Traumatic events or materials

Witnessing, investigating or being exposed to traumatic events or materials is a psychosocial hazard. 

Something is more likely to be traumatic when it is unexpected, seems uncontrollable or is caused by intentional cruelty. Traumatic events or materials become a hazard when they are severe (e.g. very traumatic), prolonged (e.g. long term) or frequent (e.g. happens often). 

Traumatic events or materials may include:

  • witnessing or investigating a fatality, serious injury, abuse, neglect or other serious incident (e.g. working in child protection)
  • being afraid or exposed to extreme risks (e.g. being in a car accident)
  • exposure to natural disasters (e.g. emergency service workers responding to a bushfire)
  • supporting victims of painful and traumatic events (e.g. providing counselling)
  • listening to or seeing traumatic materials (e.g. reading victim testimonies or an online moderator seeing evidence of a crime), or
  • exposure to things that bring up traumatic memories.

Identifying and assessing the risks of traumatic events or materials

You must identify if psychosocial hazards, including traumatic events or materials, are present in your workplace. 

  • Consult workers. Workers may talk about hazards in different ways. For example, they may say they feel stressed, upset, anxious, on-edge, burnt out, helpless or have trouble sleeping. 
  • Use surveys and tools. Businesses with more than 20 workers may find the People at Work psychosocial risk assessment tool useful. 
  • Observe work and behaviours. For example, tasks taking longer than expected, frequent mistakes or workers being less empathetic can be caused by exposure to traumatic events or materials.
  • Review available information. For example, records of overtime, time off, injuries, incidents or workers’ compensation.
  • Have a way for workers to report and encourage reporting. Treating workers’ concerns seriously and respectfully will help encourage reporting.
  • Identify other hazards present and consider them together. Hazards can interact and combine to create new, changed or higher risks. For example, traumatic events or materials may create a higher risk in workplaces with high job demands if workers are already feeling pressured.
  • Consider how long, how often and how severely workers are exposed to hazards. The longer, more often and worse the exposure to traumatic events or materials the higher the risk that workers may be harmed. 

Controlling traumatic events or materials

You must eliminate psychosocial risks, or if that is not reasonably practicable, minimise them so far as is reasonably practicable. For example:

  • Avoid exposing workers to traumatic event (e.g. only send essential workers to a disaster scene).
  • Eliminate physical risks in the workplace so workers aren’t exposed to a workplace incident or near miss.
  • Use physical barriers to discourage suicide attempts (e.g. restrict roof access) and remove or secure potentially lethal means of self-harm in the workplace (e.g. scalpels, medications or hazard chemicals).
  • Flag or password protect files with distressing content to stop people opening them accidently.
  • Stop workers unnecessarily listening to or watching traumatic materials (e.g. allow online moderators to remove users after a single serious breach instead of making them review all the content).
  • Minimise the number of traumatic events or materials each worker is exposed to (e.g. rotate workers through different roles).
  • Increase breaks, recovery time and support if workers are exposed to traumatic events or materials.
  • Train workers on how to respond to incidents to reduce the number of decisions they have to make (e.g. train bank tellers on what to do if there is an armed hold up).
  • Tell workers when they apply for the job what it will involve and if it could involve exposure to trauma. 

When choosing control measures you must consider all the hazards present and how they may interact and combine. For information on other hazards see psychosocial hazards.  

Reviewing control measures 

You must review control measures to check they are working as planned. If a control measure is not managing exposure to traumatic events or materials, or is creating new risks, you must make changes.

For more information on meeting your WHS duties see our mental health page.