Prioritising your safety is no one's inconvenience
Having a safe working environment is every nurse and midwife’s right.
Workplaces where nurses and midwives know and exercise their rights have better working environments and outcomes.
The Work Health and Safety Act (Qld) 2011 exists to protect nurses and midwives at work. Your safety is at the heart of this legislation, so if you have a safety issue at work, you and your colleagues can likely use the Act to resolve it.
The information below provides an overview of workplace health and safety, including your rights as a nurse or midwife, how the law protects you, what constitutes a health and safety issue, and how you can get it fixed.
What is health and safety?
Everyone has the right to work in a safe and healthy workplace. At its simplest level, workplace health and safety is about protecting you from exposure to hazards in the workplace by eliminating them or minimising the risk they pose.
Employers have a legal duty to ensure you are safe at work.
At the same time, nurses and midwives are responsible for raising health and safety concerns when we see them. You don’t have to fix the problem but you do need to ensure your employer is aware the problem exists and takes action to resolve it. If we don’t call it out, no one will.
You owe it to yourself, your loved ones, your colleagues, and your patients to take workplace health and safety seriously. That includes understanding your rights and being ready to act in the face of unsafe working conditions.
Is my issue a health and safety matter?
Unfortunately, some employers have a narrow view of what encompasses work health and safety for nurses and midwives.
These narrow views often prioritise physical safety over psychological safety.
But the fact is (and according to the Act), health and safety is not limited to physical risks. It can be anything that affects your safety or wellbeing – physically or psychologically.
Your cultural safety is also paramount, as specified in the QNMU’s Positive Practice Environment Standards.
Examples of health and safety issues include:
- Occupational violence
- Exposure to traumatic events
- Fatigue caused by unmanageable workload or inability to take your breaks
- Not having enough staff to be able to provide safe care
- Not being able to take leave (or feeling guilty about taking leave) due to lack of staff
- Poorly managed organisational change
- Rosters not being published with enough notice, causing you psychological distress
- Lack of lifting equipment
How does the law protect me?
The ‘three tiers’ of health and safety laws Your health and safety rights are protected under:
- the Work Health and Safety Act (Qld) 2011
- the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011
- several Codes of Practice.
The Act provides a health and safety compliance framework that legally must be followed.
The Regulation outlines specific duties and minimum requirements that must be met.
Codes of Practice are more practical and provide further detail on how your employer can meet their legislative obligations.
It is illegal for your employer to punish you for taking action on a health and safety issue. This includes raising concerns or contacting Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) or the QNMU to discuss an issue.
Under the Act, people who engage in discriminatory, coercive or misleading conduct against you may be penalised. Such conduct could include dismissing a worker, ceasing their contract, or treating them in a way that disadvantages them
(like changing their rosters).
How is compliance enforced?
Non-compliance with the Act or Regulation can result in prosecution from WHSQ.
WHSQ inspectors can enter workplaces to investigate complaints and undertake enforcement activities. If they believe the Act or Regulation has been breached, they may issue:
- a formal written notice
- on the spot fines
- prosecutions in court
- enforceable undertakings.
New Code gives Queensland nurses and midwives better protections
On 1 April 2023, Queensland’s new ‘Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work’ Code of Practice came into effect.
The Code gives Queensland’s nurses and midwives some of the strongest protections in the country.
Under this Code, hazards that need to be actively managed by employers include, but are not limited to:
- High job demand – high physical, mental and emotional demands that can create risks to the health and safety of workers.
- Low job control – refers to work in which workers have little or no control over what happens in their work environment.
- Poor support – refers to tasks or jobs where workers have inadequate emotional and/or practical support, inadequate training or information to support their work performance or inadequate tools, equipment or resources to do
- Poor organisational change management – refers to organisational change that is poorly planned, communicated, supported or managed.
- Poor organisational justice – refers to work where there is a lack of procedural fairness, informational fairness or interpersonal fairness.
If your issue falls under one of the above categories, your employer must work with you to address it.
Read more about the Code at www.worksafe.qld.gov.au
Resolving your safety issues
If your matter relates to a health and safety concern, you can use the Act to force your employer to resolve it.
Remember, employers have a legal duty to ensure you are safe at work. Your employer is obligated to comply with the Act, and minimum safety requirements must be met.
You don’t need to act alone
Before reporting your safety issue, ask yourself: Is this an individual matter, or does it affect my colleagues as well? If it’s something that affects others and not just you, speak with your colleagues about establishing a workgroup.
A health and safety workgroup allows employees to be properly represented in workplace health and safety issues. The group is made up of workers with similar workplace health and safety concerns and working conditions.
Workgroups may be established by nurses and midwives in a ward/area or unit* to ensure the collective interests of the group are represented.
The workgroup members then elect a Health and Safety Representative (HSR), who provides feedback and advice to the employer on behalf of the workgroup members.
It is up to you and your colleagues to consider the makeup of your workgroup (ensuring that all employees are properly represented in workplace health and safety issues) so you can take this into negotiations with your employer.
To find out more about workgroups and how to establish one in your ward/area or unit, contact your QNMU Organiser.
*The number of workgroups are negotiated with the employer.
Health and Safety Representatives
Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) provide workers a stronger voice in health and safety matters. The primary role of a HSR is to represent the health and safety interests of a workgroup and to raise any issues with their employer.
Any worker can become a HSR, provided they are elected by their colleagues. A worker does not need any special qualifications or experience to be elected.
HSRs are an important link between workers and employers. HSRs have special powers that enable them to escalate and address any safety concerns on behalf of their colleagues.
HSRs can undertake their duties in paid work time.
HSR rights and duties include:
- Inspect a workplace
- Investigate complaints
- Request a health and safety committee be established
- Monitor compliance measures
- Issue Provisional Improvement Notices and direct a worker or workers to cease unsafe work.
One of the main benefits of having a HSR in your workplace is that a HSR who has undergone the right training can issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) under the WHS Act. This occurs when a HSR suspects there has been a breach of the Act, and certain actions must be taken within specified timeframes to address the concern.
The PIN must be displayed prominently in the workplace and a copy sent to the regulator. Anyone affected by the PIN must be promptly notified.
If the person who receives the PIN does not fix the breach within the required minimum timeframe of eight days, the HSR can then contact a WHSQ inspector to investigate.
To find out more about HSRs and how to become one, contact your QNMU Organiser.
Case study: Teachers highlight workload psychological distress and win
In March 2022, teachers at a high school in the ACT decided something needed to be done about their excessive workloads, which were causing them significant distress.
Specifically, they raised concerns about their mental and physical health and safety arising from their unsustainable workloads, inflated class sizes, and excessive teaching hours.
Union members decided to raise the issue with Work Safe ACT. To collate the evidence they needed, Workplace Representatives assisted all union members to draft individual statements, all of which highlighted the fact that staff were working in an unsafe environment.
Here’s a snippet of what some teachers had to say…
"I came to work today after having a medical episode last night because I knew there were only 2/5 teachers on my team in today. I spent the day teaching in pain."
"In my years of teaching, I have never actually felt as unsafe as I did during this incident."
"I feel like I want to quit. My job is affecting my mental health worrying about all the extra things we need to do... This takes away from the time I have with my family which is not fair."
Here’s what union members won:
- Immediate boost to staffing at site
- End to excessive class sizes across the system
- Renewed focus on work stress concerns
- Enforceability of class size maximums
While the above example may be specific to the teaching profession, there are lessons to be learnt for nurses and midwives – namely, the importance of highlighting the psychological and physical effects of your workplace issue, as well as the power of working together with your colleagues to raise issues.