Fear of violence stalks front-line public service workers

Show comments

Centrelink public servants are going to work every day in fear of violence with the bosses being urged to boost security at the agency's shopfronts around Australia after nearly 10,000 acts of aggression against front-line workers in just 12 months.

The warning come after thousands of DHS and Social Services bureaucrats in Canberra were locked into their buildings after a weapons scare in the Tuggeranong precinct on Wednesday morning.

DHS also says it is closely monitoring a case against its New Zealand counterpart, which is accused of failing to protect four of its public servants gunned down, allegedly by a lone shooter, in a South Island town last year.

Unions say they are worried by rising levels of aggression by customers at Centrelink and Medicare shopfronts with nearly 10,000 incidents logged in the 12 months to October 2014, according to the department's figures, and public servants forced to hit the panic button 1150 times during the same period.

Departmental bosses in the capital took no chances on Wednesday morning after security guards at one of their Tuggeranong office blocks were told, in what proved to be a false alarm, a man had been seen in the area with a gun.


Another nearby DHS building nearby was attacked in 2013 by a disgruntled former employee wielding a chainsaw, although no one hurt in the incident.

Nationwide, according to the Community and Public Sector Union, most DHS public servants think their workplaces are becoming more dangerous, particularly the open-to-the-public Centrelink and Medicare shopfronts.

The union says that more than 60 per cent of workers believed that "client aggression" is getting worse and the CPSU wants the department's bosses to get serious about security for front-line workers.

The union says the New Zealand tragedy, where two front counter workers at the Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) office were killed and another two staff members badly injured, has serious implications for Australia's welfare network.

A 48-year-old homeless man is waiting to go on trial for the attack in the regional town of Ashburton while New Zealand's work safety authority has issued WINZ with court proceedings alleging breaches of health and safety laws.

Details of the charge, which alleges the Ministry of Social Development failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work, are unavailable because it has not been presented in open court.

A DHS spokesman said on Wednesday the department had been closely involved in the response to the Ashburton tragedy with a senior executive sent across the Tasman to join an advisory board set up in the wake of the killings.

The department says that some of its security protocols had been adapted by WINZ since the attack.

"The health and safety of our staff and customers is of paramount importance to the Department of Human Services," the spokesman said.

But the CPSU is not impressed, accusing DHS management of not taking seriously the rising tide of aggression in its offices around Australia.

"Because DHS has failed to take this issue seriously, aggression towards staff risks becoming normalised in many workplaces," said the union's deputy secretary, Lisa Newman.

"Human Services staff have a  right to come to work in the expectation that they will not be subject to the threat of physical violence.

"DHS needs to step up and practice what it preaches at a national level and listen to the staff who are on the front line and act on their concerns."