Update: SafeWork NSW introduces code of practice on managing psychosocial risks at work

Update: SafeWork NSW introduces code of practice on managing psychosocial risks at work

Last month, SafeWork NSW introduced a Code of Practice on Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work (Code). This is the first work health and safety code of practice in Australia on eliminating and minimising psychosocial risks.

Overview of the Code

Taking effect 28 May 2021, the Code sets out what employers should do, in line with their responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) (WHS Act), to avoid and manage potential psychological hazards in the workplace.

Psychosocial hazards at work are aspects of work and situations that may cause a stress response, which in turn can lead to psychological or physical harm. Common psychosocial hazards include:

  • role overload (high workloads or job demands) or role underload (low workloads or job demands)
  • poor support from supervisors and managers
  • inadequate reward and recognition
  • exposure to traumatic events
  • conflict or poor workplace relationships between workers
  • bullying, harassment and workplace violence
  • hazardous physical working environments, and
  • remote or isolated work, arising from the location, time or nature of the job.

How do employers comply with the Code?

Employers must, as far as reasonably practicable, eliminate psychosocial hazards and manage risks to health and safety arising from work.

The Code sets out four steps employers should undertake to manage psychosocial hazards at work, set out as follows.

1. Identify the psychosocial hazard

This step involves identifying aspects of work and situations that could potentially harm workers (some of which are listed above) and why these may be occurring.

Common underlying sources of psychosocial hazards and risks include the nature of the work environment, resourcing decisions, operating and economic pressures, major workplace changes such as an organisational restructure, and structure and governance of an organisation.

2. Assess and prioritise the psychosocial hazards and risks

Once the hazards and risks have been identified, employers must undertake a risk assessment process. Part of the risk assessment process involves determining the seriousness of the risk, who is affected by the risk, what controls are used or could be used to reduce the risk, and the priority for action. The Code notes that this may be by way of regular "toolbox" discussions for small businesses or a more structured analysis for new or high-risk activities.

3. Control psychosocial hazards and risks

Controlling psychosocial hazards and risks can be by way of:

  • good work design, for example, providing additional support and clarity on roles and responsibilities where there is role overload
  • developing and following rules, policies, procedures and work practices to ensure workers are not harmed by the remaining risks, and
  • providing information and training to workers about the risks and control measures.

4. Proactively implement, maintain, monitor and review the effectiveness of controls

Managers should regularly undertake reviews of the controls to determine whether risks are being effectively managed and whether there are opportunities for improvement.

Reviews should occur on occasions such as before a major workplace change takes place, after a serious incident or injury, where a new risk is identified, and at agreed dates (such as annually).

The Code also sets out how employers should respond to a report of a psychosocial risk or incident, including investigation of the incident, whether to report the incident to the regulator, and record-keeping obligations in respect of the risk management process and outcomes.

Implications of the Code

The WHS Act and the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (NSW) allow for codes of practice to be admitted as evidence in court proceedings. This means that courts may rely on the Code for what is known about a psychosocial hazard, risk or control, and what is reasonably practicable in the circumstances for employers to do to manage a hazard or risk, in determining whether an employer has complied with their work health and safety obligations.

Failure to follow or consider the Code may result in a finding that an employer has breached their work health and safety duties.

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.