Members of a parliamentary committee that found widespread evidence of a culture of bullying, denial and cover-up in WorkCover NSW have increased public pressure on the state’s work, health and safety regulator to show that it is actually cleaning up its act.
Greens MP and Industrial Relations spokesman David Shoebridge, who sat on the committee and originally pushed for the inquiry, has warned that WorkCover has so far given no signal that it would respond to allegations bullying was entrenched in its ranks.
The tough talk from parliamentary committee members comes as the Mike Baird government tries to figure out how to deal with the issue of bullying in the very agency that is responsible for stopping bullying in other organisations.
A key recommendation from the Committee, which issued its report in June, was that WorkCover apologise to their workforce and to one former employee in particular, Wayne Butler, who won an unfair dismissal claim that the state’s Industrial Relations Commission branded a “witch hunt”, for allowing a bullying culture to flourish.
The report also demands that WorkCover NSW demonstrate it has made progress addressing the report’s recommendations within six months.
“There’s no evidence that [WorkCover NSW] have read it and if they have digested and understood it,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“There’s a complete lack of insight from management. The most they’ve done is said that they’re considering the report. Until they can bring themselves to apologise they will not the regain the trust of their workforce.”
The Committee’s recommendations include: management accepting bullying exists; cultural change and building trust; investigating complaints fairly, consistently and transparently; collecting bullying data annually and ensuring an independent body investigates bullying complaints against WorkCover NSW, rather than WorkCover NSW itself.
WorkCover NSW told Government News they are presently considering the report’s recommendations and they would address them in due course.
However a key question is what teeth the Committee’s recommendations actually have.
Mr Shoebridge said senior WorkCover NSW management had had a very unpleasant experience before the committee, and there could be more public pain on the way if things did not change soon.
“If they fail to respond to the recommendations they can expect an even more unpleasant experience at the end of this year. The community focus will be on failure to implement the recommendations and we will be holding management publicly to account in open hearings.’’
“No CEO likes to be publicly humiliated.”
The damning 200-page report, based on 104 submissions – most with names suppressed for fear of reprisal – contains numerous personal accounts of workers confronting intimidation, ridicule, discrimination, yelling, isolation and fear of retrenchment which left them psychologically damaged and often with serious physical health problems.
WorkCover bosses came in for some of the most stinging criticisms, including employing heavy-handed, authoritarian management style where dissenters were punished by being sidelined or sacked. Threats of staff cuts and redundancies were used by senior staff to crush dissent and further intimidate staff into passive acceptance.
One pregnant woman claimed she was bullied by WorkCover’s People and Change Unit into withdrawing her sick leave prior to taking maternity leave. She later had an emergency Caesarean due to high blood pressure which she believed may have been triggered by the anxiety the bullying provoked.
Another woman with over 20-years experience as a respected workplace inspector was told by her cardiologist not to return to her job as stress-related angina would likely cause a heart attack and kill her. This followed after she was moved from a specialist senior role she loved into a role she was not sufficiently qualified for after she claims management told her others in the unit were jealous of her position.
The Committee found that not only had WorkCover NSW not grasped the seriousness of bullying in its own backyard, it was also not treating bullying allegations in other workplaces seriously enough.
The Public Service Association said when some WorkCover NSW inspectors investigated bullying they were encouraged to close a file if an organisation said it had a bullying policy.
Problems were also identified with the way the organisation runs Worker’s Compensation, with a plethora of complaints from injured workers who felt they were treated rudely and aggressively by WorkCover staff and the scheme’s agents.