Introduction of the QLD Psychosocial Code of Practice – what is it all about?
Commencing 1 April 2023, Queensland’s statutory requirements about managing psychosocial hazards will change with some amendments to the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (Qld) (WHS Regs) and the introduction of the new Code of Practice: Managing the Risk of Psychosocial Hazards at Work (Code).
Is it a big change?
Yes and no.
The regulation of psychosocial risks under the Work Health and Safety Law is not a recent development. The WHS Act has defined “health” as encompassing both physical and psychological well-being since its creation. However, there have been few instances of enforcement action or prosecution against Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU), officers, or employees in this area. So there is no substantive change to what the law fundamentally requires.
What is new is that the alterations made to the WHS Regs and the introduction of the Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice have resulted in a fundamental change in the law regarding the management of this distinct hazard. For the first time, PCBUs and their officers are obligated to take specific measures when applying a risk management approach to psychosocial hazards. So, now PCBU’s must demonstrate compliance in risk management with the Code – where before they were not required to do this.
In short, there are no changes to the existing laws around keeping your staff safe. What has changed is that there is now a specific framework that you need to actively comply with to satisfy the existing laws.
Is the Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice just guidance or is it legally enforceable?
In Queensland, the Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice cannot be regarded as a mere guide or reference document. It is mandatory for all PCBUs and officers to comply with the Code or demonstrate, through a challenging process, that they are managing the risk differently in a manner equivalent to or surpassing the Code’s requirements. Neglecting to meet these obligations is a punishable violation of the law.
What are psychosocial hazards?
Psychosocial hazards are anything at work that may cause psychological or physical harm.
These stem from:
- the way the tasks or job are designed, organised, managed and supervised
- tasks or jobs where there are inherent psychosocial hazards and risks
- the equipment, working environment or requirements to undertake duties in physically hazardous environments, and
- social factors at work, workplace relationships and social interactions.
Examples may include:
- high and/or low job demands
- low job control
- poor support
- low role clarity
- poor organisational change management
- low reward and recognition
- poor organisational justice
- poor workplace relationships including interpersonal conflict
- remote or isolated work
- poor environmental conditions
- traumatic events
- violence and aggression
- harassment including sexual harassment
Who will the changes apply to?
The Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice and WHS Regs apply to all work and workplaces covered by the WHS Act.
The Code and WHS Regs cover employers, workers, contractors, subcontractors, outworkers, the self-employed, apprentices and trainees, work experience students, and volunteers.
The Code and WHS Regs also cover other people in workplaces, such as customers and visitors.
What will businesses likely see with the introduction of the code?
The Code is a useful tool to assist PCBUs and their officers to manage psychosocial risk. It contains useful material, such as links to a psychosocial survey which can be used, template psychosocial risk assessments and numerous practical case studies. However, as a legally binding document, it can also be used in enforcement. For example, here are some hypothetical scenarios:
A worker may ask for a specific psychosocial risk assessment.
Under the new WHS Regs, Health and Safety Representatives (HSR) are entitled to receive safety information, and a risk management approach will be required. Thus, an employer could be asked for their documented and consulted psychosocial risk assessment, as stipulated by the WHS Regs.
If the employer fails to provide one, an HSR may issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) demanding it. If the employer tries to argue that they only perform informal assessments, this is unlikely to dissuade an inspector from upholding the PIN upon review.
Inspectors compel production of documents following a complaint
A hazard described in the Code is ‘high job demands’, with the following examples given: ‘time pressure, role overload, unachievable deadlines, high vigilance, challenging work hours or shift work, unrealistic expectations to be responsive outside work hours.’
Workers can make online and anonymous complaints to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ), and WHSQ and its inspectors can compel the production of an employer’s documents.
If a worker tells WHSQ they are being overworked, Inspectors could request:
- swipe card access (to see how long someone spent in the office);
- times the workers sent emails in the last month (to gauge hours worked); and
- text messages with the supervisor (to see what support was provided).
These documents must be produced, or the employer is exposed to a penalty. If they show long working hours (which is not prohibited by the WHS Regs or Code), the employer may be asked how it manages that hazard.
Major incident (e.g. mental health hospitalisation and incidents of self harm)
Admission to a mental health facility or hospital for self harm arising from work-related issues, or a work-related a suicide, are notifiable incidents. Importantly, these events do not need to occur in the workplace to be notifiable. A notification of this type is highly likely to trigger a large-scale investigation by WHSQ.
That investigation could examine whether controls (which are set out in the Code) have been implemented, such as:
- setting achievable performance standards and workloads for the number of workers, work hours and their skill sets;
- allowing more time for difficult tasks to be completed safely, especially by inexperienced workers;
- designing work rosters to facilitate better work/life balance for workers required to work away from home; and
consulting workers about how major organisational changes may affect them and listening to their views.
What should businesses do?
Realistically, most employers genuinely care for their workers, and have existing formal and informal systems in place to ensure the workplace is a safe and happy environment. The Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice could be viewed as a tool to help set up a formal framework but ultimately, it is something you are required to comply with.
However, now is the time to ensure formal systems are up to date, and officers and managers are fully informed of their roles.
As soon as possible, PCBUs and officers could consider:
- formalising existing systems for managing workloads and responding to psychosocial issues in the workplace;
- training frontline managers about their vital role in identifying psychosocial risks in their teams, and how to respond; and
- ensuring executives, boards and senior public servants are across these legal developments (as the WHS Regs and Code are soon to be in force, officers should be across what these changes mean and how their PCBU will ensure compliance).
PCBUs must adopt a risk management process (if they haven’t already), including eliminating psychosocial risks, so far as is reasonably practicable, or if it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate psychosocial risks, by minimising them.
PCBUs should follow a four-step risk management process to meet their health and safety obligations under the Code and Regulations:
- Identify psychosocial hazards
- Assess the risk
- Control the risks
- Review the controls
Part 3 of the Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice provides detailed information about these steps for psychosocial hazards.
What happens if you don’t comply with the Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice?
Aside from heightened risks to your staff for not complying with good risk management of psychosocial issues, you may face the following consequences for non-compliance:
- successful claim by employees for failing to provide safe working conditions;
- investigation by WHSQ;
- fines or penalties from WHSQ;
WHSQ is Queensland’s work health and safety regulator. WHSQ works with industry, businesses, and workers to create a safe and healthy culture in Queensland places of work.
WHSQ does this by:
- making sure work health and safety laws are followed
- investigating work-related fatalities and serious injuries
- taking legal action when work health and safety laws are broken, and
- educating employees and employers on their legal obligations.
WHSQ uses a range of tools to promote compliance with the legislation and ensure duty holders eliminate or minimise exposure to the risk of illness and injury.
WHSQ inspectors provide information and advice about how to comply with health and safety laws. Inspectors also conduct workplace visits to monitor and enforce compliance.
Video link to WHSQ introduction of Code
Below is a great link to the video introduction by WHSQ with some further guidance.
More information about the new Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice is available on the Queensland Government website by following this link.
Feel free to reach out to our office for more guidance in this area. All of our contact information is listed here on our Contact Page.
The information on this information sheet is general guidance only correct at the time of publication and is not legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for legal advice.