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

Are turban’s as safe as helmets?

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A safety colleague of mine, Daniel Lo, posed an interesting question in a SafetyAtWorkBlog comment

“Are there any scientific studies of the crash impact that a turban could take compared to that of a regulated helmet?”

I would extend that to hard hats, motorcycle helmets and bicycle helmets. 

Let me pose a scenario that may help focus discussion. If I was wearing a turban and someone hit me on the head with a hammer, would I receive the same level of harm as if this happened whilst I was wearing a hardhat?

Daniel has posed a terrific question and I hope someone can help.

 

There are a lot of issues related to the wearing of turbans instead of helmets.  I think a good brief discussion of the issue of Turbans and helmets can be found at http://www.helmets.org/turbans.htm 

Another issue occurred in Canada where the riding of a motorbike with a turban instead of a helmet was discussed in court.  The argument was that a turban could unwrap in high winds.  The article did not discuss the issues of a turban as a safe replacement for a motorcycle helmet.

Basic information about turbans can be found at the SikhWiki

Working Alone in the Sex Industry

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One of the strongest qualities that a consultant has is to provide a new perspective on an existing process. For over 10 years, I provided OHS advice to the Victorian sex industry. It started in response to a call for first aid advice from a dominatrix in Melbourne. I provided advice on the best treatment for scorch marks on nipples and how to best clean a leather paddle which may have had a small amount of the client’s blood in the seams.

My work culminated in drafting a book on OHS in the adult sex industry for CCH Australia. The company was restructured and my book was dropped. However much of the information in the 40,000 words already written is still valid and I was happy to allow part of it to be reproduced by RhED in the latest issue of their magazine for sex workers.

The strength of any OHS publication and guideline from the government is its applicability to those occupations on the fringes of society.  The sex industry inhabits that fringe but few governments have provided OHS advice for the sector, although I admit that Australia is a leading provider of sex industry safety information.

In Red magazine, I have interpreted the Western Australian OHS guidelines on working alone to the sex industry. The guidelines were surprising useful.

As with many health work sectors or fringe industries, workers and employers don’t often look beyond the advice that is available from their industry association or government department. As such information from OHS regulators doesn’t always get to the industries where it is best needed. More guidelines in the sex industry need to come from a coalition of government departments. For instance, in Victoria, safety in the sex industry overlaps the Department of Human Services, the Department of Justice and the WorkCover Authority.

Safety in the sex industry seems to rely on consultants like myself (and you could count them on one hand) or organisations like RhED, the Inner South Community Health Service, and the Scarlet Alliance, to pull together these disparate safety guidelines in to a suitable package.

(For those interested in the sex worker industry, $pread Magazine in the US sometimes has useful safety tips and case studies)

UPDATE – 6 October 2008

RhED has posted an interesting profile on sexworkers in Victorian brothels.  The statistics provide a very useful background to some of the information above.

UPDATE – 9 January 2008

The Red magazine article on working alone is now available online.

Kevin Jones

Who manages safety – employers or inspectors?

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Over the last few days at the Tasmanian inquest into the death of Larry Knight, several geotechnical consultants and experts have been going through their reports to Beaconsfield Mine management.  These assessment reports were undertaken before the collapse that caused Larry Knight’s death.  The impression from media reports is that mine management listened to, or read, the recommendations and made a decision. That decision seems to have not given the technical advice the weight that hindsight now shows was insufficient but hindsight does that and Coroners understand this.

Also safety decisions are made by the employer in consultation with their workforce and external experts, where necessary.  Beaconsfield Mine management did this.  The decision to mine on that fateful day obviously proved wrong but perhaps the decision was understandable.

The Australian on 12 August 2008 reported that senior technical consultant Frans Basson admitted that the mine was technically “in breach of his written recommendation to management”.  I found this extraordinary as “breach” is a term more often applied to when a rule is broken.  It seems that the mine management chose not take on the recommendation of a consultant.  That happens all the time but to give the decision more significance than this is, perhaps, a little unfair.  Let’s hope this was lawyer’s hyperbole.

How to describe the comments by former Mt Lyell engineering supervisor and ex-parliamentarian, Peter Schulze is more of a challenge. Inaccurate is probably the most generous term.  At a Tasmanian Legislative Council committee on 13 August 2008, Peter Schulze criticised “all these experts who pontificate with the benefit of hindsight” about mine accidents.  Okay, the wording is extreme but he makes a similar point to mine above.

He also echoes some of the recent criticisms of the OHS regulator in Tasmania, Workplace Standards. By inverting some of his comments reported in The Advocate on 14 August 2008, he believes that current inspectors are under-skilled in the mining sector and under-paid and that there are not enough.  I would support him in his calls for additional enforcement resources but he is confused over the role of the inspectorate.

The primary responsibility for safety in a workplace is held by the employer – the controller of the workplace and main beneficiary of its productivity.  Peter  Schulze says that 

“The inspectorate tends to isolate itself from accidents and comes in to blame the company … rather than being a party (to safety procedures and checks) and accepting some responsibility.”

Why on earth should a government department accept any responsibility for the operations of a privately-run business when there is legislation that states the responsibility rests with the employer?

Peter sees the system as being adversarial.  There are clear roles for the differing elements in a workplace but conflict is resolved through negotiation, consultation and resolution.  An adversarial climate in a workplace indicates a dysfunctional workplace but this does not mean the regulatory system is at fault.  Safety management systems are a systematic management of a workplace with the aim of improving safety.  Management is the key and this rests with the employer.

What New South Wales unions need to give up for harmony’s sake

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Gerard Phillips, a partner in the Middletons law firm, wrote in the 7 August 2008 edition of the Australian Financial Review about the belligerence of the trade union movement in New South Wales in relation to the harmonisation of OHS Laws in Australia.

He addresses two legal barriers to harmonisation that he believes should end.  In New South Wales unions have the legislative right to prosecute safety breaches.  Gerard argues that harmonisation won’t be achieved without the unions relinquishing this right.

It has been clear for months that New South Wales will have to give up some elements of its OHS legislation in order to allow harmony.  If it needs to save face, it would be lobbying now for enough resources at a national level to mount rigorous OHS enforcement.

As the Victorian OHS law is the front runner for a national OHS legal model, unions can take some solace from the extension of Victoria’s right of entry provisions that, prior to 1984, were tipped to generate industrial warfare In Victorian worksites.  There were, at the time, many lawyers touting for business by recommending a tightening of paperwork, vetting all credentials before letting “them” on your site and accompanying “them” wherever they go.

Business achieved some important concessions with the registration of ARREOS (Authorised Representatives of Registered Employee Organisations) and a legal comeback if the ARREOS breach their authority, but an ARREO visit can still be daunting as WorkSafe found in February 2008.

WorkSafe advises that

An ARREO may enter a workplace during working hours to enquire into a suspected contravention of the OHS Act or regulations. The suspected contravention must relate to or affect the work being carried out by people who are:
• members of the registered employee organisation;
• subject to a certified agreement which binds the registered employee organisation; or
• eligible to be members of the registered employee organisation and are not subject to a certified agreement.

Gerard Phillips also can’t see why a union should have prosecutorial powers that no one else, other than the OHS regulator, has.  Although he acknowledges that for enforcement to work any prosecutor must be “appropriately funded”.  If the New South Wales government decided to reduce WorkCover NSW costs by sharing responsibility, I don’t think the economic benefit outweighed the political damage.

Phillips also sees no great difficulty in the onus of proof being held by the prosecutor.  This authority is already in the legislation of Victoria and Western Australia with no complaints from the union movement that safety standards have declined as a result.  The unions will need to give ground on having the onus rest with the business owner, and the employer groups will dance a gig when they do.

I remember Australia’s Royal Commission into the building industry where employer groups asserted, with little proof, that OHS is used by unions for purposes of industrial action.  Terence Cole in his final report illustrated the accusations well.

“….employers have raised concerns about the unions raising industrial concerns under the guise of safety issues, and the adoption of the role of safety policemen by unions to the exclusion of the statutory inspectorates. The issue of safety is a constant source of friction in the workplace, either because it is not being appropriately addressed, monitored, enforced, or is being abused.”

This may or may not be true, however unions in New South Wales risk providing the truth that employer associations have long desired if they continue in holding onto a strong poker hand when the other players have changed to playing whist.