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The Safe Work Australia Review into WHS Laws fails all workers

The Council of Small Business Organisations Australia has expressed alarm about a review of the model WHS laws commissioned by Safe Work Australia, calling the final report “dangerous” and demanding for it to be withdrawn. The report solely focusses on workers, giving zero consideration to the mental health of employers and the self-employed; and if its recommendations are followed, it could see employers sent to prison if one of their employees self-harms a result of a mental health condition.

Peter Strong, CEO of COSBOA, asked “If there are five people in a workplace and we only talk about the mental health of four of them, do we not fail those four people? If the employer, the one ignored, has a mental health problem, will that not worry the four employees? Would they not be concerned for their employer? Would they not be concerned for their jobs and their income and their own future mental health?

If the recommendations of the report are implemented, then every workplace in Australia will be less safe. This is ideology getting in the way of reality, this is potentially a regulator imposing their ideological view of the world onto a group they demand be experts on a subject that is objective, confusing and challenging — mental health.”

Published in December 2018, the report, also known as the Boland Review, recommends that the psychological health and safety of workers be given equal consideration to their physical health and safety. It also recommends the introduction of an industrial manslaughter offence. It is the combination of these two recommendations that leads to the concern that employers could be held responsible for the mental health of their employees and potentially charged with manslaughter if a mental health condition results in an employee self-harming.

Mr. Strong added “The safety regulators will demand that every employer somehow or other become experts on mental health. That is not possible.”

Mr. Strong also expressed concern that the report’s recommendations could add to the societal stigma against mental health issues that COSBOA and other groups have been fighting to remove.

“This report and its recommendations will enhance the stigma and send a message that employing someone with a mental health problem could result in prison. If this is acted on will we tell small business people — and people they are — not to employ others?

COSBOA has long advocated for the mental health of small business people, having previously fought to make the Australian Human Rights Commission, other peak industry bodies and the various state and federal Departments of Health understand that the majority of employers in Australia are actually human beings with mental health needs.

COSBOA’s concern for the psychological health and safety of small business owners is backed up by statistics. In a recent study by MYOB and Beyond Blue, 56% of small business owners reported that running their own business lead to feelings of anxiety or depression, and 43% of them reported that they had experienced a mental health condition since starting their business.

Mr. Strong concluded “This report if acted on will add to the mental health problems of Australia - unless we only allow machines to employ people. This report reflects attitudes that are stuck in the past and fail to grasp the reality of the modern world and the modern workplace.”

COSBOA is a proud advocate for the mental wellbeing of small business people and their employees. It is a member of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance (MHWA) and is represented by Ms Leanne Faulkner at committee meetings. The MHWA has brilliantly led a campaign on the mental health of all people in the workplace, and to see a report from a regulator undermine that work is disappointing.

Late last year representatives from that group participated in a roundtable on small business and mental health hosted by Senator Michaelia Cash — Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business — and welcomed the Minister’s announcement of $3.8m funding to help focus on the mental health of the self-employed.

Mr Strong stressed:

“If the mental health of just one person in a workplace is ignored then everyone is at risk.”

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