Qld DNA testing inquiry: HR worker calls lab workplace ‘toxic’

A HR representative working with a scandal-plagued forensic lab has reiterated claims of a “toxic” culture at the state-run institute, branding it a “very unhappy, stressful and dysfunctional” workplace.

Therese O’Connor, an employee relations worker for Queensland Health at the time a lab bungle over DNA testing emerged, offered a blistering assessment of the Forensic and Scientific Services’ working environment on Tuesday.

The commission of inquiry into DNA testing was told teamwork and the management of issues at the state-run lab was “never appropriate nor timely”.

“When you get a work environment where these issues are allowed to fester and build, the emotional investment in that (workplace) produces a lot of animosity,” Ms O’Connor said.

Concerns were also raised about the reluctance to approve flexible working arrangements, including whether part-time work was not offered to people returning from maternity leave.

“There was a risk of industrial disputes and discrimination claims against the department, where we would have little defence,” she said.

“It was extremely stressful for people who were trying to make a work-life balance.”

The commission of inquiry was sparked by a decision in 2018 to stop testing crime scene samples that only contained a small amount of DNA.

In his interim report, former Court of Appeal judge Walter Sofronoff wrote the decision may have resulted in lines of police investigations being “unnecessarily abandoned” and prosecutors may have discontinued criminal proceedings because there was no evidence “when it might have been obtained”.

“I am of the opinion that the practice of putting forward these untrue statements as true expert evidence is a profound issue for the administration of criminal justice, for the integrity of police investigations and for decisions made by victims of crime,” he wrote in the report.

Evidence has already been given of the “toxic” culture at the lab, but Ms O’Connor on Tuesday said she had been told the difficulties arose when the lab’s first managing scientist left.

Senior scientist Amanda Reeves and the lab’s current managing scientist Cathie Allen both applied, with Ms Allen successful.

“My understanding was their working relationship deteriorated significantly,” Ms O’Connor said.

Ms O’Connor told the inquiry that staff were “fearful” of Ms Allen and declined to raise complaints.

Another issue was raised about employees throwing workplace documents into a “confidential” destruction bin.

She said Ms Allen wanted to take disciplinary action against the people involved.

This was declined, the inquiry was told.

“We needed to know which person had thrown the confidential document into the bin,” Ms O’Connor said.

“There was insufficient information to substantiate an allegation, we couldn’t tell who had thrown what (documents) in the bin.”

The inquiry continues.

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