Page 5761 - Week 14 - Wednesday, 7 December 2011

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The Productivity Commission’s 2010 report on OHS supports this view. It found that work-related stress and psychosocial hazards of bullying, occupational violence and fatigue that give rise to it are not being given the same attention as physical hazards in OHS legislation, nor by inspectors. Research from the National Research Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Regulation at the ANU in Canberra also found that specific training in psychosocial risk factors was only a limited component in foundation training programs for workplace inspectors.

The ACT has generalist inspectors who deal with the full range of work safety issues, but does not have any specialist inspectors to work on bullying and psychosocial hazards. Current OHS legislation treats bullying as a standard workplace hazard, but unlike traditional physical workplace hazards, bullying is psychological, consists of repeated and often subtle or hidden behaviour, and requires a contextualised assessment. It can be very problematic to deal with different constructs using a single generalised approach.

Establishing specialised inspectorate positions will genuinely help to overcome this, and improve the ACT’s ability to both respond to bullying matters and prevent bullying from occurring. Specialists will mean bullying complaints can be investigated in a timely way and also in a way that is sensitive to psychological and social complexities.

The complaint handling process is critical to ensuring victims receive resolution. Victims are often traumatised by the requirement to relive and dwell upon their bullying experiences. For example, women victims in particular have identified “being heard” rather than “being questioned” as critical to the complaint handling process. A specialist complaints handling team will facilitate victims to come forward, which is particularly important as bullying is an area notorious for under reporting.

A specialist inspectorate will also recognise the importance, in terms of health outcomes, of providing high level practical support as well as facilitating access to mental health treatment. I expect that a dedicated inspectorate will develop refined procedures around the hearing of bullying complaints, as well as developing links with other social support services, such as women’s centres and telephone help lines.

Specialists will be skilled in recognising that, as a psychological phenomenon, bullying is also a subjective experience. Some complaints may not qualify objectively as bullying despite being made in good faith, and these complaints need to be dealt with sensitively. On the other side, specialists will have skills in recognising and dealing with false or malicious complaints which could be designed to deliberately harm an individual or organisation. A specialist contingent of inspectors will also be able to train other inspectors and to lead new bullying programs within WorkSafe.

The specialist inspectors will help with preventative measures and improve WorkSafe ACT’s capacity to undertake workplace inspections and education programs. Early intervention is crucial in mental health outcomes and the same is true in workplace-based intervention. Targeted visits, rather than complaints or incidents-based inspection, are critical to addressing bullying matters in particular, as intervening and resolving bullying matters can be a vexed process.

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