First major WHS Guide against harassment released

Public news

Safe Work Australia has released Australia's "first comprehensive WHS guidance" on preventing workplace sexual harassment, acting on a national inquiry's recommendations to produce the document and drive home the message that sexual harassment is a major work health and safety issue.

"WHS duties require employers do everything they reasonably can to prevent sexual harassment from occurring at work, just like other risks to health and safety," SWA said in launching the guide and supporting documents yesterday.

The Australian Human Rights Commission's national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment made 55 recommendations, including that: the Fair Work Commission be given powers to issue "stop sexual harassment" orders; the model WHS regulations be amended to better deal with psychological health; and WHS guidelines against sexual harassment be introduced "with a view to informing the development of a Code of Practice" on the issue.

The inquiry found sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in workplaces, and identified "an urgent need" to raise awareness that it is a WHS issue.

SWA's new guidance states that sexual harassment "is covered by WHS laws as it is a workplace hazard that creates physical and psychological risks to health and safety".

It is also prohibited by state, territory and national anti-discrimination laws, while acts "such as indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault and obscene or threatening communication (eg. phone calls, emails, text messages and posts on social media) may also be offences under criminal law", it says.

"All of these laws work together to address sexual harassment to create safer, healthier, more respectful and productive workplaces."

Employers "must do whatever [they] can" to eliminate the health and safety risks posed by workplace sexual harassment – through identifying the hazards, assessing the associated risks and implementing and reviewing control measures – and they must do these things in consultation with workers and (if they have them) health and safety representatives, the guidance says.

It notes factors that can increase the risks of sexual harassment include low worker diversity (where the workforce is dominated by one gender, age group, race or culture), power imbalances (such as where one gender holds most of the management positions), hierarchical structures (as in the law enforcement, medical and legal sectors), and workplace cultures where "small acts of disrespect and inequality are ignored and reports of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviours are not taken seriously" – conduct that "can escalate to other forms of harassment, aggression and violence".

Other risk factors include the use of alcohol in a work context, work in restrictive spaces like cars or in remote locations where there is limited supervision, and working-from-home arrangements, which "may provide an opportunity for covert sexual harassment to occur online or through phone communication", it says.

On the consultation requirements, the guidance stresses that "drawing on the experience and knowledge of workers is more likely to result in the identification of all hazards and better risk management solutions".

Among many tips for identifying sexual harassment hazards, it says managers should conduct workplace walk-throughs to assess the physical environment for, for example, areas with limited natural surveillance (like meeting and store rooms), areas that restrict movement or prevent workers maintaining their personal space, and potentially offensive posters or pictures.

They should also: assess how workers interact with each other, managers and third-parties in online work environments; and the use of social media for work purposes, it says.

The new guidance against workplace violence provides advice on preventing and responding to face-to-face, phone or online workplace violence and aggression by providing a safe physical work environment and implementing safe systems of work.

If you need assistance with your policies, documentation or training in this area (including bullying and harassment training for your employees), contact the MTA Workplace Relations team on 8291 2000 or at wr@mtasant.com.au.