How Australian Safety Laws Apply to Your Small Business

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how Australian WHS laws apply to your small business by Melinda J. Irvine

When you hear the words ‘work health and safety’ what thoughts, sounds, emotions and images appear in your mind? Workers in hardhats and orange vests? Sirens? Paperwork? Confusion? Hazardous chemicals? Warning signs? No time?

Just thinking about WHS responsibilities can be enough to trigger a splitting headache for many small business owners, but truthfully work health and safety laws don’t need to be complicated, scary or overwhelming. Looked at as a tool for keeping people safe and improving business practices, they can actually be turned into a positive business opportunity.

Today’s blog is a quick introduction to safety legislation in Australia — how to identify the laws that apply to your business and what they mean for you as a small business owner, operator, or manager. Gaining an understanding of your responsibilities can ease your stress and set you on a path to better business management and work practices.

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Framework of safety laws in Australia

First let’s look at the overall structure of safety laws in our country. Every business in Australia must comply with the work health and safety laws in their home state or territory — and if your business operates in multiple regions you’ll need to comply with all of them.

Each Australian state (and territory) has it’s own WHS laws, but they are all based on Model legislation developed and issued by the federal government body Safe Work Australia. Some states (like NSW) have adopted the Model WHS legislation exactly as it was written, while other states (like Victoria) follow the guiding principles but still have their own specific requirements.

WHS stands for work health and safety, but in some states it is known as OHS, occupational health and safety, but no matter where your business is based you can expect your state to have the following:

  • WHS Act — sets out the basic responsibilities of all people who interact with a workplace eg, business owners, workers, manufacturers.
  • WHS Regulations — outlines the specific requirements and licenses for managing risks to health and safety.
  • Codes of Practice — practical guides that help you meet the requirements and hazards outlined in the WHS Regulations eg, noise, manual handling, hazardous chemicals, confined spaces.
  • Supplementary Legislation — other laws that overlap with your WHS responsibilities eg, Dangerous Goods, electrical safety, worker’s compensation and rehabilitation.

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Understanding your WHS obligations

Now we’ll take a deeper dive into each area of the WHS laws and briefly discuss how they could apply to your small business.

Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act

The WHS Act in your home state (or territory) is the foundation of all WHS legislation and sets out the responsibilities of anyone who owns or interacts with a workplace. Your basic responsibilities as a business owner include:

  • Keeping people safe while they are working.
  • Ensuring your business doesn’t harm other people and the general public.
  • Consulting with your workers and involving them in matters which affect their health and safety.
  • Immediately reporting dangerous incidents (including deaths, serious injuries, and near-misses) to the WHS Regulator.

But the WHS Act doesn’t just apply to business owners, it also includes requirements for manufacturers and suppliers (ensuring equipment supplied to a workplace is safe to use), workers (follow safety instructions and procedures), self-employed people (ensure their own health safety), directors and office holders (manage corporate safety risk).

Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations

Each state (and territory) has a set of WHS Regulations that mandates specific ways for business owners to meet the requirements of the WHS Act. The Regulations will outline what you have to do (eg, provide first aid equipment) and the penalties for non-compliance (eg, $6,000 for individuals, $30,000 for corporations).

Some of the basic obligations of small business owners include:

  • Identifying hazards and managing the risks they present to your workers — using an established Hierarch of Controls.
  • Having appropriate safety (and emergency) equipment available for your workers (eg, first aid stations, personal protective equipment (PPE)).
  • Managing the risk associated with specific hazards (eg, noise, heat, hazardous chemicals, confined spaces).
  • Ensuring your workers understand the hazards they will encounter at your workplace — and are properly trained and supervised.
  • Obtaining the appropriate licences for your workers (eg, high risk work).
  • Having an emergency plan that includes first response, evacuation procedures and notification of emergency services.

Supplementary Legislation

One of the reasons small business owners can feel overwhelmed by work health and safety compliance is because there is no single piece of legislation or guidance material to follow. Depending on your home state (or territory) you may also have supplementary legislation to comply with:

  • Worker’s compensation and rehabilitation
  • Electrical Safety
  • Dangerous Goods

Codes of Practice

All Australian states (and territories) have established Codes of Practice that help business owners address specific hazards and WHS responsibilities. Examples include:

  • Noise.
  • Hazardous Chemicals.
  • First Aid.
  • Manual Handling.
  • Consulting with workers.

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Sourcing WHS laws and guidance materials

As a small business owner you don’t need to start downloading all these WHS laws and spend your nights and weekends pouring over them. You could get started by:

  • Carrying out an inspection at your workplace and identifying the hazards that could affect the health and safety of your workers.
  • Visiting the WHS Regulator in your state (or territory) and searching their website to see if there is information about your industry group and the hazards you identified.
  • Creating a compliance checklist and action plan to address each of the hazards.

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Duty to comply with WHS legislation

You must meet your WHS responsibilities and you can’t transfer the obligation to another person. There are no acceptable excuses for non-compliance, and the following claims will NOT excuse you from your legal obligations:

  • I didn’t know. There is so much information and WHS guidance materials available online.
  • My business is too small. Your WHS responsibilities are the same whether you have 3 employees or 3,000.
  • I didn’t understand what I needed to do. If you are having trouble understanding your WHS obligations hire a WHS consultant or compliance specialist. Alternately, contact the WHS Regulator in your state or territory (eg, SafeWork NSW, NT WorkSafe).
  • I didn’t have time. Hire a qualified HSE Manager or upskill an existing staff member.
  • But I thought the manager/contractor/worker/consultant had already done it — develop work systems and operating procedures that include accountability checks.
  • I couldn’t find the information. Check the website of the WHS Regulator in your state or territory.

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Need some help

I hope my short blog has given you a better understanding of how WHS legislation applies to your small business. Would you like some help? My area of expertise is in WHS writing, compliance and training development — I can certainly help your business meet WHS responsibilities by:

  • Guiding you through the risk assessment process and documenting your risk management plan.
  • Helping you initiate the consultative process.
  • Writing up WHS policies for different areas of your business (eg, general WHS, workplace bullying, manual handling, chemical safety).
  • Documenting safe work systems for specific work processes.
  • Creating audit and inspection checklists.
  • Developing in-house safety inductions and training for your staff and contractors (online and face-to-face).

Fill out the quick contact form and I’m usually in touch within a few hours. Remember, WHS compliance doesn’t need to be complicated — are you ready for the next step?

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