How do you overcome the challenge of ‘self as hazard’?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 27 April, 2023 - 12:00
Industry news
National News

Many WHS professionals often lack the training required to effectively manage psychosocial hazards and risks, which require a very different set of skills compared to those needed to manage traditional physical hazards.

Psychosocial hazards involved the “self as hazard”, which means it is usually the worker themselves who is the hazard (for example, fatigue or abuse of drugs or alcohol) or another worker (for example, bullying and sexual harassment).

“Unlike a physical hazard, the worker has to self-identify as the hazard,” said CQUniversity’s Professor Drew Dawson, an expert in the areas of sleep and fatigue research, organisational psychology and human behaviour and the human implications of hours of work.

When asked about how well most organisations fare when it comes to managing and reducing psychosocial risks, he said: “probably not well”.

“WHS is typically designed for managing physical hazards. Psychosocial hazards are very different,” said Dawson, who will be presenting the 2023 Dr Eric Wigglesworth AM Memorial Lecture as part of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference, which will be held from 30 May to 1 June 2023 at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

“They are relatively ‘invisible’ hazards rarely occurring in settings where they can be objectively observed. They are subjective.”

Most people who engaged in hazardous behaviour don’t do it intentionally and rarely consider their behaviour as a hazard, Dawson explained.

“Similarly, the hazard affects different people differently. What injures one person doesn’t hurt others,” he said.

“The hazard often accumulates slowly over time and then manifests explicitly. This can then seem like an overreaction to the precipitating event and can result in people discounting the perceived severity of the injured worker’s claim.”

Dawson also noted that sometimes the job itself is the hazard.

“Management decisions to change the nature of work are often introduced to ensure ongoing profitability and viability and are viewed as ‘necessary’.

“There is no alternative. The nature of work can become unavoidably hazardous. Shutting down the business is a difficult mitigation strategy to execute.

“Look at the asbestos industry to see how hard this can be for an unarguable hazard. Imagine how hard it would be for a contested hazard.”

Current estimates suggest most Australian workplace insurance schemes will be in deficit within 10 years based on the growing cost of psychosocial injury.

“Arguably, our current regulatory frameworks are ill-suited to address this new class of hazards. Perhaps we require new ways of dealing with the risk when we ourselves are the hazard,” he said.

The most common challenge for WHS professionals in the process is identifying and quantifying the risks associated with psychosocial hazards, Dawson added.

“The skills necessary to manage psychosocial risks are very different to those required to manage traditional (physical) hazards,” he said.

“It is arguably the case that many WHS professionals are not well-trained to manage psycho-social hazards and perhaps temperamentally unsuited.

“Our future WHS workforces may need to identify the specific skills and temperaments needed to effectively manage psychosocial hazards and to select, train and specialise that workforce appropriately.”


Professor Dawson will be speaking on the topic “Pirates, psychosocial risk and the challenge of ‘self as hazard’ at the 2023 Dr Eric Wigglesworth AM Memorial Lecture as part of the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference. Dawson will outline how to approach psychosocial risk from a novel perspective that eschews current approaches in favour of embracing our inner pirate. The Dr Eric Wigglesworth AM Memorial Lecture is included in the price when purchasing a ticket to the AIHS National Health and Safety Conference. For more information please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.