Workplace Bullying and the Work Health and Safety Act 2012

by Bernie Althofer AFAIM, Managing Director of EGL I Assessments Pty Ltd

Source: Safety Concepts

The OHS harmonization process will revolutionise how individuals and organisations approach workplace bullying. If it doesn't, workplace bullying will continue as a critical physical and psychological issue affecting individuals and organisations forever.

So far in Australia, there have been relatively few prosecutions of organisations or individuals for health and safety breaches relating to workplace bullying. However, the recent successful prosecution of and employer and employees linked to the death of Brodie Panlock in Victoria may be the first step as Governments are starting to view deadly implications of the short, medium and long term and sometimes fatal impact of this insidious practice.

Despite publicity generated by Government Departments and strong media interest when there has been a death following a workplace bullying incident, I believe that many public and private sector organisations are being lulled into a false sense of security. Lack of data, small numbers of allegations dealt with quickly, or individuals not reporting incidents create an illusionary perception that 'all is well' and 'we are doing enough.'

The tides of change are coming and as every day goes by, the tide is picking up strength just like a tsunami. What is this tide of change? In a nutshell, it is the Work Health and Safety Act that is due to be implemented in January 2012. Will it make a difference?

I believe that some of the changes will have a dramatic affect on how executive officers think about, and even commit themselves to the notion of work health and safety. They will have to about the physical and the psychological aspects if they are to meet their obligations and show that they can meet due diligence requirements.

Barry Sherriff and Michael Tooma have written an excellent, user friendly publication that is produced by CCH. I believe the way that they have interpreted the legislation has resulted in the publication of the book 'Understanding the Model Work Health and Safety Act'. Their explanations of various definitions and what they actually mean gives credence to the belief that the tides of change are coming.

It is not intended to reproduce all the definitions covered by Sherriff and Tooma, but I am going to refer to few where I believe public and private sector agencies need to focus in terms of workplace bullying.


Executives might be blissfully unaware that changes to the legislation means that there is every possibility that they will be considered an 'officer' under the model WHS Act, and as such they must exercise due diligence to ensure that there organization complies with its duties under the legislation. Sherriff and Tooma point out that the term "officer" has the same definition as it has in the Corporations Act 2001. They also indicate that the definition is extended to apply to officers of the Crown by s. 244 of the model WHS Act. So, are you an officer? Sherriff and Tooma (2010:32) provide a list in relation to who is an officer.

Who is and who is not an officer in your organisation?

They also discuss due diligence and provide some discussion as to what is meant by due diligence. It is interesting to note that Sherriff and Tooma (2010:33) indicate that officers need to make themselves aware of changes to legislation and developments in case law as well as Australian standards. Does this apply to workplace bullying? Well yes, it does. Courts, Commissions and Tribunals are continually making decisions that impact directly and indirectly on individuals and organisations. Whilst some organisations may cut back on training, it is essential that the Board and Executive officers be regularly briefed or involved in training sessions so that they can maintain currency in trends and issues and even decisions associated with workplace bullying.

Cutting back on training may even have a negative impact on how 'officers' demonstrate that they have met their obligations or fulfilled due diligence requirements.


Some things in relation to workplace health and safety might not change dramatically, but the definition of a worker is worth considering. As Sherriff and Tooma (2010:52) indicate, a person is a "worker" if they carry out work in any capacity for a PCBU. It is a broad definition, but they also indicate that it 'includes work as an employee, a contractor, a subcontractor, an employee of a contractor or subcontractor, an employee of a labour hire company, an outworker, an apprentice, a trainee, a student gaining work experience, or even a volunteer.

Each of the 'workers' identified above can at any stage be involved in a workplace bullying incident so it is important that the safe system of work, including the prevention, detection and resolution of workplace bullying cover these people. The task is to read your current policy and see if the definition of worker meets this requirement.

Does your policy cover those 'workers' in terms of workplace bullying?

Who is a person at a workplace?

There are some subtle changes to the meaning of 'who is a person at a workplace?' Given that workplace bullying can involve internal and external employees or customers, this is an important definition. As Sherriff and Tooma (2010:53) indicate, 'the duty of care of a person at a workplace is intended to capture visitors to workplaces, such as customers and clients, passers-by, relatives and associates of workers, and trespassers'.

Does your workplace bullying policy cover this definition?

What is a workplace?

Workplace has been mentioned several times. Workplace bullying can happen across a diverse range of locations and a key example of this is 'cyber bullying' or stalking (a criminal offence). It is important that employers and employees have a detailed understanding of this section. Sherriff and Tooma (2010:53) indicate that:

'a workplace is defined as a place where work is carried out for a business or for an undertaking. It includes any place where a worker goes, or is likely to be, while at work (for example, a vehicle, a vessel, an aircraft or other mobile structure, any waters and any installation on land, and on the bed of any waters or floating on any waters). As such, not only are factories, shops, construction sites and offices workplaces, but roads, homes, national parks, schools, hotels, airports, aeroplanes, ports and ships are also workplaces when people are working there. Indeed, any place can be transformed into a workplace if people work there.'

So what is the relevance of that definition to workplace bullying? Workplace bullying can occur in any of the above places, and can be committed by employees of the organisation, or by employees of other organisations. How does your workplace bullying policy define workplace? Is it defined in your health and safety policy, or in some other document that employees hardly ever refer to?


Given that Courts, Commissions and Tribunals appear to have taken a broad view about workplaces and what is workplace related, it is important that employees understand the parameters in which they operate. For example, the birthday bash of work colleagues held in an off site location may be considered work related if an event that occurs at the party site is discussed in the workplace proper.

Some organisations will allow employees to attend post event functions e.g. after a Conference, but 'kick on events' may occur after the post event functions. Depending on the circumstances, a 'kick on event' may be considered work related, or even a workplace. From time to time, allegations of sexual harassment and bullying arise following such events, and in some cases, excessive consumption of liquor has occurred.

Changes to the workplace, broadening of definitions and allegations of all forms of inappropriate behaviour can result in adverse publicity and damage to individual and organisational reputations.

Is there a need for panic? Well, no not at the moment.

However, if I were an Executive in the public or private sector, I would want to make sure that I could meet all the obligations placed on me through the changes to the Work Health and Safety Act and I would to be able to demonstrate that I could meet due diligence requirements. I would not to be sitting in some Court, Commission or Tribunal trying to explain why I had failed in my duties as an 'officer'. I don't think like would like to be explaining to the CEO or to the Board about how my inactions failed the organisation.

At the same time, if I was an employee giving evidence in a Court, Commission or Tribunal as to why I had committed a breach of work health and safety, I would want to know the answers.

What should I do?

Executive officers should be getting briefings from their health and safety personnel.

Health and safety personnel should be working hand in glove with HR, Risk Managers, and other key personnel concerned with managing physical and psychological hazards in their organizations.

Employees should approach their unions or health and safety personnel to find out what their obligations are and what they have to do meet them.

Health and Safety policies and procedures, along with various HR policies should be reviewed to ensure that they meet the requirements of the Work Health and Safety Act.

In the meantime, publications such as that listed in the references provide a very good understanding of the key issues identified in this short paper.

Alternatively, there are a number of Safety Conferences being held between now and 2012 where key note speakers address the Work Health and Safety Act. I have been to several of these, and the Melbourne SIA featured the eloquence of Barry Sherriff of Norton Rose explaining in a no-nonsense manner just how the new Act is going to impact on organisations and individuals.


Sherriff, B. & Tooma, M. (2010) Understanding the Model Work Health and Safety Act. CCH AUSTRALIA LIMITED. Printed in Australia by McPherson's Printing Group. ISBN: 978 1 921593 72 7.