‘Psychosocial’ hazards have become a buzz word in recent years – largely due to an increase in psychological harm people are suffering in relation to work – and equally due to our increasing awareness about the issues. Psychosocial hazards create a stressful work environment which may cause psychological or physical injuries in the workplace, including worker burnout or depression.
Psychosocial hazards arise in all facets of the workplace and can stem from workers’ social and physical work environments, and include bullying, sexual harassment, poor support, low role clarity, low recognition and poor workplace relationships. Psychosocial hazards can also come from poor job design, a lack of organisational justice and management and the social context of work.
On 1 April 2023, new Work Health and Safety (Psychosocial Risks) Amendment Regulation 2022 (Qld) and the Queensland Code of Practice on Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work 2022 (Code) commenced to assist persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) in discharging their obligations to workers regarding psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
The driver for these changes was the Boland Review of the Model WHS Laws in 2018 which concluded that the Model WHS Laws did not do enough to address psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Following this, Safe Work Australia created the ‘Model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work’, the basis for Queensland’s Code. Other harmonised states have already adopted versions of the Code.
At first glance, not much. PCBUs are already required to address psychosocial hazards. The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (Act) requires PCBUs to ensure the health and safety of their workers which includes both physical and psychological health.
As Workplace Health and Safety Queensland have pointed out, the duty to ensure psychological health of workers is not new. Society just has a better understanding now of the hazards that give rise to psychological harm.
The Code commenced in Queensland on 1 April 2023. A new provision was also added to the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Qld) requiring PCBUs to manage risks in accordance with the legislative hierarchy of controls (discussed below).
The Code addresses how PCBUs can address psychosocial hazards in the workplace. The Code clarifies existing obligations around psychosocial hazards and aims to help PCBUs implement more effective risk management practices.
In Queensland, the Code has statutory force.
Section 26A of the Act requires PCBUs to comply with codes of practice, or manage hazards and risks in a way that provides a standard of health and safety that is equivalent to or higher than the standard required under a code of practice. A failure to comply with the Code may lead to fines or imprisonment.
By contrast, codes of practice in other harmonised Australian jurisdictions do not create additional duties and no penalties are imposed. They are admissible as evidence of whether a PCBU has complied with their duty. Codes of practice are frequently produced in other jurisdictions as evidence by prosecutors to establish what a PCBU knew or ought reasonably to have known about a hazard or risk, and ways to eliminate or minimise that hazard or risk.
What’s in the Code?
The Code outlines a four-step psychosocial risks management process:
- identify psychosocial hazards
- assess psychosocial risks
- control the risk of psychosocial hazards; and
- maintain and review control measures.
The Code provides prescriptive guidance about the matters PCBUs must have regard to when completing each step.
This risk management process is not a one-time activity that PCBUs can set and forget. PCBUs must be constantly aware of and engaged in this four-step process to address new psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
An emphasis is placed on the need for and benefit of involving workers in the psychosocial risk management process. PCBUs are encouraged to consult with their workers about how they plan to and how they are going about the psychosocial risk management process.
Workers are encouraged to report psychosocial hazards to PCBUs under the code and a process for responding to these reports is set out to guide users. The hazards workers report will naturally guide PCBUs in their engagement with the risk management process.
What controls should PCBUs implement?
Implementation of effective control measures requires cooperation and communication of PCBUs and their workers. What is effective in one workplace might not be in another. Effective controls should be tailored to the particular hazards and risks identified in the risk management process.
The Code refers to the hierarchy of controls throughout. The hierarchy is a framework created by the Act which sets out the most to least effective forms of risk management available to duty holders.
First, where risks cannot be eliminated entirely duty holders should minimise the risk by substituting or isolating a hazard which gives rise to a risk and by implementing engineering controls (i.e. physical barriers).
Second, duty holders can implement administrative controls like policies and standard operating procedures that minimise exposure and provide information, training and instruction about hazards and risks.
Finally, duty holders can equip workers with personal protective equipment. This may be difficult to envisage for psychosocial hazards. The Code gives examples like hearing protection to reduce stress, and face shields to protect health care workers from distressing environments and patients.
Examples of possibly effective controls are provided throughout the Code.
What do PCBUs need to do?
A Workplace Health and Safety Queensland representative recently gave some simple advice during a public webinar: ‘you should read the code and you should comply with the code’. It is simplistic advice for what is a complex issue – particularly given the intangible nature of many of the hazards the Code is aimed at addressing – but it’s not necessarily untrue.
PCBUs need to know what is in the Code. They should be reviewing their existing controls and consulting with workers to determine if they are currently complying, or if more needs to be done.
As a starting point, review the examples provided throughout the Code. Think about whether any of them resonate with your workplace.
Go through the risk management process. Be guided by the Code to determine if there is more you can do to not only comply, but effectively control psychosocial hazards in the workplace.
Assess your current policies and procedures. Consider whether they deal with, or even contemplate, psychosocial hazards. If they don’t, update them.
Finally, keep a record of the risk assessments you do undertake, and the changes you make. Workplace Health and Safety Queensland have expressed a clear intention to engage in enforcement activity throughout the community. Proper records will be helpful evidence to have when the inspectors come knocking.