How WHS can navigate psychosocial hazards in the workplace

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.
Friday, 25 November, 2022 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

Many businesses do not currently look at psychosocial hazards as a WHS issue and do not yet have systems in place to reduce risks, according to Western Australia’s Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS).

“Managing psychosocial hazards is a fairly recent priority for many organisations,” said Sally North, director of the DMIRS.

“Some organisations are reasonably advanced in this area and have identified and assessed psychosocial risks and implemented policies, procedures, training and other controls.”

In terms of psychosocial hazards, North suggested a good first step is to read the Code of Practice – Psychosocial hazards.

“This gives an overview of this hazard area and some of the practicable controls,” said North, who recently spoke at the AIHS 2022 WA Safety Symposium.

Both short- and long-term exposure to psychosocial hazards may cause harm to a person, according to the Code of Practice.

“For example, while exposure to severe, short-lived (acute) psychosocial hazards such as experiencing violence at work may result in harm to health (e.g. acute-stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), it is important to also recognise that the cumulative effect of low-level exposure to psychosocial hazards can also lead to psychological or physical injury,” it said.

“People may experience multiple psychological and physical symptoms of harm as a result of exposure. In addition to adverse health outcomes for workers, exposure to psychosocial hazards and risk factors in the workplace can also affect performance and increase the risk of accidents or incidents.”

Stress is not an injury, but if it becomes frequent, prolonged or severe, the Code of Practice noted it can cause psychological and physical harm.

Psychological harm or injuries from psychosocial hazards include conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep disorders. In some cases, workplace psychosocial hazards could also lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Physical injuries from psychosocial hazards include musculoskeletal injury, chronic disease and fatigue-related accidents. Chronic, unmanaged work-related stress can result in burnout.

“Fatigue can be both a psychosocial hazard and the outcome of being exposed to psychosocial hazards. Fatigue is a state of mental or physical exhaustion,” it said.

“Fatigue is common in situations where workers work long hours, often with high mental, physical and emotional demands.”

Health monitoring is another area of concern, according to North, who said this is a requirement where there is a risk to health from a range of hazardous chemicals.

“While the requirement is fairly well understood in relation to substances such as lead, it is less well recognised and implemented in relation to substances such as isocyanates (found in two-pack vehicle paints) and some silica risk jobs (such as construction),” she said.

In relation to health monitoring, she recommended businesses review the Health monitoring duties for PCBUs guidance on the WorkSafe WA website.

“If they identify that they are using chemicals such as lead, isocyanates, silica, or other scheduled chemicals, an occupational hygienist can assist them to assess the risk and identify if there is a need for health monitoring,” she said.

“Whenever you are involved in risk assessments, consider not only acute safety risks, but also longer-term risks such as those that are associated with some hazardous chemicals, or potentially with psychosocial hazards.”