from identifying ways to prevent psychological harm, which should be the most important legacy of this type of inquiry.

Addressing the OHS impacts of

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Duty of Care to the safety and health of “others”.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) has released a very good report about Australia’s immigration detention centres which includes a long discussion on duty of care to detainees under Common Law. The report, “In Poor Health: Health care in Australian immigration detention” does not include any discussion on the duty of care under work health and safety (WHS) legislation however it can be argued that the Australian Government, through its supply chain, chain of responsibility and contract management, also has a duty of care to detainees under health and safety laws.

Several recent legal actions and workplace safety guidance indicates that clarification about the duty of care on physical and psychological risks to “others” is overdue.

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Preview of Australia’s new work-related psychological injuries guidance

Peta Miller has worked at Safe Work Australia (SWA) for around 17 years.  She leaves there at the end of June.  One of her last public appearances for SWA was the National Health and Safety Conference in Melbourne in May 2018 at which she provided an outline of the new work-related psychological injuries guidance that has been signed-off by SWA but not yet released to the public.

This guide is said to be a large one but not one that requires a re-education on safety and psychological terms.  There is discussion about applying the risk management Hierarchy of Controls to psychosocial hazard identification, the prevention of psychological harm through the design of good work and the identification of psychological hazards without the need to diagnose a medical condition.

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USA response on sexual harassment is interesting but can be better

Australia continues to develop various Codes and Guidances for the prevention and management of sexual harassment, particularly in the creative industries.  America’s Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) released some guidance about its Code of Conduct on April 12 2018. It is educative but Australia can do better.

A positive in SAG’s announcement is that it clearly places sexual harassment under the category of workplace safety which allows for a broad approach to the hazard and one that is supported by legislation and an employer’s duty of care. 

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When workplace behaviour becomes insidious

In previous writings about gender and occupational health and safety (OHS), the work of Jerald Greenberg was mentioned, particularly his book “Insidious Workplace Behaviour”.  His perspective seems even more pertinent today as many of us are weaving our way cautiously through communications and interactions with our work colleagues as we clarify what is acceptable behaviour so as to avoid offence or accusations of bullying and sexual harassment.

SafetyAtWorkBlog’s position is that sexual harassment is part of OHS and safety management systems due to the potential physical and psychological harm, in a similar way that bullying became an OHS concern.

Greenberg researches organisational behaviour and has written about corporate misdeeds and misbehaviour but he identified many precursors to some of these incidents.

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