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

Using workers compensation claims as exit strategies

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There have been two instances in Australia in the last week where workers compensation claims have made the news. The first was in relation to the suicide attempt by Tasmanian politician, Paula Wriedt.  She has revealed that after the break-up of her marriage she had an affair with one of the government chauffeurs, Ben Chaffey.

According to one media report, Chaffey has argued

“that his employment became untenable as a result of the relationship and his employer’s response to it.  He is seeking a severance payment thought to be about $A140,000 to compensate for this, and for stress and harm suffered.”

It is also reported that he has been on “stress leave” for several months.

The other case involves unfair dismissal action being taken by public transport ticket inspector, Glenn Hoyne in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) against his dismissal by Connex.  Hoyne made accusations on a Melbourne talkback radio show about Connex setting quotas for issuing ticket infringement notices and that inspecting was a revenue-raising exercise only.

Connex investigated the claims and described the allegations as “bribery, blackmail or extortion”.

Hoyne took leave in December 2007 and submitted a workers compensation claim due to work-related stress.  The situation was clearly tense.

The AIRC Deputy President, Brian Lacy, described Hoyne’s actions as not a threat to Connex but

“some sort of industrial claim, albeit misguided, for a severance payment.”

These two cases illustrate how murky human relations, and human resources, can be.  Both parties are seeking recompense for actions that are work-related and both actions will result in a resolution.  But neither will generate any real preventive action.  One claim has been described as a pitch for a severance payout and the other is stress from a broken work-related relationship and the employer’s response to a sexual relationship.

When did people begin to expect a monetary payout above their entitlements for leaving a job that they didn’t like or for when a relationship with a work colleague ended?

A law firm newsletter from 2005 reported on a case of a stress claim, which may provide a counterpoint to the situations above:

“The employee claimed, and was successful in establishing that his stress was directly caused by his employer’s failure to keep him informed of changes in the workplace. In essence, the prospect of redundancy was seen as a sufficient causative factor in the employee’s work related injury.”

The newsletter goes on to advise

“employers must assess the circumstances and sensitivities of individual workers when making management decisions in order to avoid stress claims being made or where claims are made, to avoid liability for such claims.”

Maybe this is the only safety management lesson we can learn from the unhappy ticket inspector and the stressed-out chauffeur, manage your people well.

OHS in the 1970’s

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Matthew Knott’s article in the Australian newspaper (21 July 2008 ) included telling comments from  Barry Willis, a 64-year-old former maintenance worker at Amberley air force base.  The article says

“workplace health and safety was non-existent: open cans of chemical sealant were stored in the refrigerators where the men kept their lunch.”

I have been critical of the military in the past as they are usually well-sourced on OHS and often speak proudly of their approach to safety.  Yet just as with the BlackHawk Inquiry findings criticising the safety culture, Barry Willis saw no safety culture in the 1970s.

At the risk of sounding like an old grump, working in that decade was under a different set of cultural rules.  Modern OHS legislation was being considered by most Western jurisdictions and industrial diseases were coming to the fore.  In the early 1980’s I worked in industrial relations concerning award restructuring.  One of the first elements to be restructured was allowances, many of them accurately described as “danger money” – removing roadkill, working at heights, confined spaces and a range of other hazards.

It can be argued that modern salary levels incorporate allowances for hazardous work but the issue of immediate compensation for a dirty or hazardous job, hopefully, has had its day.

Sadly, for people like Barry Willis, the consequences of a hazard, known or discounted, continue and the struggle for acknowledgement and compensation continues.

OHS lessons from investigations into the US poultry industry

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Earlier this year, the Charlotte Observer began researching avian influenza but ended up with an expose about occupational health and safety in the US poultry industry, called “The Cruelest Cuts”. A recent podcast, and vodcast (I recommend the vodcast), highlights many safety management issues that are relevant to other industries and other jurisdictions

  • Migrant labour
  • OHS regulation
  • Musculo-skeletal disorders
  • Reportable incidents
  • Inspectorate priorities
  • The Bush government approach to OHS
  • The Ergonomics Standard
  • Activity rather than safety results
  • Misusing Lost Time Injuries

The arguments generated by the Charlotte Observer’s articles continue. A recent article reports on the House Education and Labor Committee hearings and the issues summarised in the above vodcast.

Some of the issues raised may bring “Fast Food Nation” to mind but Eric Schlosser had a broader agenda in his book than in the Charlotte Observer reports.

The articles and the video remind us to question and to ask and to prod and probe when any government department report on OHS management is released. They also illustrate how easy it is to make a company look like it is safe.

In Australia at the moment there is debate about migrant workers and soem employers have recently been prosecuted on OHS matters related to these workers. In fact, today (2 July 2008 ) according to WorkSafe Victoria, a Victorian Magistrate will sentence Lakeside Packaging over OHS issues.

The case involves injuries to two Chinese guest workers on s 457 visas. One man was hurt on two occasions – both arms broken. Lakeside Packaging Pty Ltd pleaded guilty to 7 charges.

The incidents:

Guoping Cai (35) was hurt on 16 March 2006 at the company’s Dennis St, Campbellfield premises, when his arm was crushed in an unguarded printing machine as he cleared a paper blockage. Both bones in his right forearm were broken and he was in hospital for 2 weeks Plates and bolts were put in his arm and he required a skin graft.

Zhi Hong Fu (52) fell from a ladder which had been placed on top of a steel working platform on 5 April 2006 at the Rex Road, Campbellfield premises. He was doing electrical work for which he was not qualified. He broke his right wrist and suffered other injuries He returned to work four days later with his arm in plaster. On 30 June, with his dominant right arm now in a brace, he suffered a second injury while using a drill with his left arm and steadying it with his chin. The drill kicked and his other (left) arm was broken. The company pleaded guilty to 5 charges in relation to these incidents.

Australia does not have a Mexico on its border, and the governments have heavily regulated the migrant intake but, as the court action has shown, the safety management approaches of some employers are the same the world over.

Workers Compensation changes in Australia

In The Australian on 10 June 2008, Paul Kerin , Professorial Fellow of the Melbourne Business School writes on the rescuing Australia’s various workers’ compensation schemes by removing any state involvement in the insurance schemes.  He makes a strong case but writes a few peculiar comments that need consioderation. He says “US workplace deaths would be one-third…

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