Apprentices and psychological safety

with

Wake up call in Construction

In a recently court finding, a WHS Vic: Employer /Bullying Boss – Fined $60,000 for exposing apprentices to psychosocial (and physical) hazards however the owner was found guilty because as the Sole Director he “failed to provide and maintain safe systems of work, a contravention solely attributable to his failure to take reasonable care”.

Between May 2019 – 2021 two apprentices were subjected to physical violence, verbal insults, threats of dismissal and intimidation.
One apprentice was also harmed physically, including at the Christmas party in 2020 where he was taped to a crane topless and slapped by Yousif, in an incident partly filmed and then circulated on social media.

As a result of the bullying, the apprentice has had ongoing mental health struggles including suicidal thoughts, anxiety, stress, embarrassment, fear and depression.

WorkSafe Victoria alleged that:
1. the employer failed to provide and maintain adequate policies and procedures to manage the risk associated with workplace bullying and that its system of work permitted or failed to stop or reduce bullying conduct.
2. it was reasonably practicable for the employer to have provided and maintained an adequate workplace bullying policy and for the bully to have ceased his own bullying behaviour.

 

WorkSafe Victoria identified 6 key measures that employers should take to tackle bullying in the workplace including the need for:
1. clear standards;
2. proactive leadership;
3. positive role modelling of desired behaviours;
4. practical visibility / discussions and the promotion of psychosocial awareness and control implementation in meetings;
5. encouraging and establishing a pro-reporting culture; and
6. ensuring that supervisors are clear as to their obligations and how to respond to complaints and/or support team members before, during and after a complaint.
6. monitoring workforce data and consulting with employees for warning signs before incidents or injuries arise.

 

“We have a huge focus on physical safety in our male dominated workplace but it is the person who is about to jump from the top of the crane that we also need to be concerned about. The mental health crisis in construction needs an urgent response”. Carolyn Grant, CEO.

Questions for management: what are the cultural norms stopping your people from speaking up? What are the punishments for speaking up – humiliation, a nail gun, exclusion, be considered “soft”. What are you doing differently? 

Psychosocial hazards often overlooked

WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said apprentices could be at more of a risk in the workplace because of their inexperience and reluctance to speak up if something is wrong.

“This case is deeply disturbing, not only because of the horrific bullying and violence these apprentices were subjected to, but that it was perpetrated by the one person who should have always had their backs – their boss,” Dr Beer said.

“Disgusting behaviour like this will simply not be tolerated and it’s up to employers to set the standard and ensure there are policies and procedures in place to prevent, respond and report workplace bullying.”

 

The construction industry has considerable safety and health hazards that result in high rates of injury, illness, and fatality. Common hazards include noise, fall, electrical, and chemical hazards. Approximately 60% of all construction fatalities each year can be attributed to the ‘focus four’ hazards of falls, struck-by, caught in and between, and electrocutions. Construction occupational safety and health (OSH) has traditionally focused on eliminating, mitigating, and managing those hazards that are common in many construction workplaces.

Other critical threats to construction workers that may be overlooked are psychosocial factors of work. Psychosocial factors are the social, organizational, and managerial features of a job that affect the worker’s feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and physiology. Psychosocial factors can result in physical or mental health impacts in the workplace. Even though psychosocial factors are often not as easy to observe as physical hazards, and may be more abstract in concept, they are important and should not be dismissed. It is well documented that work affects mental health and vice versa.The combined impacts of physical and mental health have been in the spotlight since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, there is growing evidence that workplace psychosocial factors may contribute to mental health disorders, suicidal ideation, and harmful substance use among construction workers. Each of these issues are serious problems in the construction industry today. In a study of young Australian construction workers, job stress, workplace bullying, and perceived lack of social support contributed to a worker’s level of psychological stress which, in turn, was linked to illicit drug use (e.g., methamphetamines, cannabis). In other construction studies, low job control (perceived lack of control over the work environment) was found to be related to illicit drug use in the workplace.

Doing things differently

WIth a shortage of workers in construction and trades, business owners and leaders need to think differently about how we engage and treat apprentices and employees. 

Importantly, an increase focus by state regulators on how businesses are “managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace” makes it critical for all business owners. 

For owners, contractors, and supervisors to address psychosocial factors in the workplace, these factors must first be characterised.  Research has shown that workplace safety climate can influence safety behaviors, injuries, and health outcomes in the construction industry. 

After identifying the contributing psychosocial hazards, leadership can determine which factors can be feasibly addressed. This may require leadership to assess current practices and policies and address deficiencies. For example, if employers find that low job satisfaction is the most prevalent psychosocial factor, subsequent worker focus groups or one-on-one interviews can be conducted to find reasons contributing to low job satisfaction and develop solutions—both short-term (e.g., ask employees for feedback, celebrate successes) and long-term (e.g., improving wages, benefits and job security, and assessing managerial style).

People Plus Science research in 2022 and 2023 found that one of the largest group of employees that were experiencing psychosocial hazards was apprentices. With ongoing “hazing” of apprentices including nail guns used on the feet of apprentices. In one incident after being rushed to hospital and advising his parents of the incident refused to let his parents make a complaint “it’s just the way it is”, if you say something you will make it worse”.

The cultures and underlying norms within workplaces are not being identified nor addressed.

In a recent study of construction workers on major infrastructure projects working 11 hours a day on projects 6 days a week was not uncommon. 

In the construction (by a subcontractor) of a major retail store, the onsite WHS manager had worked 7 months of night shifts to the detriment of his own mental health. When he went to resign the HR Managers response was “why didn’t you tell me”. These types of conversations and lack of due diligence in organisations is frustrating, especially in industries where “speaking up is considered soft”.

These types of psychosocial factors of work impact overall health, including mental health. Now more than ever, it is critical for employers to understand the importance of addressing mental health concerns when they arise and be able to direct their workers to mental health resources (e.g., employee assistance program, health insurance that covers mental health care).

Actions to prevent workplace bullying:

  • Set clear standards of which behaviours are allowed and which are not in your workplace through training and leaders role modelling desired behaviours.
  • Have policies and procedures to guide a consistent approach to prevent, respond and report workplace bullying. Discuss and promote these in team meetings and health and safety committee meetings.
  • Encourage reporting. It is important for those who experience or witness workplace bullying to know who they can talk to, that a report will be taken seriously and that confidentiality will be maintained.
  • Ensure that information about workplace bullying, including relevant policies and procedures, are part of supervisor training and new employee inductions.
  • All employers should carry out a regular check of the workplace in consultation with employees and health and safety representatives to identify hazards and risks such as signs that bullying is happening or if there is an increased risk of it happening.

“Neuroscience and human behaviour, lays the foundation for the approach and tools we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making smarter people investments, measuring critical outcomes, and driving continuous, evidence-based improvements.”  Carolyn Grant

Interested in Learning More?

Book a briefing on psychological safety today. Mitigate your greatest risk and drive high performing, thriving teams.