Work health and safety legislation in Australia places a strict duty on the ‘person conducting the business or undertaking’ to understand, monitor and mitigate workplace risks. This is not new, we know that employers are responsible for their employees.
So What’s the Problem?
The environment for employers is changing. There is now growing evidence to show that workplace stress is not only responsible for well documented health risks like heart disease and depression – it may also contribute to changes in the way DNA is ‘read’. Known as epigenetics (literally, ‘sitting over the top’ of DNA), these changes have the potential to impact on an individual and their offspring.
It was previously thought that epigenetic changes were unable to be passed on to our children, we now know they can. If your workplace has stress-generating practices such as bullying, sexism and expectations of long hours, these all have the potential to affect not only your employee but also their children. And, you – the employer – can be at risk!
Small chemical markers sit on top our DNA (our cell’s blueprint) and tell the cell how to interpret the DNA to produce components like hair, skin, bone. Put simply, ‘epigenetics’ is the science of changes in these markers or how our ‘genetic punctuation’ works.
Here’s a great example of how changing punctuation in a sentence can change its meaning altogether:
- You will be required to work twenty four-hour shifts.
- You will be required to work twenty-four hour shifts.
- You will be required to work twenty-four-hour shifts.
BTW: Read the above very carefully. Each sentence means something different.
Our cells are no different – changing the genetic sentence can lead to tough outcomes for people such as cancers and mental health changes. Epigenetic changes are part of the normal process, but stressful situations, such as those from workplace impacts, can lead to problematic outcomes.
Why Is This An Issue For Employers?
In Australia, as in many countries, workplace health and safety legislation directs businesses to be aware of current and emerging workplace hazards and have appropriate risk management mechanisms in place. Employers need to be aware of any changes that may impact on their employees.
So How Real Is the Liability Issue? Or, Should I Be Worried As An Employer?
It has recently been proven that humans are no different to other animals when it comes to epigenetics – their children can also inherit epigenetic changes. Worker health issues that may be passed on to their children are clearly an emerging risk, which may impact on employer liability. Epigenetics is now being considered in work health and safety case law and epigenetic liability must therefore be considered by employers as real.
Some people are calling for epigenetic issues to be incorporated in legislation. If your workplace has work practices that cause problematic epigenetic impacts or your workers work with chemicals that have known epigenetic impacts, and you don’t have appropriate management practices in place – you need to start a conversation right now. Many workplaces have routine worker health checks in place, it may not be that long before a person’s epigenetic ‘health profile’ becomes part of that check – we can already do this, whether we should is another issue.
Imagine this situation, as well as the normal suite of tests an employee undergoes before starting a job, they also get their starting epigenetic profile assessed. How responsible will the employer be for any proven work-related problematic changes compared to the employee’s starting profile? How likely will these be able to be passed on?
At this point in time, the science is relatively clear, the liability issue is much greyer.
How Can An Organisation Manage This?
The good news is that dealing with the potential epigenetic liability is possible through an existing and appropriate work health and safety risk management framework i.e. matching health and wellbeing programs to the identified risk profile of employees. As an employer, you would not be expected to measure epigenetic impacts themselves, but you could use simple and easily measurable indicators and limits that may be proxies for epigenetic changes caused by stress. Examples might include verbal outbursts and increasing hypertension. Other potential stress indicators that could be monitored include sleep (number of hours achieved, early wakening and getting to sleep) and self-medication (e.g. number of alcoholic drinks, frequency of alcoholic drinks).
The other good news for employers is that having sound programs in place makes good economic sense. Some studies have shown a return on investment of up to five times each dollar invested.
In summary, employers are not yet likely to be liable for epigenetic impacts – but keep it on your radar, it is coming.
Annette is a highly experienced certified auditor and award-winning risk manager in the water, environment, policy and mining fields. She has helped utilities implement water safety and risk management plans both in Australia and overseas. She has a multitude of journal, book chapter, books, technical papers, reports and other publications in several fields including bioremediation, biodiversity, microbial ecology, water utility due diligence and risk management. Annette is in demand as a conference and workshop presenter, for auditing of statutory and certified risk management plans, for developing utility risk management plans, ERM consultation and development and as a facilitator for board workshops.