Workers may be exposed to this hazard at work through investigating, witnessing or being directly exposed to traumatic events or situations. This may include reading, hearing or seeing accounts of traumatic events. A person is more likely to experience an event as traumatic when it is unexpected, is perceived as uncontrollable, where there is a threat to life or safety or where it is the result of intentional cruelty.
What are traumatic events?
Some examples of work involving exposure to traumatic events includes witnessing or investigating fatalities, serious injuries, abuse, neglect or serious incidents (e.g. investigating child protection cases), or being exposed to the extreme effects of natural disasters or seriously injured people.
What are the risks?
Exposure to traumatic events can cause a stress response which when frequent, prolonged or severe may cause physical or psychological injury to a worker. While exposure to traumatic events can be hazardous on their own, often hazard this will occur in combination with other psychosocial hazards at work, which combined may increase risk of harm.
Like all work health and safety risks, the risks associated with exposure to traumatic events must be managed.
How do I manage the risks?
Everyone at work has a responsibility for health and safety, both physical and psychological.
As a worker, you must take reasonable care of your own health and safety in your place of work, and the health and safety of others who may be affected by your actions. You must also follow any reasonable instructions given by the person who conducts a business or undertaking (PCBU).
As a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have a primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of your workers and others in your place of work. You must provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a safe and healthy working environment. You must also talk with your workers (and with other PCBUs when required) about health and safety issues.
Following a four-step risk management process will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws.
The first step is to identify hazards in your place of work. This means looking at everything from the work environment to work tasks, how they’re carried out, and the way work is designed and managed.
Typical situations that may lead to workers experiencing stress due to exposure to traumatic events include:
- working in certain areas or occupations (e.g. health care, community work, counselling, defence, funeral services, child protective services, correction officers, legal services, high-risk work where injuries may occur)
- responding to emergencies (e.g. incidents requiring response by emergency service workers including police, emergency health workers, firefighters, ambulance officers and triple-zero call receivers)
- providing care to those experiencing a traumatic event, listening to, viewing or reading detailed descriptions of traumatic events experienced by others (e.g. rape crisis or child safety officers, lawyers or immigration officers, workplace incident investigators).
Sometimes, a worker may avoid reporting concerns because:
- it’s thought to be ‘part of the job’ and nothing can be done about it
- the worker believes that only ‘serious incidents or issues’ are to be reported
- there’s a belief that nothing will happen if they report
- the worker believes they will be blamed for not being able to handle the job
- the reporting process is time-consuming and complex
- the workplace culture encourages “just getting on with it”.
To determine if exposure to traumatic events is a potential hazard in your place of work:
- talk with health and safety representatives, health and safety committees and workers
- walk through and inspect your place of work, including how people interact
- review workers’ compensation claims
- refer to industry standards and guidelines
- review the hazard and incident reports, exit reports and complaints.
A risk assessment involves thinking about what could happen if someone is exposed to a hazard (the consequence of exposure) and the likelihood of it happening.
Psychosocial hazards may interact or combine to increase the overall psychosocial risk so need to be considered together.
A risk assessment can help you figure out:
- the severity of a risk
- whether any effective control measures are in place
- what actions you can take to control this risk
- how quickly you should act.
To determine the likelihood that someone will be harmed by exposure to traumatic events, ask yourself:
- has it happened before, either in this place of work or somewhere else?
- if it has happened, how often does it happen?
To determine the possible consequences, ask yourself:
- will it cause minor or serious injury, or death?
After the risks have been identified and assessed, you'll need to control them. Risk control measures should be selected on the basis of highest protection and most reliability.
- Eliminating the risk
The most effective control measure is to eliminate the hazard and associated risk, for example by removing the potential for workers or others to be exposed to traumatic events.
- Where you are unable to eliminate the hazard, you must identify ways to ensure you are managing it in a way that minimises risks to health and safety.
- Minimising the risk
If it’s not reasonably practicable to eliminate the hazard, the risk should be minimised by using a range of control measures, for example:
- Rotate roles or activities to ensure workers have adequate breaks from roles which are likely to involve exposure to traumatic events.
- Introduce file flagging processes on potentially distressing files or cases to avoid inadvertent exposure to distressing content.
- Where repeated high-risk exposure to distressing events is an unavoidable part of a role, consider additional risk controls including reducing workload to decrease exposure, increasing breaks and recovery time, or implementing periodic health assessments for workers.
- Using administrative controls
You must also use administrative controls if there is still a risk after you’ve tried to reduce it with other control measures. Administrative controls protect your workers by working in ways that reduce their exposure to a hazard, for example:
- Ensure procedures are in place to respond to critical incidents including practical support for workers, counselling/professional support services, appropriate information about available resources.
- Ensure systems are in place to regularly monitor workers’ exposure to traumatic events and workers’ psychological health.
- Design procedures to support workers in response to exposure to traumatic events.
- Ensure managers are provided with adequate information, training and instruction in how to respond and manage reported exposure of workers, including how to identify early signs of distress or psychological injury and how to offer support if required.
- Ensure workers are provided with information on how to report exposure to traumatic events and other procedures in relation to support options available.
You may need to use a combination of these control measures to meet your responsibilities under WHS laws. Refer to the Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work Code of Practice 2022 for more information.
Risk management should be an ongoing process in your business, and you should review your control measures regularly. Don’t wait until something goes wrong.
In some situations, WHS legislation requires you to review controls.
- when the control measure is not effective in controlling the risk
- before a change that might give rise to a new risk
- when you identify a new hazard or risk
- when consultation with workers indicates a review is needed
- when the dynamic and complexity of your business changes, for a new supervisor or worker
- after a health and safety representative requests a review.
A review of risk control measures should be undertaken after incidents or complaints involving exposure to traumatic events.
A review of risk control measures can include an examination of:
- the physical work environment
- work systems and procedures
- worker training and information
- the consultation processes in your place of work.
The committee was established to ensure there is an ongoing consultative forum for injured workers and families affected by a workplace death, illness or serious incident. Read more about the committee.
Legislation and Codes of practice
You should read through the relevant legislation and codes of practice carefully to make sure your business is complying with the health and safety duties in the WHS Act.
- Work Health and Safety Act 2011
- Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011
- Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work Code of Practice 2022
A range of laws deal with mental health issues in Queensland workplaces.
- The Queensland Human Rights Commission provides information about Queensland’s anti-discrimination and human rights laws, including sexual harassment at work.
- The Queensland Industrial Relations Commission helps to resolve disputes about workplace bullying for Queensland public sector employees.
- The Fair Work Commission helps to resolve disputes about workplace bullying and sexual harassment for most private sector employees.
- The Fair Work Ombudsman helps employers and employees understand their workplace rights and responsibilities.
- WorkCover Queensland provides workers’ compensation insurance and information about how to make a workers’ compensation claim.
You may wish to contact an organisation listed below for further information or support.
If your life is in danger, call emergency services on 000 or go to your local hospital emergency department.
- Mental Health Commission
- Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
- Mental Health access line – 1300 642 255 a confidential mental health telephone triage service that provides the first point of contact to public mental health services to Queenslanders. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and links callers to the nearest Queensland Public Mental Health service.
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46 36
- 13 YARN – 13 92 76 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
- Heads Up – information and resources on developing a healthy workplaces
- Workers’ Psychological Support Service – assists Queensland workers who have experienced a work-related psychological injury.
- Injury Prevention and Management Program – IPaM is a joint initiative delivered by WHSQ and WorkCover Queensland. It is a free program designed to help Queensland businesses develop and implement sustainable health, safety and injury management systems.