New WHS guidance material on preventing workplace sexual harassment and workplace violence and aggression released

By Fay Calderone

In response to recommendation 35 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report 2020 and the #metoo movement, Safe Work Australia has released in-depth work health and safety (WHS) guidance to help persons undertaking a business or undertaking (PCBUs) to manage the risks of sexual harassment and violence and aggression occurring in the workplace.

PCBUs have well-established duties and obligations under WHS laws and anti-discrimination laws to eliminate risks to health and safety of workers and other persons so far as is reasonably practicable. The Preventing workplace sexual harassment guide (SH Guide) and Preventing workplace violence and aggression (VA Guide) recognise the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence and aggression as workplace hazards that create physical and psychological risks to health and safety and reiterate the requirement for PCBUs to take steps to mitigate those hazards.

Be alive to the risks of workplace sexual harassment, violence and aggression

To tackle sexual harassment and violence or aggression in the workplace, PCBUs must first understand what these terms mean and what behaviours to look out for.

The SH Guide defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advance, unwelcome request for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, in circumstances where a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would anticipate the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment may be overt, covert or subtle and ranges from unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing to suggestive comments or jokes.

Factors that increase the likelihood of sexual harassment occurring include low worker diversity (ie dominance by one gender, age group, race or culture), power imbalances, hierarchical structures and a workplace culture which tolerates small acts of disrespect and inequality.

The VA Guide defines workplace violence and aggression as any incident where a person is abused, threatened or assaulted at the workplace or while they are carrying out work and includes physical assault to intentionally coughing or spitting on someone. It is most common in industries where people work with the public, including health and social assistance, public administration and safety, retail and hospitality and education and training.

PCBUs are encouraged to discuss with workers and their representatives when and where they feel at risk of experiencing sexual harassment and violence or aggression when they perform their work, do a walkthrough of the workplace, assess online work systems and observe the culture and interactions between managers, workers and third parties to identify and assess any risks of workplace sexual harassment and violence or aggression arising.

Taking control: measures PCBUs can implement to mitigate risks

With workplace sexual harassment and violence and aggression receiving greater attention in recent years, it should be a priority for PCBUs to ensure they have taken all reasonable steps to identify and eliminate any risks identified in their workplace.

We recommend that PCBUs:

consider the physical work environment and take a proactive approach to hazard identification. Ensure the layout and lighting provide good visibility and accessibility in work areas, improve natural surveillance, implement security measures including security personnel and video surveillance and, if necessary, introduce barriers to separate workers from the public, particularly in high risk workplaces;
communicate standards of behaviour to workers and encourage a safe and respectful workplace culture where sexual harassment, violence and aggression are not tolerated and all matters can be discussed openly and routinely;
implement workplace policies and procedures to clarify the responsibilities of workers, the processes for dealing with incidents of sexual harassment, violence or aggression, how to report incidents, what to expect from the complaints process and the support services available;
train workers and managers in where, when and how incidents may occur, what steps are being taken to prevent incidents occurring and when and how to escalate issues to supervisors, while ensuring training and information is adapted to workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds;
deal with inappropriate or offensive behaviour early by tackling lower level forms of harassment or violence (eg jokes, teasing, inappropriate nicknames) to prevent dysfunction unchecked from perpetuating;
encourage reporting of sexual harassment, violence or aggression in the workplace (ie informally, formally, anonymously or confidentially) and ensure complaints are dealt with appropriately and sensitively, with clear consequences for perpetrators; and
seek feedback from workers on identifying and managing hazards and regularly review risk control measures, including after an incident occurs, where concerns are raised by workers or their representatives, where a significant change in the workplace may introduce new hazards and at regular intervals.


Additional guidance materials and fact sheets can be found on the Safe Work Australia website.

This article was written with the assistance of Andrew Banks, Law Graduate.


You might be also interested in...

Employment & Workplace Relations | 22 Jan 2021

Can employers require their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Whether a private employer can direct its employees to be vaccinated is a multi-faceted issue. The central question is whether an employer’s direction to be vaccinated is lawful and reasonable.

Employment & Workplace Relations | 2 Sep 2020

Identifying workplace bullying as a result of COVID-19: duties for employers

With the increase in employees now working from home full time, employers need to be aware of new and additional pressures on individuals that can be significant risk factors for workplace bullying.