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 problem 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 a male toilet in 2016.

She told the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) that the reactions from her workmates, who were predominantly male, shattered her confidence and left her feeling like a sex object. (See Yelda v Sydney Water Corporation; Yelda v Vitality Works Australia Pty Ltd [2021] NSWCATAD 107.)

NCAT accepted that the woman felt "exposed, humiliated and ashamed" after seeing the way the image was used.

NCAT awards former employee $200,000

Despite Sydney Water declaring 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 work colleagues after the poster had been put up all over the workplace.

NCAT found the employer had contravened section 22B and section 25(2)(c) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 by displaying the poster, as it discriminated against the woman on the ground of her sex, and that 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 Australia.

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 NCAT 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". Experts said the woman felt depressed and anxious after the posters, and this led to her inability to continue to work at Sydney Water or 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 problem could have been quickly identified.

Emily Wittig
Employment law
Stacks Collins Thompson

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