Queensland lab at the centre of DNA testing failures allegedly beset by workplace conflicts

<span>Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA</span>
Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA

Alleged serious DNA testing failures at Queensland’s troubled forensic lab developed alongside a “chronic toxic culture” in the workplace, including a large number of bullying complaints, claims of “vendettas” against managers and staff requiring stress leave.

Guardian Australia can reveal the state government engaged consulting companies, psychologists, mediators and lawyers in an attempt to fix long-running cultural problems at the Queensland Health forensic and scientific services facility.

Whistleblowers claim these issues existed about the same time that the lab implemented DNA testing practices that have now cast doubt over potentially thousands of criminal cases.

A commission of inquiry into forensic DNA testing in Queensland will begin public hearings this week. A preliminary report by the commissioner, the former court of appeal president Walter Sofronoff QC, concluded serious shortfalls at the state’s DNA lab, including a failure to test samples under a certain DNA threshold from 2018.

Related: Forensic lab staff stood down as thousands of Queensland DNA samples retested

The Queensland police service has established a taskforce to re-examine thousands of major crime cases and two senior staff members have been stood down. There is no suggestion either was responsible for cultural problems or the subject of an internal complaint.

Guardian Australia understands Queensland Health was aware of longstanding cultural issues and hired separate consultants to attempt to fix the culture about the same time as the decision not to test certain samples.

People who worked at the lab around that time say a series of conflicts existed between managers, and between managers and staff. This led to claims of bullying, counterclaims in response and state government lawyers being brought in to investigate the escalating complaints and incident reports.

“They clearly knew there was a problem but little changed at the time as a result [of the consultants’ work],” one person who worked at the lab said.

“People were extremely stressed, making formal and informal complaints about one another regularly. It was drama after drama.

“Some of the people were lovely people, they were good scientists but there was a lot of trauma in that workplace. People went on stress leave, with those left behind stuck in a dysfunctional culture.

“When you’re in an environment where there’s poor communication from managers, mistakes could be made or not picked up on.”

People who worked at the lab described a workplace where scientists felt “trapped” and unable to leave. For those with forensic expertise, it was the only place in Brisbane where many of them could find stable, well-paying work.

“So they had no option but to work through it,” the person who worked at the lab said.

Asked whether the lab was properly resourced, they said: “Resourcing wasn’t the biggest problem. The issues that developed were more about the culture and interpersonal conflicts.”

Others have suggested that resourcing was a problem, which should have been well-known to state authorities.

Alex Scott, the secretary of the public sector union, Together, told the ABC that successive governments were culpable in creating an environment that ultimately resulted in forensic scientists making misleading statements to courts.

“Both this government and the previous government were consistently warned about problems within the centre in relation to the underfunding, the under-resourcing and the cultural problems,” Scott said.

“We’ve been calling for too long for the government to actually step in and make sure [the centre] has enough money and staff to do the job properly.

“Suspending two people halfway through this process clearly looks like a media reaction rather than addressing the fundamental issues and ensuring they don’t happen again.

“The centre has never recovered from the cuts that occurred under the Campbell Newman government but we’ve failed to see a regrowth of this centre compared to other parts of the health system.”