Stress prosecution a first
Wednesday 13 April 2005
Nelson engineering firm Nalder and Biddle (Nelson) Ltd has become the first company in New Zealand to be convicted for failing to provide a safe working environment, after an employee broke down from work-related stress.
The Department of Labour's occupational safety and health service charged the company after one of its employees became ill last year. The Department investigated after the woman had been diagnosed as suffering depression and hypertension as a result of the work-related stress.
National operations manager Mike Cosman said the mental and physical harm the employee suffered was the direct result of work pressures and poor work organisation, which the company failed to deal with despite numerous complaints.
Nalder and Biddle was today fined $8000 and ordered to pay reparation of $1300 for failing to effectively manage work-related stress. This is the first prosecution of its type under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.
Under the HSE Act, employers must take all practicable steps to identify and manage hazards in the workplace and ensure employees aren't harmed. Amendments to the Act in 2002 clarified the definition of harm to include any mental or physical harm caused by work-related stress.
Mr Cosman said it was a clear-cut case of an employer failing to address an employee's health and safety concerns.
'She was working in an environment where poor communication was the norm, and the work culture was non-supportive. Even after complaining many times over several months, the company did nothing substantive to address her concerns.'
Being busy or challenged, or working long hours, were not bad things, Mr Cosman said. 'But when it starts to cause mental or physical harm, an employer is obliged to act. This company failed to act to protect a worker, whose workload was making her ill, and this was a clear breach of the HSE Act.
'People are any company's most valuable asset. Just like the photocopier or the company vehicle, they break down when misused or overworked. But unlike machines, people can often see a problem coming and tell their employer about it.
'An employer's best protection against a stressed out workforce is to ask staff how they're coping, really listen to the answer, and act on what they're hearing,' he said.
Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, workplace stress is a hazard that requires managing just like unsafe machinery or chemicals. The onus is on the employer, in consultation with employees and their representatives to develop solutions that are appropriate for the circumstances. .
This does not mean that staff should be feather-bedded. The key thing for employers to remember is that they need to prevent physical or mental harm caused by stress, not prevent stress itself. For example, employers should act to stop stress becoming so severe that it causes a heart condition or mental illness.
Stress can often involve a complex set of factors, not all of which are created within the workplace, and situations affect employees differently. It is also clear that employers are unable to actively manage the stressors unless they are made aware of the impact on the individual. Communication between the parties is therefore essential, as effective communication will enable early detection and management of the stressors.
Managing the effects of stress should be seen in context of creating a high quality-working environment. The long-term benefits of a healthy workforce are higher productivity, less staff turnover, and lower accident rates.