By Heather Ewart
There are accusations that WorkSafe is not setting a good example, and some staff are even taking legal action against the regulator.
WorkSafe watches over thousands of workplaces across the state and investigates bullying complaints.
Clarke Martin, a former middle manager at WorkSafe, says the culture there is intimidating.
“There are pockets in WorkSafe that have got what you would describe as threatening, intimidating environments,” he said.
Mr Martin is the latest victim of restructures at WorkSafe, which have taken place over the past 12 months.
He started at the regulator 12 years ago as a workplace inspector and worked his way up to middle management executive level.
That is until he was made redundant last month.
He says before he left WorkSafe, there was a climate of low morale and threatening behaviour by some superiors.
“The intimidation I felt was at first subtle and unspoken, but presented itself in things like managers being moved without much discussion, senior managers starting to resign,” he said.
“Our direct manager, we were told, had just packed up and left the night before. So these kind of things I’d never seen before.”
At the time Mr Martin was chair of a national alliance representing health and safety professionals.
He says he saw the writing on the wall about his job at WorkSafe when he felt he could no longer offer advice and opinions freely.
This followed meetings behind closed doors with a manager.
“He certainly provided me with a very frank discussion on his expectations, which involved me not challenging any direction he was taking,” he said.
“If he felt I was not following that, he would take me down.”
Mr Martin says he believes others were experiencing similar feelings.
WorkSafe declined an interview, but in a statement the regulator said that as with any large organisation, there would be some disgruntled employees in times of change.
Overwhelmingly, it said WorkSafe was staffed with happy and productive employees.
It refuted any suggestion it discouraged the reporting of bullying incidents and said it was committed to a safe and productive working environment for its staff.
But Mr Martin says he and many of his old colleagues do not see it that way.
“WorkSafe has to be the exemplar. We have to lead everyone in our practices, and it’s just so disheartening to hear about, to see management practices that aren’t delivering the kind of exemplary behaviour that’s needed,” he said.
Several WorkSafe staff have even lodged bullying claims against their employer in the Federal Court and before Fair Work Australia.
In May, a former senior WorkSafe officer settled her case with Fair Work out of court.
The settlement was confidential. It was an unfair dismissal case defended by WorkSafe Victoria.
The commissioner referred to claims by the former WorkSafe officer at a preliminary hearing, where she spoke of taking her bullying complaints to human resources at WorkSafe.
“She (the HR manager) agreed that a systemic culture of bullying exists and something needed to be done,” the officer said.
“I am still in fear of retribution and am disgusted that I have encountered such behaviour at WorkSafe. How can we be the regulator if we are not an exemplary employer?”
There was no finding on these claims before the case settled.
Lawyers representing WorkSafe employees are bound by confidentiality agreements, but the firm Maurice Blackburn, which represented one such case, says it can make general observations.
“I’m aware there’s a large number of very unhappy employees and former employees of WorkSafe who have alleged there’s a serious bullying problem within the organisation,” lawyer Josh Bornstein said.
“It has been a serious problem for some time and that it hasn’t been addressed.
“Obviously employees of WorkSafe are in a particularly difficult situation if they have concerns about bullying.
“Employees generally have difficulties pursuing allegations because the legal system provides them with absolutely no practical assistance.
“Employees of WorkSafe are in even greater difficulty because who is going to investigate the OH&S regulator?
“It can hardly investigate itself.”
It was publicity surrounding the shocking case of the suicide of a young Melbourne waitress, Brodie Panlock, in 2006 that substantially increased the regulator’s workload.
Brodie’s employers were successfully prosecuted by WorkSafe for bullying, and in 2011 a new anti-stalking law was set up in her name.
This opened the floodgates to bullying complaints.
“Now, one of the ways to deal with that is try and reduce the amount of activity in that space by not talking too much about it and not, I suppose, getting another great big case to create another tsunami of activity,” Mr Martin said.
“Whether that’s deliberate or not I couldn’t say, but we aren’t getting, or WorkSafe is not getting the prosecutions in that area.”
Mr Martin says the culture he experienced in some pockets at WorkSafe is threatening the regulator’s effectiveness.
“Those environments aren’t conducive to ‘let’s have a go at this case, let’s push the envelope’,” he said.
“An inspector taking a risk and issuing a really well thought-out piece of compliance.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re in fear, you’re probably not going to issue that kind of stuff.”
Mr Bornstein says there are simply too many complaints for OH&S regulators to investigate.
“So as a result they don’t investigate the overwhelming majority of complaints,” he said.
“It is very rare for an OHS regulator to take any action about a bullying complaint.
“A prosecution of a workplace bully or a company for bullying is even rarer.”
In the past 13 years, WorkSafe has prosecuted only 30 bullying cases and Brodie’s law has never been used.
“Clearly there is a frustration among a number of inspectors about their ability to get matters before courts,” Mr Martin said.
“There is a reluctance in losing cases. There is a reluctance in taking a risk.”
Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) Victoria secretary Karen Batt agrees there is a feeling that issues are not being given due consideration.
“That there is a process of not enough prosecutions, that we’re looking at making sure that we have an almost 80 per cent success rate before we can guarantee a case will be run,” she said.
She says there needs to be a proper review into what is happening at WorkSafe.
“If they don’t feel secure in their own workplace and their own position, then I think their ability to do their job is seriously undermined,” Ms Batt said.
“We believe there needs to be a proper review of what’s occurring within WorkSafe.
“We also think that some of the concerns the staff have about how certain senior managers behave just aren’t being treated seriously, and there does need to be a different way of making sure you can investigate concerns or allegations of bullying within the regulator.”
While WorkSafe says it has commissioned an independent inquiry into its internal complaints process, the union claims the system remains ad hoc and is alarmed by the stories it is hearing from its WorkSafe members.
“Morale is rock bottom. There’s been recently a survey of opinion, the employer opinion survey, that has highlighted that morale within that organisation is almost collapsed,” Ms Batt said.
These are just some of the concerns to be faced by the newly appointed WorkSafe chief executive Denise Cosgrove.
Ms Cosgrove starts next month after the State Government took most of this year to make up its mind.
“I think it’s going to be a rocky road,” Ms Batt said.
“I think the organisation’s very unhappy, currently doing its enterprise agreement, quite distressed staff associated with management practices and I think she will have her job cut out for her.”
Source: ABC News
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