News & Thinking

Taking workplace bullying seriously — lessons from Australia

Contributed by:

Olivia Welsh
Special Counsel

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Olivia Welsh

Bullying is currently a hot media topic (and rightly so), but traditionally it’s been seen as an employment – rather than health and safety – issue. 

Australia’s workplace health and safety regulators are now taking allegations of workplace bullying seriously, with a number of successful prosecutions under the different health and safety legislation in various states. This raises the question – will WorkSafe New Zealand follow suit?

Several Australian state health and safety regulators have successfully prosecuted breaches of workplace health and safety legislation arising from bullying behaviour. Recent examples include:

SafeWork NSW v Kearney

  • A carpenter and joiner bullied two apprentices over an extended period by verbally abusing them, swearing at them, threatening them, and using belittling language. The apprentices experienced nightmares and were scared to go to work.
  • Mr Kearney pleaded guilty to breaching his obligation to take reasonable care that his acts didn’t adversely affect the health and safety of other people.
  • He was fined $6,000 plus costs, and was ordered to attend training courses on bullying and harassment and anger management and emotional intelligence.

Campbell (an inspector with WorkSafe SA) v Rowe

  • A 19 year old apprentice at Tad-Mar Electrical Pty Ltd was squirted with a flammable liquid and set alight. The Site Supervisor failed to stop this and instead joined in, squirting more flammable liquid on the apprentice.
  • Mr Rowe pleaded guilty to a reckless conduct charge of failing to take reasonable care that his acts or omissions did not adversely affect the safety of others.
  • He was fined $12,000 plus costs.

While the fines in both these cases were very low, the fact prosecutions were taken is a clear acknowledgement that workplace bullying is a genuine risk to health and safety and should not be thought of as only an employment issue.

Will WorkSafe New Zealand follow Australia’s lead?

Although WorkSafe has stated that psychosocial risks are a focus of its 10-year plan for improving work-related health, it has also indicated it will only take action in the most serious bullying cases. Specifically, WorkSafe has said it will only investigate allegations of workplace bullying where an affected person has been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition, and there is a link to bullying at work as the cause.

WorkSafe’s position is hard to justify, and we expect WorkSafe to revisit it soon. It is only a matter of time before WorkSafe initiates a bullying related health and safety prosecution, so you need to be clear in the processes you have to prevent bullying or respond when it occurs. We can help you with this, so please contact contact our health and safety lawyers, Grant Nicholson and Olivia Welsh.

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