Work health and safety laws around Australia impose obligations on schools to manage hazards at work and identify and control risks to students, staff, volunteers and other visitors on school grounds. However, in the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the increased focus on child protection and the duty of care to protect students and their welfare, schools may sometimes forget the need to balance this duty to students with their responsibility to their staff and volunteers to control hazards in the workplace.
Duties of Employers
All schools have a duty under work, health and safety legislation to manage health and safety risks associated with the workplace and eliminate, or minimise, the risk as far as is "reasonably practicable".
Regard must be given to the following matters when determining what is (or was at a particular time) reasonably practicable in relation to ensuring the health and safety of teachers and other staff:
- the likelihood of the hazard or risk concerned eventuating
- the degree of harm that would result if the hazard or risk eventuated
- what the person concerned knows, or ought reasonably to know, about the hazard or risk and any ways of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk
- the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or reduce the hazard or risk
- the cost of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk.
Legislation also requires schools to follow a systematic approach to:
- identify hazards
- assess the risk associated with the hazards
- implement and maintain risk control measures
- regularly review risk control measures.
The principles outlined in the legislation recognise that teachers and staff have significant knowledge and expertise about the hazards and risks in the workplace, and can make a significant contribution to improving health and safety. For these reasons, schools must consult with their workers (defined legislatively as including school board members and officers, heads of department, supervisors, teachers and support staff) when dealing with hazards and risks in the workplace. Proactive and regular consultation with workers can help to identify issues in the workplace and build a strong commitment to a culture of workplace safety.
Common Risks in a School Workplace
According to Worksafe, the most common types of injuries in schools relate to psychological injuries and illnesses, and injuries resulting from manual handling and slips, trips and falls. However, workplace health and safety risks in schools can include risks as varied as:
- health hazards like asbestos and mould
- bushfire or fire hazards
- slip and fall risks due to stormwater drainage, rain water or low visibility
- design safety issues regarding the layout of the school including roads, vehicles and footpaths
- manual handling risks such as moving equipment inside classrooms
- work related stress, bullying or other psychological injuries
- violence between students, against staff and between parents on school grounds
- school excursions and camps.
Each of these risks warrants an article on its own, however, we will focus on three recent risks raised in the media and explain what schools can do to manage these risks as far as reasonably practicable.
School Violence - Student Against Teacher
In a recent Canberra Times article, it was reported that Worksafe ACT has taken action through an enforceable undertaking imposed on the ACT Education Directorate, alleging the government had breached its legislated responsibilities by not doing all that was "reasonably practical" to ensure the safety of its staff. Worksafe ACT spent two years investigating incidents of violence against staff in public schools, cataloguing 2191 violent incidents in 2017, with many occurring in the younger year levels and involving students with complex needs. Less than 5 per cent of incidents involved a perpetrator other than a student, such as a parent or a community member. Among the incidents investigated were the cases of a pregnant staff member punched repeatedly in the stomach by a young student, a teacher hospitalised by a student's kick and a computer monitor thrown at a teacher's head.
Since the investigation, the ACT Education Directorate announced an Occupational Violence Policy and Management Plan, which sets out the commitment of the ACT Education Directorate to ensure that the risk of occupational violence to staff in workplaces is eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable, to minimise the impact of any exposure and to provide rapid response and appropriate support following any incident.
For all schools, lessons can be learnt from the experience of the ACT Education Directorate. Where a hazard such as violence is identified, schools need to ensure that they have control measures (such as policies, procedure and training) and a culture in place to avoid or minimise the instances of violence such as student assault against teachers. In the event that a staff member is threatened or is assaulted, a critical incident report must be sent to the state or territory’s responsible authority, emergency procedures must be followed and if necessary the Police must be informed. In particular, continuous review and improvement of responses through regular monitoring and assessment, and support of staff members to minimise injury should be paramount.
Workplace Bullying by Managers
The Age recently reported that 23 per cent of high school teachers in public schools in New South Wales said that they have been subjected to bullying at work. 41 per cent of high school teachers said that they have witnessed bullying at work with students and parents low on the list of bullies, with only 6 per cent of teachers saying that they were bullied by a student or member of the public, indicating that workplace bullying by managers and other staff is the most prevalent form of bullying.
According to the Fair Work Commission, bullying occurs when:
- a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work, AND
- the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.
Bullying can take different forms including psychological, physical or even indirect, for example, deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities. It can be obvious or it can be subtle, which means it is not always easy to spot. Examples of behaviour, whether intentional or unintentional, that may be workplace bullying if they are repeated, unreasonable and create a risk to health and safety include but are not limited to:
- abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
- aggressive and intimidating conduct
- belittling or humiliating comments
- practical jokes or initiation
- unjustified criticism or complaints
- deliberately excluding someone from work-related activities
- withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
- setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
- setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level
- denying access to information, supervision, consultation or resources to the detriment of the worker
- spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
- changing work arrangements such as rosters and leave to deliberately inconvenience a particular worker or workers.
However, reasonable management action taken in a reasonable way is not bullying. Managers are responsible for monitoring the quality and timeliness of work and providing staff with feedback on their performance. If performance issues need to be addressed, the conversation needs to be constructive and supportive, and focus on the positives as well as the negatives. It should not be humiliating or demeaning. Differences of opinion and disagreements are also generally not workplace bullying.
Failure of a school to take steps to address workplace bullying can be considered a breach of their work health and safety obligations. Schools can address bullying by taking a proactive approach including identifying any issues, unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of workplace bullying occurring. Research indicates that there are a number of factors which may increase the risk of workplace bullying occurring including:
- the presence of work stressors such as limited job control or organisational change
- leadership styles such as autocratic behaviour or behaviour where there is little or no guidance provided
- particular systems of work including lack of resources or training
- poor workplace relationships including poor communication or isolation
- characteristics of the workforce including mainly young workers, casual workers or volunteers.
There should be clear policies, procedures and training regarding workplace bullying. A commitment from management to set the standard of workplace behaviour from the outset is also extremely important. Schools can also develop productive and respectful working relationships and design safe systems of work. In particular, when allegations of bullying are made at a school, responses should be prompt and confidential with all matters being treated seriously and with procedural fairness.
Stress, Exhaustion and Illness
In schools, sometimes bullying can come hand-in-hand with work-related stress, exhaustion and illness. The case of a school principal in country Western Australia who died at her desk was an example where simple overwork and stress contributed to a fatal heart attack. Work-related stress can be caused by environmental, organisational and individual factors including:
- work demands
- low levels of control over work
- poor levels of support from supervisors and colleagues
- lack of role clarity and role conflict
- poorly managed relationships
- poorly managed change
- temperature and humidity
- air quality
- a cramped workspace
- hazardous manual handling.
- differences in resilience level
- differences in personality
- differences in experiences.
Schools can only hope to control organisational and environmental factors as individual factors are not directly within the employer's control. Ways to prevent work-related stress (and the resulting exhaustion and illness for staff) include:
- ensuring employees feel valued and supported through work roles, control and position within the organisation
- creating a positive and less stressful work environment and culture
- encouraging employees to support implemented safety solutions.
Best Practice Work Health and Safety Management
The best take-home message for schools regarding work health and safety management is that it is everyone's responsibility. Staff should be encouraged to report promptly and school management needs to act promptly when they become aware of a potential issue. Schools should be encouraging and fostering a safety culture where proactivity is the norm in identifying and dynamically responding to known hazards.