Risky business: workload and injury

A recent amendment to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 makes it unequivocal in relation to the Department of Education and TAFE NSW’s responsibilities to respond to, manage and prevent psychosocial risks in the workplace.

Federation welcomes this important change, as the union has undertaken significant work in this aspect of work health and safety policy, particularly over the past three years. This includes, but is not limited to, various submissions to both state and federal work health and safety (WHS) parliamentary inquiries, collaboration with Unions NSW and the ACTU, correspondence and meetings with government ministers and SafeWork NSW and the focus of Federation’s state Council reports, decisions and trade union training courses.

The amendment, which came into effect on 1 October, implements recommendation 2 of the Boland Review of the Model Work Health and Safety Laws and recommendation 35 of the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, which called for the WHS regulation to deal with how to identify the psychosocial risks associated with psychological injury and the appropriate control measures to manage those risks. The NSW Regulation makes it explicit that a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must manage psychosocial risks in the same way that other risks to health and safety (i.e., physical risks) are dealt with under the Regulation. Psychosocial risk is defined in the Regulation as a risk to the health or safety of a worker, or other person, arising from a psychosocial hazard.

To date, the Department of Education and TAFE NSW have failed to put systems, structures, policies and practices in place in relation to assessing and minimising harm of psychosocial injuries. SafeWork NSW’s Code of Practice: Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work identifies 16 common psychosocial hazards at work. While all of these apply to many of our members, there are five, in particular, that apply to all of our members across the teaching service.

Role overload: too much to do in a set time or insufficient workers, frequent cognitively difficult work, multiple tasks that require repeated rapid switching

  • Role conflict or lack of role clarity: conflicting priorities within roles and uncertainty about tenure, noting the mass casualisation of our profession in the last 10 years
  • Low job control: little control over how they do their job and not involved in decisions that affect their work and students
  • Inadequate reward or recognition: workers’ efforts are not recognised
  • Poor organisational change consultation: poor consultation or communication with workers about change and insufficient consideration of the impact of changes on WHS.

Critically, the implementation of the NSW Regulation on psychosocial risks will see a requirement for the Department of Education and TAFE NSW to undergo a risk assessment and review their control measures in relation to psychosocial hazards. As outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act and the Department’s policy: “the Department has the primary duty of care as PCBU and responsibilities are defined for both the Secretary and the Senior Officers of the Department in this regard, namely that ‘The Secretary will ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable… that appropriate systems are in place, responsibilities appropriately defined and managers and supervisors receive the training and resources they need to carry out their WHS responsibilities’ and that ‘Senior executive of the Department deemed to be officers under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, have a positive duty of care to exercise due diligence, as defined in Section 27(5) of the Act, in ensuring that the Department complies with its duty under the legislation’.”

On 10 October Federation gave evidence in NSW Parliament at the Standing Committee on Law and Justice’s 2022 Review of the Workers Compensation Scheme, as it relates to members’ psychological health. During this committee appearance, we focused our evidence on the impacts on the psychological health of our members as a result of devolutionary policies, hours of work, the teacher shortage, SafeWork NSW’s Code of Practice hazards, the employers’ failure to act and the WHS processes themselves. We cannot allow the practice of devolving responsibility for harm minimisation onto principals and teachers; this is the responsibility of the Department of Education and TAFE NSW in the first instance. Principals are not officers under the Act for these purposes.

Federation explained the critical importance of the hierarchy of risk control measures during the committee hearing. These eliminate or minimise risks and protect workers to create a systematic approach to managing safety in our members’ workplaces by providing a structure to select the most effective control measures to eliminate or reduce the risk of specific hazards identified as being caused by the operation of schools and TAFEs. Federation outlined how our members’ injuries are undoubtedly caused and exacerbated, in many cases, by the psychosocial hazards and conditions at work, and the current workers compensation processes are causing further, and often secondary, psychological injury.

Teachers, as professionals, take their work, responsibilities and duty of care for their students extraordinarily seriously and in NSW the WHS conditions in their workplaces are such that thousands of teachers are so fatigued, overburdened and burnt out as a result of the abject conditions in their workplaces that their psychological health is significantly impacted by the ongoing pressures they face on a day to day basis. The State Insurance Regulatory Authority backed up this evidence, identifying “work pressure” as the top cause of psychological injury in the education and training sectors, which is now placed in the top 3 of industries for psychological claims.

It is these very hazards identified by SafeWork NSW’s Code of Practice that our members and their treating doctors cite as the reasons for them leaving the teaching profession. These hazards, as identified in the Code, are clearly inextricably linked to the effect of the teacher shortage on our members, with crippling workloads and uncompetitive pay both evidenced as the cause.