September 17, 2011

Nothing has changed at Canberra Institute of Technology

Juliana Knight couldn't sleep, she cried constantly and was afraid to leave the house. For her, life was anxious and frightening, the simple task of driving a car too onerous to consider. But then one day the terrified creature started to fight back and demanded justice.

Knight and her former Canberra Institute of Technology colleague Patrick Reubinson have decided to speak out on behalf of a group of former and current CIT staff who say there is a culture of bullying and harassment at the institute.

They have finally gone public following successful Comcare claims for psychological damage and because they say they have nothing left to fear. (The pair were two of four successful Comcare claims for psychological damage.) Meanwhile, WorkSafe ACT is still investigating seven complaints against CIT after the watchdog issued improvement notices on three separate work areas at the institute earlier this year.

The complaints, legal bills and pay-outs may be stacking up, but the CIT's chief executive, Adrian Marron, says ''he was not, and is not'' aware of any culture of bullying and harassment at the institute - although he was made aware of the allegations which are being investigated by WorkSafe.

''Nobody has made a formal complaint to us and we don't have any formal complaints on record,'' Marron says. ''It's inevitable from time to time that there will be incidents and personal issues and they may seem to some people to be one thing and to someone else another. I don't see bullying and harassment as the fabric of CIT.''

But bullying and harassment in the workplace comes at a high cost - a 2010 Productivity Commission report found that 2.5million Australians experienced some aspect of bullying during their working lives. The report found that bullying and harassment in the workplace costs the economy about $15 billion a year, and the issues are not properly addressed in occupational health and safety laws.

The multi-billion dollar bullying black hole did not include the hidden costs, such as hiring and training employees to replace those who left because of workplace stress. The report also found that workplace stress claims tended to be more costly than claims for less serious physical injuries and resulted in more time taken off work. And time is running out for government departments to stamp out bullying, harassment and workplace stress.

From next year successful claims such as Reubinson's or Knight's could open government to multi-million dollar lawsuits and this has prompted the head of WorkSafe ACT, Mark McCabe, to put all government departments on notice.

Under current Health and Safety regulations ACT Government departments and Commonwealth public service departments cannot be prosecuted for breaches of occupational health and safety legislation.

''That's about to change at the end of the year [because] harmonisation protection for the public service will disappear and they will become prosecutable just like any private company,'' McCabe says. ''It should send a warning bell to other departments; what I've been trying to say to departments is you will become prosecutable from the end of this year - you need to make sure your house is in order.''

Patrick Reubinson speaks with a thick Gloucestershire burr, but his voice breaks and tears well in his eyes when he talks quietly about his love of teaching and imparting skills. He gesticulates and his hands are well-used. Not as rough as his father's, he quickly explains. It was Reubinson's blue-collar upbringing that made it hard for him to accept he was suffering psychologically in the workplace. It wasn't like a broken arm or leg - it was much more insidious.

Reubinson devoted his career to teaching. But the litigation took its toll on his health and family. For almost three years he lived away from his wife. The retired chef says the CIT is keeping its eyes firmly shut to the problem until the WorkSafe decision is handed down. He says four Comcare court cases which found staff had suffered serious psychological harm as a result of employment at CIT should be ringing alarm bells.

While the Commonwealth Comcare scheme operates under ''no-fault'' legislation, Reubinson says there is a clear link or pattern to the claims. Reubinson was unsuccessful in his first claim with Comcare, but a hearing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal subsequently upheld his complaint.

''Either the AAT decided with the complainants, or Comcare conceded, and the only reason Comcare conceded is because they know they are going to lose and that these things did happen,'' he says.

No-fault means that an injured employee does not have to prove negligence on the part of their employer for their claim to be successful, but it must be clear on the balance of probabilities that the injury occurred or disease arose in the course of employment. For a claim for a disease to be successful, the employee must show that the employment contributed to a material degree to the contraction or aggravation of that disease.

The former cooking teacher says he decided to speak out about his experience because he was afraid it would be swept under the carpet. He welcomes the WorkSafe investigation but wants its scope extended.

''I think there has to be an investigation conducted at the highest level outside of CIT.''

The Federal Administrative Appeals Tribunal ordered CIT to compensate the 55-year-old after his treatment during a 2008 complaints investigation process left him with adjustment disorder and depression, and he was unable to work.

''My blood pressure went through the roof, I had to go on medication - these things are not good.''

The tribunal found that the CIT's actions after two students accused Patrick Reubinson of inappropriate language were unreasonable, untoward, misleading and without procedural fairness, and he was paid $152,000.

Juliana Knight, 61, says mismanagement, bullying and harassment by her employer, the CIT, almost killed her. The former occupational health and safety teacher succeeded in a claim for compensation and rehabilitation for a psychological disorder, after an incident at CIT left her unable to work. Knight worked for the educational provider for more than 20 years. Her last day at work was February 23, 2009. She has been medically retired and is in the pursuing action which will see she is paid 75 per cent of her annual wage until she turns 65. Her doctors say she will never recover and won't be able to return to useful employment.

With her husband at her side for support the softly spoken woman has made the decision to speak about her experience. ''I do not want this to happen to anyone else, and at some stage someone has to stand up and stop it - it's got to stop,'' she says.

She is determined that things should change and says if policy and procedures at CIT were followed she would still be able to work and contribute.

''I was intimidated and appalled by their behaviour. There have been several occasions where I've been made to feel like I'm a criminal where I'm the guilty party - mentally they crushed me. Before all this happened I was extremely confident I would take on challenges, I was totally independent.''

Marron says things have changed since Reubinson and Knight worked at CIT. He says procedure for handling of complaints have been strengthened and streamlined, but denies there was a systemic problem at any time. Earlier this year all ACT Government departments, including the CIT, implemented the ''RED framework'' for Respect, Equity and Diversity.

''It's a whole new response within the public sector for dealing with harassment and bullying,'' Marron says.

He stresses the Comcare cases, including Reubinson's and Knight's, were not about bullying and harassment. ''It's about a procedural issues which is not about bullying and harassment ... That whole process in the early part in 2010, did raise to me that we needed to have a look at what was happening, and that drove some of the intervention that we subsequently made. I did that because I'm a manager but I did that without making a judgment because I didn't have any evidence. I had a lot of people saying this and a lot of people saying that - but I didn't have any evidence [of bullying].''

And he says an independent 2010 staff survey showed ''that in the main things are pretty healthy''.

It is no longer acceptable to hurl abuse at workers in public or reduce staff to tears with destructive criticism, but Reubinson questions how workers can have faith in the new policies and procedures when they were clearly not followed in the past and there has been no acknowledgment that there was a problem.

''They could not follow the procedure they had in place previously so the new procedures are just token word of mouth,'' Reubinson says. ''Staff are still intimidated and the culture is still very very intimidating.''

Marron says proving bullying is difficult because it boils down to he said, she said. He says the CIT also has a duty of care to protect employees against allegations until they are proven. ''The thing is bullying and harassment is a very serious claim with serious consequences and that's why it needs to be a proven case.'' But other staff who remain employed by the CIT, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, say nothing has changed.

The special counsel for Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Geoff Wilson, represented four CIT employees in their Comcare claims. He says the cases prove there were, and perhaps still are, systemic health and safety issues at the CIT as all the workers he represented suffered a psychological injury.

Wilson says, ''Maurice Blackburn represented four people who became psychologically unwell because of what happened at CIT and the way it was handled ...''

He is unable to go into detail as some of the cases are still ongoing. But in one case a staff member suffered a ''major depressive disorder ... with secondary panic and agoraphobic symptoms, that was significantly contributed to by her employment with Canberra Institute of Technology''.

In that case Comcare paid the CIT staffer compensation and legal costs.

''Comcare claims were lodged and all of these claims were successful,'' Wilson says. ''This is an indication that there are systemic health and safety issues in that workplace.''

Knight and Reubinson say the union is aware of the situation and has tried to help forwarding their complaints to Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.

The acting secretary of the ACT Australian Education union, Glenn Fowler, confirmed a number of members had made allegations of harassment and bullying against the CIT to the union.

''The AEU is aware of issues facing members at the CIT, we have been supporting these member for some time now and we continue to work with them to ensure that they receive due process,'' Fowler said.

When asked if the union was satisfied that the CIT was a safe work environment for its members, Fowler said ''I don't want to answer that, sorry.''

The complaints have emerged as the ACT Government considers its response to the Bradley Report on the University of Canberra and CIT, which recommended merging the institutions.

Meanwhile, the WorkSafe investigation is expected to be completed by the end of the year. But Knight and Reubinson fear more lives will be destroyed and taxpayer dollars will continue to be wasted paying staff who are unable to work because of injuries which should and could have been avoided.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep the stories coming.

They need to be heard.

Silence is not the solution.