Work hurts  

For an overwhelming number of Australian workers a career without workplace injuries is the exception not the norm.

A major survey of 25,000 Australian workers examining their experiences of safety and injury at work shows a system that is failing to keep workers safe, says the ACTU.

The study revealed that during their lifetimes, almost 80 per cent of respondents suffered physical or mental injuries as a result of their work.

“This survey shows Australian workers are dealing with systemic physical and mental health issues as a result of the conditions of their work,” said ACTU Assistant Secretary, Liam O’Brien.

“It shows a workforce that is being failed by a system, which does not levy significant penalties against employers who allow hazards to persist.”

The study also found that:

  • 25 per cent of respondents reported mental health problems, 18 per cent reported physical injuries and 34 per cent reported both issues 
at work.
  • 16 per cent of the workforce knows someone who has died at work or as the result of a workplace illness.
  • 91 per cent think that employers who are found responsible for the death of a worker should face up to 20 years in prison.

Workers say they are aware of serious threats to their physical and mental health, which are being tolerated or ignored by their employers.

The report highlighted the damaging consequences of psychosocial hazards.

“Psychological workplace hazards are under-regulated and consequently under-recognised but just as dangerous as physical ones,” it says.

“How work is structured and organised presents persistent psychological and physical hazards. Occupational violence, workplace stress, hostile work environments, exposure to trauma and other ongoing issues in many workplaces, can lead to physical injuries and mental health issues.

“Being in a workplace where you or your co-workers risk being threatened with violence or attacked by clients or patients, or being in a workplace that demands persistently long hours of high-stress work with little or no support, or requires you to work unsociable hours, or where you are subjected to bullying or abuse or harassment by colleagues, is just as dangerous as a faulty machine or a wet floor.”

Sixty-one per cent of workers who responded to the survey said they had experienced mental illness because of ongoing issues in the workplace not addressed by their employer.

Healthcare workers, including nurses, were singled out in the report as targets of physical abuse.

“The threat or reality of physical abuse from patients, clients, customers or other members of the public is a constant hazard for many healthcare workers, first responders and educators,” it said.

“Sixty seven per cent of respondents said they did not believe their employer knew how to deal with occupational violence in their workplace.”

Sanctions against employers for breaches of workplace safety are grossly inadequate, the report found.

“Under the current system in most states, when a company or senior manager is found to be liable for a workplace injury or death they receive a small fine, which they can claim against their insurance,” it said.

The ACTU has been campaigning to change this to ensure that the employers who are responsible for injuries and deaths at work face the consequences of their actions.

This campaign has broad support in the workplace.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents did not think the current regime imposes penalties that are significant enough to make employers take safety seriously.

A majority did not think it should be possible for employers to claim fines against their insurance. Ninety one per cent think that employers who are found responsible for the death of a worker should face up to 20 years in prison, just like any other incident of manslaughter.

Workers see unions as critical in enforcing workplace health and safety standards.

Ninety-seven per cent said that unions should have a role in workplace health and safety standards (WHS), and should be able to take employers to court if they break health and safety laws.

Ninety per cent of respondents were opposed to restrictions on unions from entering workplaces to investigate safety breaches.

Key findings

78% of people have suffered a mental or physical injury at work

54% are aware of existing hazards in their workplace that could cause serious injury or illness

79% do not believe penalties are sufficient to force employers to take safety seriously

61% have experienced poor mental health because their employer did not manage hazards in their workplace

Read the report

You can read the report – Work shouldn’t hurt – a survey on the state of work health and safety in Australia at: https://www.actu.org.au/media/1385647/work-shouldnt-hurt-report-clean-final.pdf