BoM staff accuse rebranding disaster of making 'toxic work culture' worse

Exclusive: raised concerns about the health of exhausted team members and the ability to continue providing life-saving information in inclement weather

A "toxic workplace culture" at the Bureau of Meteorology requires urgent action to protect staff and the public, according to an internal complaint that has escalated to the federal government. Employees and their unions have contacted the offices of various federal government ministers alleging intimidation, widespread overtime pay for staff, unsafe working hours, and a lack of fatigue management.

Discontent peaked this week after the surprise announcement that BoM wanted to be referred to in the media as the "Bureau". Documents seen by Guardian Australia outline staff complaints, and the Community and Public Sector Union say "urgent measures" are needed to keep staff safe. Sign up for our free morning newsletter and evening email to get your daily news roundup

The CPSU deputy secretary, Beth Vincent-Pietsch, said the alleged problem had been going on for years but had gotten worse after a change of management about a year ago. After the “rebranding” exercise, BoM was inundated with complaints and requests for information, which exacerbated the situation.

“Staff … have endured unsafe working hours, a toxic work culture and underpayment issues for the past five years,” Vincent-Pietsch alleges.

“We have raised concerns for a long time but … the rebranding disaster has made things a lot worse.” The bureau revealed its plans on Tuesday as thousands of people struggled with widespread flooding in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. By Thursday, it had backtracked, saying people were free to refer to the BoM as they pleased. But the rebranding has been going on for 18 months, with staff being told to use the new terminology internally and claiming they are treated "like bad schoolboys" if they don't.

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said she "didn't understand" why the $220,000 image change took place. "Bureau of Meteorology, BoM - Australians will make their own decisions about what they call it," he said.

Vincent-Pietsch said the announcement came "without any warning" and staff were left to deal with the impact. “Staff were being punished, arguably talked to to try and rebrand BoM as a bureau, making it a significant issue, but when they actually launched it… the staff weren't notified,” he alleged. “Then they are bombarded with questions and complaints, internal and external and all out of control on social media.

"It was clearly the timing was not right ... resources were being diverted to dealing with announcements and their impact instead of the weather and what's happening across the country."

Documents seen by Guardian Australia show discussions between some current and former staff members, unions and the ministerial office alleging underpayment of overtime was a "widespread problem". Concerns have been raised about the health of exhausted team members and the potential after-effects to the public if they are unable to properly convey life-saving information in inclement weather.

They included allegations that some staff suffered from mental stress that required hospitalization, and a lack of support and communication from management. Vincent-Pietsch said a staff member had worked 16 hours a day for 10 consecutive days.

"We want some urgent action to be implemented for the health and safety of these workers," he said. "They are facing a life-threatening situation ... the bureau has never been more necessary." The BoM and the federal government have been contacted for comment.

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