Work shouldn’t hurt; teaching shouldn’t hurt. But it does. Each year, our Union supports members who have been injured or become ill because of their work, Jessica Willis writes.

As reported in the last edition of IE, findings from teacher targeted bullying and harassment and psychological wellbeing research have put a spotlight on the lived reality of Australian teachers, and now the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has added to the furore with the release of findings on the state of workplace health and safety across Australia.

The Work Shouldn’t Hurt survey has exposed an underbelly of unsafe work practices that have led to deaths and unacceptable numbers of people being exposed to trauma, experiencing violence, or sustaining psychological or physical injuries and illnesses.

A career without workplace injuries is the exception not the norm, according to the Work Shouldn’t Hurt report, which surveyed over 25,000 participants from the Australian workforce.

The report found Australian workers are dealing with systemic physical and mental health issues as a result of the conditions of their work, with most workers aware of serious threats to their physical and mental health which are being actively ignored by their employers.

No worker immune

The report found Australians are more than twice as likely to suffer an injury at work than to have a secure job and nearly 80% have suffered a psychological or physical injury while at work.

Sixteen per cent said they knew someone who was killed at work or died from a work-related disease and another 55% said they were aware of existing conditions in their workplace that could cause serious injury or illness if not addressed.

Issues such as workplace abuse, over work, threats of violence and actual violence, bullying and harassment mean that stress, depression and anxiety are rampant.

It also found there is a widespread belief that employers do not know how to respond or are not willing to take action on serious threats to their employees’ safety.

Danielle Wilson, IEUA-QNT Industrial Officer said the education sector is no exception to these findings.

“People working in the education sector face a range of risks that need to be managed, including student violence, hazardous substance exposure, chronic vocal injury, repetitive strain injury, injury from participation in physical activities, and slips, trips or falls common to most workplaces,” Wilson said.

“By far, the majority of the WorkCover claims our Union assists members with are psychological injuries.

“Teachers are second only to emergency services and military in the incidence of work-related psychological injury.

“These are caused by a range of hazards including work intensification, exposure to trauma or violence in schools, workplace bullying and harassment and poor management practice such as micromanagement.”

Psychological illness and injury

Work Shouldn’t Hurt highlighted a disturbing growth in the rate of psychological illnesses or injuries such as stress, depression or anxiety at work.

It found psychological work hazards are under regulated and consequently under recognised but are just as dangerous as physical ones.

More than 60% of respondents experienced poor mental health because of unaddressed psychological hazards in their workplace.

These can include debilitating issues like stress, anxiety or self-harm.

According to the survey findings, of the total respondents:

in the last 12 months 47% of respondents were exposed to traumatic events, distressing situations or distressed or aggressive clients/customers

66% of respondents experienced high workloads

31% experienced occupational violence (abuse threats or assault at work by clients, customers, the public or co-workers), and

61% have experienced poor mental health because their employer or workplace had failed to manage or address these poor work conditions.


78% had been physically or psychologically injured or ill as a result of their work

78% knew someone who had been seriously injured or ill as a result of their work

16% knew someone who was killed at work, or died from a work-related disease

55% said they were aware of existing conditions in their workplace that could cause serious injury or illness if not addressed

80% said the penalties were not significant enough to make employers or companies take safety seriously

91% said employers or companies who cause the death of a worker through gross negligence should face serious jail time (up to 20 years)

98% of respondents said they believed unions had a role in work health and safety, and

97% said unions should be able to take employers and companies that break health and safety laws to court.

It was revealed 91% of respondents did not make a workers’ compensation claim in relation to their poor mental health, and of the 9% who did only a third of them were approved.

Members won’t be surprised by these results and many will have stories similar to the anonymous teacher from the ACT who detailed the following in Work Shouldn’t Hurt.

“I have been physically assaulted at work seven times over my teaching career. In 2018 I developed a psychological injury after being physically assaulted three times in one year. I was diagnosed with chronic stress and became very unwell. It took Comcare and EML five months to pay me one month’s salary, which put me under financial pressure causing more stress. Psychological injuries need to be assessed and paid far more expeditiously.”

Current penalties not enough

Responses in Work Shouldn’t Hurt demonstrate a broad belief that employers are well aware of the risks their employees are facing in their workplace but are not willing to take these threats to their safety seriously.

Nearly 80% of survey respondents said existing penalties for employers are not enough to make them take safety seriously.

In most states, the current system that deals with employer penalties and fines for workplace injury or death usually results in small fines for employers found guilty of negligence and these fines can be claimed against their insurance.

This system spares employers from facing the consequences of their actions, even if these actions have resulted in the serious injury or death of an employee. Respondents described being physically assaulted (punched, kicked), being held hostage by patients, being crushed, having had electric shocks or being burnt at work. Others said they had broken major bones or had been left traumatised or depressed by work conditions.

Areas surveyed included exposure to traumatic events – like the death of a colleague, occupational violence, hazardous conditions, poor management, and remote or isolated work.

In 2018, the Federal Government commissioned a report into model work health and safety legislation resulting in the Boland Review, which made 34 recommendations to strengthen work health and safety laws. The ACTU is calling for all recommendations to be implemented across Australia.

What does good WHS look like?

Wilson said it is critical to maintain strong and rigorous WHS systems in the workplace to ensure all risk is minimised.

“Everyone is responsible for workplace health and safety, but employers have a primary duty of care under our legislation to protect those who work in and visit the workplace,” explained Wilson.

“Having strong and efficient reporting mechanisms is essential to removing risks and ensuring regulatory compliance.

“This includes having clear lines of report so that matters can be resolved quickly; effective risk management assessments to ensure activities are well managed; and effective monitoring systems, such as active WHS Committees and well supported, elected Health and Safety Representatives to give workers a strong, effective voice in the workplace.

“Where WHS is taken seriously by employers, risk of injury is minimal and if injury occurs employees usually feel well supported and make quick recoveries.

Unions create safer workplaces

Among the grim findings of the survey, there was a positive outcome regarding the role unions play in creating safer workplaces.

The survey confirmed that union workplaces are safer workplaces, due to a number of factors from greater consultation through to on the job advocacy.

Ninety-eight per cent of respondents said they believed unions had a role in WHS and over 90% said unions should be able to enter workplaces to address health and safety issues.

Wilson said our Union plays an important part in ensuring workers have a support network to turn to when concerned about their safety.

“When members use their collective voice, they are empowered to manage workplace issues and risks at the workplace level,” Wilson said.

“Our Union can advise how to ensure there is effective consultation in the workplace through committees and elected Health and Safety Representatives.

“Genuine and effective consultation between employers and employees is essential to good workplace health.

“In the case where workers’ compensation claims need to be made, we support members throughout the process and can act as a representative if claims are rejected.

“Members can also contact us at any time to get information about risks in the workplace and about how and where to report issues.”

Danielle Wilson is an Industrial Officer and Team Leader on the IEUA-QNT Industrial Team. Danielle has worked for the Union for 11 years and prior to that was an Industrial Officer for the state based Public Sector Union.


Australian Council of Trade Unions, 2018 ‘Work Shouldn’t Hurt [report]