Safety risk in air control culture: report

Matt Coughlan
A report says a toxic workplace culture could be endangering the lives of Australian air travellers

Bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment at Australia's air traffic controller could be putting travellers' lives at risk, a damning report has warned.

Airservices Australia has been accused of having a toxic culture compromising the health and safety of its employees, and potentially endangering the safety of the nation's air navigation system.

Former Federal Court judge Anthony North's report was commissioned by industrial lawyers Maurice Blackburn, which represents air traffic controller's union Civil Air.

"There is a serious argument to be further investigated that the Airservices Australia workplace culture of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment could endanger the safety of air navigation and as a result endanger the lives of air travellers," Mr North found.

Mr North concluded bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment are "part of the way things are done" at Airservices, dismissing the idea they were isolated incidents.

Airservices has responded to the report by announcing an independent review of workplace culture led by lawyer and former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

It also acknowledged staff surveys had shown concerns about behaviour and its management.

But the government-owned organisation unequivocally rejected suggestions its workplace culture was negatively affecting safety.

"Airservices' safety performance is demonstrably among the best in the world and always improving," it said.

"There is no factual basis for these false and alarmist claims. When our safety performance is compared against our peers, we compare exceptionally well."

The air navigation service provider said it had strong systems to manage workplace bullying and harassment, insisting all allegations are taken seriously.

Mr North and the union called for the Morrison government to launch a wide-ranging inquiry into workplace culture issues which threaten employee health and safety.

Part of the report's findings were based on a YouGov survey of more than 524 employees, making up 46 per cent of total staff.

One respondent who reported harassment said there was air navigation waypoints that spelled out "put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone".

"There is a penis drawn on our chair. It just goes on and on. It's disgusting but nothing can be done," they told the survey.

Another staff member said the culture led to frequent inappropriate and sexist comments.

One employee said bullying was a normal part of workplace culture, with attempts to address the problem laughed at and dismissed.

Another said: "The fear of retribution and nepotism ensures that people are loath to report instances of bullying that are not acceptable but do not fall into the extreme range."