Work safety poster leads to $200,000 damages award

21st Oct 2021

In Yelda v Sydney Water, a work safety poster has ended up costing $200,000 in damages after a court agreed it had made a female employee of Sydney Water feel like a ‘sex object’.

The issue was that the poster bore the words ‘Feel Great – Lubricate!’ over a photo of the smiling female employee, who was stretching up and appearing to point to the word ‘lubricate’.

The woman felt terribly embarrassed because of the sexual connotation of her pointing to the word ‘lubricate’ with a big smile on her face.

Female employee humiliated after seeing work safety poster

The woman had agreed to have her photo taken for the work safety program, but the first time she saw it put to use was in a poster pinned outside of a male toilet in 2016.

She told the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NSWCAT) that the reactions from her workmates, who were predominantly male, shattered her confidence and left her feeling like a sex object. NSWCAT accepted that the woman felt ‘exposed, humiliated and ashamed’ after seeing the way the image was used.

NSWCAT awards former employee $200,000

Despite Sydney Water declaring that the woman was a highly valued employee, she quit her job soon after lodging her complaint. The Court accepted that she could not face her colleagues after the poster had been put up all over the workplace.

NSWCAT found the employer had contravened ss22B and 25(2)(c) of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW) by displaying the poster, as it discriminated against the woman on the ground of her sex which amounted to sexual harassment.

The woman was awarded $100,000 from Sydney Water, and a further $100,000 from the producer of the poster and organiser of the work safety program, Vitality Works.

Work safety program removes ‘lubricate’ slogan from campaign

The work safety poster was part of a 14-year work safety program run by Vitality Works. The company told NSWCAT that the slogan was part of its SafeSpine program, which informed workers that exercise lubricated spinal joints. The word ‘lubricate’ had been used for more than ten years without dispute.

After the woman’s complaint, all ‘lubricate’ posters were removed and the slogan changed to ‘Move to Improve’. The Court accepted expert evidence from the woman’s doctor stating that she was depressed and anxious after the poster incident, and this led to her inability to continue to work at Sydney Water and to find another job.

This is a classic case of a lack of consultation by an employer with its employee. It’s about respect. If the employer had consulted the employee before the poster was displayed all over the workplace, the issue could have been quickly identified and avoided.

This is an edited version of an article first published at Stacks Law.

Emily Wittig is a lawyer at Stacks Collins Thompson in Hornsby with over two years’ post-admission experience. She has a particular focus on employment law, having spent over two years prior to her admission working in employment relations, in both federal and state jurisdictions. She previously worked as a Fair Work inspector for the Fair Work Ombudsman, and as an employment relations adviser for the Motor Traders Association of NSW. Emily volunteers as a solicitor at a community legal centre and enjoys helping people who have been taken for granted by their employer.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Workers' rights Workers compensation Employee Rights Employment