In brief: During National Safe Work Month this October, Colin Biggers & Paisley's employment and safety team will be focusing on how a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) can create and maintain safe workplaces. The theme of week 2 of National Safe Work Month is "working together to protect workers' mental health". Data from Safe Work Australia states that work-related psychological injuries have longer recovery times, higher costs, and require more time away from work. In this article, we will explore the step-by-step approach for managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

What is the step-by-step approach?

Safe Work Australia recommends taking the following steps to manage WHS risks:

  1. Identify hazards 

  2. Assess risks 

  3. Control risks 

  4. Review control measures 

At each step, you must consult with workers and their health and safety representatives. Workers have knowledge, experience and ideas that can help you manage WHS risks. Risk management should be used for risks identified, which involves thinking about what could happen if someone is exposed to a hazard and how likely it is to happen. 

What are psychosocial hazards and how do you identify them?

The Code of Practice for managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work states that a psychosocial hazard can be:

  • Challenging work hours, shift work or working fly in fly out for many years

  • Low job control, poor support or low reward and recognition

  • Remote or isolated work or poor environmental conditions

  • Violence and aggression and/or traumatic events

  • Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

It can be difficult to identify psychosocial hazards as they are not always obvious. You can identify them by observing the workplace, consulting workers (e.g. through surveys), consulting supply chains and networks and collecting and reviewing available information (e.g. records of leave, hours of work and WorkCover claims).

Assessing a psychosocial hazard

Where the risk of a psychosocial hazard or accepted control measures of that hazard are not established, a PCBU should undertake a risk assessment.

A risk assessment for impacted workers might consider a range of issues, including:

  1. the duration which workers are exposed to the hazard(s); 

  2. the frequency which workers are exposed to the hazard(s); 

  3. the severity of their exposure to the hazard(s); and 

  4. how different identified hazards might interact and increase risk.

A PCBU must consult with workers who are (or are likely to be) affected by hazards (subsections 47, 48 and 49 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHS Act)).

How to manage psychosocial hazards?

PCBUs should always aim to eliminate risks first. If this cannot be done, you must then look to minimise risks so far as is reasonably practicable. This may be done by: 

  1. substituting the hazardous environment/task with one that gives rise to a lesser risk; 

  2. isolating the hazard to avoid exposure to any person;

  3. controlling the hazard with a form of physical or engineering control.

When determining what control measures to implement, a PCBU must have regard to all relevant matters, including but not limited to: 

  1. the duration, frequency or severity of the exposure of workers and other persons to psychosocial;

  2. the design of work, including job demands and tasks; 

  3. the systems of work, including how work is managed, organised and supported; 

  4. the information, training, instruction and supervision provided to workers.

The requirement to undertake a risk assessment to identify hazards, assess the risks and implement the reasonably practicable controls was discussed in the decision of Reynolds v Tailored Adventures Pty Ltd [2019] QDC 150, where the District Court of Queensland, held:

"The respondent failed at the first step of the risk management process, that is to identify the hazard. Without identification of the hazard the risk was not managed."

In this case, the Defendant entered a plea of guilty to breaching the duty to ensure health and safety, pursuant to the WHS Act, when a customer riding the Treetops Challenge zip line, on Tamborine Mountain, collided with a tree when the braking system failed to activate.

Reviewing control measures

PCBUs must ensure that the control measures that have been implemented are effective and, if so, are maintained so they remain effective. This includes:

  • ensuring control measures are, and remain, fit for purpose; 

  • are suitable for the nature and duration of the work; 

  • and are installed, set up and used correctly. 

PCBUs should decide what maintenance control measures will require when the controls are implemented and establish a schedule for routine checks and maintenance.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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