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OPINION: Psychosocial hazards next frontier on safety



Most mineworkers have never heard the term ‘psychosocial hazard’ – but a majority have had experiences that have left them stressed, anxious or sleepless.

While we continue the hard work of protecting workers’ physical safety in our mining industry, there is increasing awareness of the importance of protecting workers’ psychological safety too.

The State’s mine safety regulator, Resources Safety & Health Queensland, is consulting with stakeholders on the prevalence of psychosocial hazards in the mining industry. As the main body representing coal mineworkers in Queensland, the Mining and Energy Union has responded to the call for submissions with some data on workers’ experience and a call for legislative change. 

A survey of our members last month showed that 70% had never heard the term ‘psychosocial hazards’ used in their workplace.

However, three-quarters had experienced physical, mental or emotional distress caused by their work.

Psychosocial hazards refer to anything that could cause emotional distress or harm someone’s mental health in the workplace. These hazards cause stress, which if left to build over time can feed into more serious psychological issues like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our survey indicates that bullying and harassment are the main psychosocial hazards within Queensland’s mining industry – with 20% of respondents identifying each as their main concern. More than one in ten reported exposure to traumatic events, while others pointed to physical or social isolation as well as workload issues. Many respondents noted experiencing multiple different hazards within the workplace.

Nearly one in five reported feelings of depression, one in three reported feelings of anxiety, one-quarter reported sleeplessness and one in 20 reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Three in five workers reported their home life being affected by work related stress, and over half say it caused them to consider leaving their job.

It’s clear that we need change; and we welcome the Government’s initiative to consult and act on psychosocial hazards. However, we disagree with the proposed solution of voluntary guidelines. With one in three respondents stating that their direct supervisor is the one most responsible for distressing circumstances, our survey demonstrates that relying on mine operators to police their own behaviour will not rectify the issue. The systems these companies already have in place are first and foremost to protect themselves, not workers, and publishing some non-enforceable guidelines will not change that.

This lack of trust that employers have workers’ best interests in heart is reflected on the ground. Less than a quarter of respondents to our survey felt confident that their employer took adequate steps to support their psychological safety or that the processes to do so were appropriately confidential. Most tellingly, however, was that only one percent of survey respondents sought support from Human Resources or an employer representative.

This is why, as a union, we believe any attempt at reform to address psychosocial hazards in the mining industry must begin with amending the Coal Mining Safety & Health Regulations to include them. Historically, this has been the best way to get mine operators to improve their health and safety standards – legally oblige them to – why should mental health be any different? We will continue our work and advocacy in this area.

This is my first column for @ The Coalface in my new role as General Vice President of the Mining and Energy Union. I have been elected to this new position to focus on advocating and improving safety standards nationally. It has been an honour to serve the Queensland District, who will soon elect a new District President.

Stephen Smyth

Mining and Energy Union General Vice President

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