Workplace Health & Safety

Work health and safety is very important in all workplaces and investing in good work health and safety practices benefits everyone in our community.

All workers have the right to a safe work environment, and that is not just limited to physical safety.  Mental health is also a significant aspect of work health and safety, regardless of the type of work a worker is engaged in.

Work health and safety rights and duties are governed by model WHS laws. In the ACT, the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 and Model Codes of Practice provide the legislative framework workplaces must abide by in order to keep all workplaces as safe as possible.

WorksafeACT monitors and regulates work health and safety in the ACT and provides advice and resources for employers and employees to help make their workplaces safer.

Managing safety in your workplace

Work health and safety (WHS) laws help protect people from workplace injury, illnesses and diseases and apply to every workplace where work is carried out for the employer.  The workplace can include vehicles, a client’s workplace if an employee has been directed to work there, and an employee’s home if they have been authorised to work from home.

Everyone in a workplace has a role in ensuring the health and safety of themselves and others.

Employers have the main duty to take care  the health and safety of their workers by providing a safe work environment and eliminating or minimising safety risks as far as possible. Workers also have a duty to look out for their own health and safety, make sure their actions (or omissions) do not affect the health and safety of others, comply with any WHS instructions from the employer and co-operate with any WHS policies and procedures.

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (the WHS Act) provides an overall framework and description of responsibilities or ‘work safety duties’ designed to ensure work health and safety. The Regulations are legally enforceable and failure to comply may result in either an infringement notice or criminal penalty.

Codes of practice provide practical guidance on complying with WHS legal duties. Whilst they are not compulsory to follow, they are considered to be the minimum acceptable standard. National standards and national codes of practice are developed by Safe Work Australia. A code of practice approved by Safe Work Australia does not have legal force but if followed, it can be admissible in proceedings as evidence of whether or not an employer has complied with their WHS duties.

How to prevent and manage accidents and incidents

The above laws provide that all workplaces must have policies and procedures that cover things such as:

  • hazard identification
  • implementation of reasonably practicable control measures to eliminate or minimize risks
  • appropriate training to help prevent accidents and incidents
  • sufficient supervision
  • proper maintenance of equipment
  • guarded machinery
  • safe use of plant, materials and substances
  • realistic production and work schedules and prevention of fatigue
  • proper procedures to follow in the event of accidents and incidents

First aid and being prepared for emergencies

Employers must develop and document a plan for potential incidents, accidents and emergencies that may occur in the workplace and ensure employees understand and are trained in safety procedures. Plans must also be reviewed regularly.

Emergency plans usually consist of a written set of instructions which include:

  • emergency and evacuation procedures with an effective response
  • when to notify emergency services and communication procedures
  • the type of medical treatment and assistance to be rendered

Failing to comply with Workplace Health and Safety duties

Significant penalties can be imposed on employers and workers if they fail to comply with WHS duties set out in legislation.

Worksafe ACT is the WHS regulator in the ACT.  Worksafe ACT inspectors have broad investigative powers and can issue infringement and prohibition notices for employers to rectify identified WHS deficiencies.

Offences under WHS legislation which attract fines or imprisonment are classed as Category 1, 2 or 3 offences.

A Category 1 offence involves reckless conduct that exposes an individual to a risk of death or serious injury.  Individuals with WHS duties can face a fine of $300,000, imprisonment for 5 years or both. A person who is in control of a business may be fined $600,000, imprisonment for 5 years or both and penalties for a company can be up to $3m.

A Category 2 offence involves a failure to comply with health and safety duties which exposes an individual to a risk of death or serious injury or illness. In this scenario, a person who fails to comply with their duties may face a fine of $150,000 or if the person is in control of a business or undertaking or an officer, a fine of $300,000. Penalties for a company can be up to $1.5m.

A Category 3 offence occurs where a person has a health and safety duty, and the person fails to comply with that duty. The maximum penalty can include a $50,000 fine for an individual, a $100,000 for an individual acting as a person in control of a business or undertaking or as an officer. Penalties for a company can be up to $500,000.

In the ACT, industrial manslaughter is now an offence under the WHS Act and carries maximum penalties of possible imprisonment of up to 20 years for individuals and fines of up to $16.5m for a corporation.

Health and safety concerns can have a devastating impact on an organisation’s people and the workplace generally. The importance of having sound processes and plans to protect employees, contractors and visitors is paramount when managing the workplace and the risks of non-compliance with WHS duties can be significant.

We are experienced employment lawyers with an understanding of workplace health and safety laws. We provide advice and guidance across this broad area, whether that be risk reduction and compliance, or representation during investigations or proceedings.

If you need assistance, contact us at [email protected] or call (02) 5127 5261 for expert legal advice.