Office bullying. Photo: Andrew Quilty
The federal work safety regulator says the current upheaval of government means departments and agencies are in the danger zone for workplace "psychosocial" injuries and warns public service managers can be fined up to $600,000 for failure to prevent bullying and harassment.
Comcare told a group of managers in Canberra on Thursday that many public sector leaders were not aware of how far their legal responsibilities ran and that rank-and-file public servants could be fined $300,000 in the most serious cases of bullying.
Comcare says it is simply a matter of time before there is a prosecution and a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars under the tough health and safety laws.
Comcare regional director Mina Podbereski told the bullying seminar that managers could be fined individually $100,000 for a "category one" offence and up to $600,000 for the most serious "category three" breach of the Work Health and Safety Act, which might cover the suicide of a bullied worker.
Ms Podbereski said fines would have to be paid by the individual, not their employer.
"Insurance doesn't cover it. There is no kind of insurance that will cover it," the Comcare official said.
"The Work Health and Safety Act was developed to ensure that you couldn't buy a cop-out, that you couldn't insure against this."
Comcare is facing a rising tide of claims of psychiatric injuries, many of them related to allegations of bullying and harassment, with "psych claims'' four times more common in the public sector than in private enterprise and up by 30 per cent in the past three years.
Public service unions have warned that the public sector cuts of the previous Labor and recently elected Coalition governments have driven up the rate of psychosocial injury claims, and Ms Podbereski confirmed on Thursday that changing times brought a higher danger of health and safety breaches.
"We might get accidental non-compliance, with major stress, organisations changing, downsizing and people trying to squeeze workers and to get more work out of them," she said.
Ms Podbereski told the seminar, held by the Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators, that her agency was trying to get the message through to managers of the full extent of their legal responsibilities.
"Under the legislation a person who has an impact on the organisation has legal responsibility for workers, contractors, and volunteers and even 'contracted contractors' going down three or four levels," she said.
"That has been a great stressor for a lot of officers in positions of senior management.
"With government agencies that have portfolio agencies, what I don't think they realise is the secretaries of portfolio agencies have got responsibilities for what happens in the smaller agencies.
"So that really is a big issue at the moment."
She said the message was meeting resistance.
"Senior leaders must understand the impact of bullying and harassment, what the psychological hazards are on the individual," Ms Podbereski said.
"They can't just leave it to the human resources manager or the work health and safety manager or the harassment information officer.
"We're getting quite a pushback from time to time from senior officers."
Asked if Comcare had prosecuted anyone under the tough health and safety laws, Ms Podbereski replied that it was a matter of time. "Not yet, but it will happen," she said.
"Keep in mind that it is really difficult to find this standard of proof. It's very black and white.
"There will come a time when we will end up in court. We're working on a case now that could end up that way."