Psychosocial hazards in the workplace

Persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) are responsible for managing the psychological health risks that may occur from psychosocial hazards in the workplace.    Sexual harassment, discrimination and violence can lead to both physical and psychological harm, if not appropriately managed.

Exposure to sexual harassment, discrimination and violence, poses risk of significant harm to the psychological and physical health of workers. The Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (WHS Act), requires PCBUs to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and others. These obligations include controlling workplace risk factors that increase the risk of workers’ potential exposure to sexual harassment, discrimination and violence.

The Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2020 identified trends in relation to the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces; it is estimated that around one third of people reported exposure to workplace sexual harassment in the previous five years. This report identified workplace settings, which may lead to a higher risk of sexual harassment.

The following reports were released recently in relation to psychosocial hazards in the mining industry:

  • Report into Workplace Culture, Rio Tinto
  • Community Development and Justice Standing Committee, ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’ Sexual harassment against women in the FIFO mining industry

Sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in mining

Recent reports into the mining industry[1] have highlighted the need for it   to take a leading role in managing sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in the workplace or other places under their control or influence.

The Reports identify systemic and uncontrolled risks to the psychological health and safety of workers at mines. Harmful behaviours and actions, such as sexual harassment, discrimination and violence, like any other risk, must be adequately managed. Many of the behaviours reported in the mining industry may occur due to multiple factors such as:

  • a dominant male culture
  • isolated workers
  • poorly designed facilities
  • multiple PCBU’s having access to the worksite
  • inadequate safety reporting systems
  • limited training regarding psychosocial hazards and risks
  • inadequate complaint management systems
  • limited support for victims of psychosocial risks
  • limited training for leadership on how to appropriately manage psychosocial risks
  • abuse of alcohol.

Duties of PCBU’s (e.g. Mine Operators, Mining Contractors)

Under the WHS Act, PCBUs   are required to eliminate, or if not reasonably practicable, minimise the health and safety risks associated with inappropriate behaviours, including sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in the workplace.

PCBUs need to apply the same risk management process by:

  • identifying the possible hazards
  • assessing the associated risks
  • implementing control measures to eliminate or minimise risks
  • regularly reviewing control measures to ensure they remain effective.

PCBUs need to have a system in place to ensure any instances of inappropriate behaviours associated with the workplace are reported either formally or informally. These cases may involve workers of the Mine Operator or Contracting Partner or any other workers onsite.

Some examples of controls include:

  • policies and procedures to set standards regarding appropriate and inappropriate behaviours
  • code of conduct
  • reporting systems that are confidential in nature and protect the complaint
  • appropriate human resource systems to manage instance of inappropriate behaviour
  • systems to limit power and control behaviour

Duties of Officers

Under the WHS Act an ‘officer’ is a recognised senior leader within a business or undertaking that is a key influencer in driving positive workplace culture.

Duties of officers under the WHS Act, relating to psychosocial risks include:

  • the acquisition of up-to-date WHS knowledge
  • an understanding of the nature of the operations
  • issuing of resources and processes to minimise psychosocial risks
  • appropriate reporting processes and timely responses
  • compliance with legal duties,
  • verifying the provision of any resources and their use in the workplace.

Officers have a responsibility in ensuring the PCBU have adequate risk management processes in place to eliminate or minimise exposure to harmful workplace behaviours or violence on their sites and must maintain current knowledge of this risk and effective methods of control.

Duties of Workers

Workers have a responsibility to take care of their own safety and to ensure that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons. Regarding harmful workplace behaviours, this would include ensuring they behave in a respectful manner to other persons at the site.

Workers must also co-operate with any reasonable policy or procedure of the PCBU relating to health or safety at the Mine.

Further to this, if a worker witnesses’ harmful behaviours towards other workers they should report it to the PCBU. This practice mirrors the expectation for any WHS risk observed at any workplace

Policies and procedures can assist in identifying these responsibilities to worker. Documents such as Code of Conduct can assist in identifying to workers the expected behaviour and reporting obligations on workers, including those who witness the harmful behaviours

Duties of Contractors

Many Mine Operators engage contracting partners at their Mine. Each party has a duty of care to manage workplace risks and hazards, including sexual harassment, discrimination and violence. The Mine Operator must engage, consult and if necessary direct the Contracting Partners to ensure that there are safety systems in place to manage psychological risks at the work site. Meetings, audits, walk throughs, self-assessment and regular reviews of the safety systems, should be undertaken by all parties.

There is a responsibility to monitor the effectiveness of the controls in place and this responsibility sits with both the Mine Operator and the Contracting Partners. The Contracting Partners must be able to demonstrate WHS capability and have a clear understanding of the Mine Operators expectations. Communication and cooperation are critical to ensure there are consistent controls in place and regularly monitored for effectiveness.

Challenges for PCBU’s within the mining industry

The mining industry has inherent risk factors that often differ from other industry sectors. Regarding harmful workplace behaviours, factors specific to the industry may contribute to the heightened risk of harm, illness, psychological injury, lost time injury, worker’s compensation claims, high employee turnover, low retention and potential legal action.   However, not all harmful workplace behaviour results in these specific factors. If not appropriately manage these behaviours can continue with limited knowledge.

Mine Operators must risk assess specific to their site, the activities (including shutdowns where large numbers of workers will move in and out of the site), and facilities and environment that may or may not include a camp and external access to alcohol.

Factors that can increase the risk of harm in the mining industry include:

  • limited diversity in the workforce (male dominant culture with women making up on average under 20%)
  • power disparity, leading to dominance in managerial roles
  • remote and isolated work which reduces support networks and the protection this provides
  • workers at site removed from senior managerial supervision and visibility
  • tolerated culture of incivility
  • skilled labour shortage which could potentially encourage inappropriate and harmful behaviours being tolerated by management
  • multiple PCBUs which can create diluted reporting lines and confusing reporting mechanisms
  • transient or FIFO workforce that can affect consistent application of the workplace behavioural expectations
  • potential abuse of alcohol that can increase poor behaviour choices
  • facilities that are not conducive to physical safety from harassment
  • inappropriate safety reporting systems, with no protection to the complainant in reporting inappropriate and harmful behaviour
  • employee assistance program that does not have services specific to the psychosocial risks in the mining industry
  • inadequate policies and procedures that do not properly address the psychosocial risks and hazards
  • inadequate human resources capability to manage risks as identified
  • limited understanding and knowledge by leadership on managing psychosocial risks and hazards

Controlling Sexual harassment, discrimination and violence in Mines

Under the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012, Mine Operators are required to establish and implement a safety management system (SMS) for the mine. The content of the SMS must include the controls for managing sexual harassment, discrimination and violence at the Mine, including:

  • risk assessments for psychosocial hazards at the Mine
  • policies and procedures for appropriate conduct at the Mine, which may include:
    • codes of conduct
    • reporting process
    • investigation process
    • support mechanisms
    • human resource management
    • leadership responsibility

Comprehensive and adequate training on these systems, process and how to manage these behaviours, must be provided to leaders and workers with regular refresher training.

There should be multiple avenues for workers and witnesses to report all forms of inappropriate behaviour to their employer or Mine Operator. These should include:

  • grievance process
  • WHS reporting process for psychological risk
  • anonymous complaint lines
  • human resource processes
  • leadership processes

The investigation process for all complaints must be appropriately managed, while affording procedural fairness and being transparent. A consistent and robust disciplinary process should be implemented and all substantiated outcomes adhered to.

Support systems for workers who have reported sexual harassment, discrimination and violence need to be available to all workers at the mine. These systems can include manager support, peer support and employee assistance programs.   Consideration should be given to having a program tailored to the risk factors within the mining industry.

The Mine Operator has a duty to ensure that monitoring of their workers and contractors is occurring to ensure that their safety management systems are working effectively. These monitoring methods can include:

  • worker surveys
  • open discussions
  • regular discussions with their manager
  • readily available access to human resources
  • safe reporting culture
  • regular reporting to leadership on identified non-compliance
  • exit interviews

Like any WHS policy or procedure at the mine, the contractors’ systems of work must be harmonised in line with the Mine Operators systems.

Minesite Facilities

Mine Operators have a duty to provide a safe work environment at the mine, which includes facilities that eliminate or minimise the risk to workers health and safety resulting from sexual harassment, discrimination and violence. For Mines with a camp on site, the following controls may be deemed reasonable and practicable:

  • Clear ‘camp rules’ in line with the behavioural expectations of the Mine Operator
  • Adequate lighting throughout the camp
  • Secure accommodation (lockable doors)
  • Adequate CCTV coverage
  • Consideration of security personnel
  • Consideration of a buddy system
  • Where possible remove lone worker situations
  • Code of Conduct that holds all workers into account
  • Appropriate human resource management systems
  • Appropriate training for all workers to educate on the psychosocial risks
  • Consideration of an alcohol consumption policy


SafeWork SA links:

Bullying and Inappropriate behaviours - bullying and inappropriate behaviours I SafeWork SA

Discrimination - Discrimination | SafeWork SA

Sexual harassment - Sexual harassment | SafeWork SA