State of mind: Keeping support staff safe

The ACT’s Work Health and Safety Commissioner, Jacqueline Agius, was to be a keynote speaker at this year’s IEU Support Staff Conference, now postponed until 2022. Here, Agius talks about the main hazards school support staff face in the workplace. And they’re probably not what you think.

“Every worker has a right to be safe in their workplace,” says ACT Work Health and Safety Commissioner Jacqueline Agius, an experienced leader and lawyer with extensive knowledge of industrial relations and work health and safety laws. Agius is committed to improving health and safety standards and creating a strong safety culture in workplaces.

Psychosocial hazards, now more widely recognised, are high on Agius’s agenda, and she has established a dedicated team at WorkSafe ACT to regulate these risks.

“A psychosocial hazard is a workplace hazard that can result in a psychological injury, in the same way a trip hazard might result in a physical injury,” Agius says. “Work-related violence and aggression, work-related stress, work-related bullying and excessive workloads are examples of psychosocial hazards.”

Before becoming WHS commissioner in April 2020, Agius was a senior industrial officer with the Australian Education Union’s ACT Branch – so she knows a thing or two about the work of support staff in schools. And she doesn’t pull her punches.

“From a work health and safety perspective, psychological risks are by far the greatest risk to school support staff,” Agius says. “Education support staff usually work closely with students with complex needs and their parents and can be victims of work-related violence and aggression.”

Safety during the pandemic is also up there on Agius’s priority list. The pandemic has brought with it constant workplace change, and when this is poorly managed, it also poses a psychosocial hazard. On top of this is the risk of catching the virus itself.

From a work health and safety perspective, psychological risks are by far the greatest risk to school support staff.

“It is absolutely crucial for schools to manage the risk of contraction of COVID-19,” Agius says.

“This means ensuring adequate controls are in place to protect school support staff from exposure to COVID-19 as well as managing any psychosocial hazards posed by this pandemic.

“If workers are fearful of contracting COVID-19 in workplaces, this hazard needs to be risk managed. However, the most important part of managing the risks posed by COVID-19 for support staff is consulting with the support staff about this risk.”

The employer, Agius points out, is obligated by the Work Health and Safety Act to consult with the worker who is at risk. “School support staff at a WHS risk are rarely consulted with, are usually the last to be advised of the risk and are usually the last to be asked about the risk,” Agius says.

Agius is also keenly aware of other crucial matters support staff contend with constantly.

“From an industrial perspective, the key issues support staff face are adequate breaks, preparation and pay,” she says. “School support staff often complete work that is far above their classification level – I have known assistant educators to program for their students and then deliver the lessons to their students.”

Agius is dedicated to achieving positive workplace outcomes and improving the livelihood of workers. This is all achievable, she says, with a strong regulatory response and keeping duty holders accountable for creating safe work environments.

“When we get work health and safety right, we can make significant improvements to workers lives,” she says.

Monica Crouch