Australia’s Health And Safety Act: The Risks Many Don’t Understand

Many Australian businesses, particularly small businesses, are at risk of being penalised for failing to comply with Australia’s Work Health and Safety Act (WHS Act).

An Australian report published by Safe Work Australia has found that while most employers believe they manage work health and safety well, 10–20% of employers do not empower their workers to influence aspects of their own work health and safety and around 25% do not deal with health and safety incidents fairly and justly. Importantly, of a random sample of 10 000 employing and non-employing businesses surveyed, around half of the 1,052 employers who completed the survey indicated they did not collect information regarding incident investigations frequently.1

The report, titled Perceptions of Work Health and Safety Survey found that one of the reasons for this non-compliance is that businesses, particularly small businesses, find legislation complex and onerous.

It examined two aspects of safety in the workplace: management safety empowerment; where employers are perceived to empower their workers to influence aspects of their own work health and safety, and management safety justice; where employers are perceived to deal with health and safety incidents fairly and justly.

Small business employers were generally less likely to perceive that they displayed management safety empowerment and management safety justice frequently.

Just over half (59%) of employers indicated that their business collects accurate information from incident investigations, although again, small businesses were much less likely to indicate that they collected the information (54%) compared to employers in medium and large businesses (95% and 94% respectively).

Up to one-quarter of employers indicated that they did not empower their workers through active consultation around safety frequently and did not always treat their workers justly, especially when investigating accidents.

Don’t Risk Substantial Fines

The government act legislates that managers have a duty to consult with workers and record incidents. Failure to comply with these provisions attracts fines, which could be a substantial cost to small businesses.

The aim of the Act

According to Safe Work Australia, the aim of the Work Health and Safety Act is to provide all workers in Australia with a consistent standard of health and safety protection regardless of the work they do or where they work. It’s stated aims are to:

  • protect the health and safety of workers and other people by eliminating or minimising risks arising from work or workplaces
  • ensure fair and effective representation, consultation and cooperation to address and resolve health and safety issues in the workplace
  • encourage unions and employer organisations to take a constructive role in improving work health and safety practices
  • assisting businesses and workers to achieve a healthier and safer working environment
  • promote information, education and training on work health and safety
  • provide effective compliance and enforcement measures, and
  • deliver continuous improvement and progressively higher standards of work health and safety.2