Helping your workers understand their WHS responsibilities

WHS and your workers by Melinda J. Irvine

Every small business owner in Australia is legally required to provide a safe place to work for their employees. From the day you open your business, you must have safe work practices in place —  plus ensure that your people understand their responsibilities and know how to do their jobs safely.

But it’s a two-way street.

Employees and contractors are also expected to be mindful of their own safety when on the job. They are legally required to follow instructions and not do anything could cause some else to get hurt. These are specific requirements of the safety laws in every Australian state or territory — and your people can be personally fined if they ignore their responsibilities.

But again, it’s a two-way street. As an employer you should help your workers understand what’s required of them and reinforce that by providing proper supervision, training, and operating procedures.

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Employee WHS responsibilities

No matter where your business is located, your employees have 4 key WHS responsibilities under the WHS Act in your state or territory. And depending on the type of work they do — may have additional duties under the state WHS Regulations. Let’s look at the critical 4 below:

REMEMBER: WHS stands for work health and safety, but safety laws in Victoria and Western Australia use the term OHS — occupational health and safety. It’s exactly the same thing.

1. Stay safe

Every worker (including the business owner) is legally required to keep themselves safe at work. This could involve:

  • Wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
  • Taking proper breaks.
  • Taking care when lifting and carrying.
  • Reporting hazards and unsafe working conditions.

As a business owner it’s important for you to lead by example and follow safety procedures yourself. You’ll find it much easier to enforce the rules when your employees see you also wearing PPE and obeying the speed limit.

2. Not harm others

Workers must not do anything that could cause someone else to get hurt. It could be things like:

  • Behaving recklessly.
  • Misusing or deliberately damaging equipment.
  • Interfering with another worker’s property.
  • Directing a junior staff member to do something that’s unsafe.

This requirement of the WHS Act is especially relevant to you (the business owner), managers and line supervisors. It goes without saying that it’s a breach of WHS laws to ask your workers to operate heavy machinery without a licence, but you also need to be mindful of the things you ask your employees to do. Ordering your line supervisors to cut production costs without close monitoring could easily translate into unsafe work practices.

3. Follow instructions

Your Employees are expected to follow reasonable safety instructions. Make the chain of command clear to your workers so they understand who is authorised to make decisions about their safety.

4. Comply with WHS policies and procedures

All employees must obey polices and procedures that impact their health and safety, but you need to have the safe work procedures in place.

From the first day of employment ensure your workers receive sufficient on-the-job training and are clear about how to carry out individual job tasks according to procedure.

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Workers in breach of WHS laws

If your workers aren’t following safety procedures it’s important to remind them they are legally required to follow WHS policies and reasonable instructions. And they also need to understand there are repercussion for not complying.

Things like:

  • They could be demoted and transferred to another area.
  • They could lose their job.
  • They could be fined by the state WHS Regulator.
  • They could be prosecuted and face jail time.

This isn’t about threatening or scaring your workers, it’s about making them aware of how their behaviour at work can impact someone else’s health and safety.

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Helping workers understand WHS

Even though your workers have duties under Australian safety legislation, many new employees who start working for you won’t have much idea of what is expected of them. Here are four ways you can introduce them to your WHS policies and procedures.

1. Safety Inductions

Safety inductions introduce workers and contractors to the rules, risks, and hazards at the workplace, and are often delivered on the first day of employment. In a typical safety induction you would:

  • Introduce the key hazards. Eg, the health hazards associated with each of the cleaning chemicals, and the type of injuries that are possible.
  • Explain the rules. Eg, the speed limit in the warehouse and yard.
  • Demonstrate how to perform routine tasks. Eg, procedures for safely moving a stack of archive boxes with a trolley.
  • Explain what to do during an emergency. Eg, how to use the eyewash station if cleaning chemicals get in your eyes.
  • Walk around the site and point out the location of safety equipment and exit points. Eg, the muster point to report to after evacuating the building.

You can’t just email a new worker an induction handbook and expect they will know what to do. Even an online induction with video should be followed up with one-on-one discussion and a walk around the site.

REMEMBER: your safety induction should make it clear that WHS duties are a part of the terms and conditions of ongoing employment.

2. Job descriptions

Safety responsibilities should be written into every worker’s job description and reviewed in detail on the first day of employment, as well as periodically during performance appraisals.

Job descriptions would include broad requirements to abide by the WHS policy and follow safety instructions — but there will be specific requirements too. Eg, responsible for cleaning and maintaining dough mixer according to Safe Work Procedure SWP1009.

3. On-the-job training

Just like safety inductions, you can’t just email your workers a copy of Safe Work Procedure SWP1009 and expect they will know what to do. You’ll need to do some on-the-job training:

  • Issue the documented procedure, checklist or work sequence.
  • Demonstrate how to safely carry out the task.
  • Watch the employee follow the procedure from start to finish.
  • Give the employee time to practice under supervision.
  • Monitor their ongoing performance.

4. Performance appraisals

Performance appraisals are conducted at the end of an employee’s probationary period and then every 6-12 months after that. A performance appraisal is just a review of how well an employee is doing their job.

But performance appraisals should also examine the employee’s attitude to safety in the workplace, and this is an excellent time to reinforce how their daily work performance impacts the safety of their co-workers and customers.

Your appraisal should consider if workers are:

  • Consistently following safe work procedures
  • Taking short-cuts or rushing their work
  • Completing mandatory paperwork and checklists
  • Following housekeeping procedures, like putting tools and materials away when they have finished with them.
  • Able to explain your organisation’s WHS policy.

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Enforcing company procedure

Safety inductions, job descriptions and performance appraisals are useless if you aren’t willing to enforce your organisation’s WHS policy and operating procedures. And by ‘enforce’ I don’t mean you have to be walking around with a big stick looking to sack anyone who’s out of line. It’s more about reinforcing to everyone that safety is a critical part of their job.

As an example let’s imagine you’re a small bakery with 3 workers (including you the business owner) and each person is responsible for maintaining the food preparation equipment. When cleaning large dough mixers you have a work sequence that requires everyone to tie back long hair and beards, remove jewellery, and lock-out the power supply BEFORE they start cleaning.

To enforce the policy you might do the following:

  • Visibly follow the procedure yourself, every time.
  • Introduce a cleaning checklist for workers to complete and sign during every clean.
  • Review the completed checklists at the end of every work day and return to workers for filing.
  • Carry out random inspections where you observe workers actually cleaning the dough mixers.
  • Immediately correct your staff if you see them cleaning the dough mixers without following the exact work sequence. Eg, maybe one guy hasn’t tied back his beard, so you stop him and get him to tie it back before continuing the task.
  • Take disciplinary action for repeated breaches. Eg, after the third time your worker doesn’t tie back his beard you issue an official warning. This could involve showing him a video of someone who was seriously injured after their beard was caught in a dough mixer — and then reminding him his job is in jeopardy if he doesn’t follow procedure.

WHS policies and safe work procedures are actually administrative controls that reduce your WHS compliance risk and make your workplace safer. But only if you enforce them. Turning a blind eye to safety breaches sends the message that you aren’t really serious about safety, and negates every policy and procedure you’ve taken the time to put in place.

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If I walked into your workplace today and started randomly asking your employees “What are your work health and safety responsibilities?” do you think they could confidently give me the answer? If the answer is ‘no’, you may be in breach of your own WHS duties.

If you need help designing safety inductions, on-the-job training, or operating procedures, please get in touch today. I’m a technical writer and business consultant specialising in work health and safety documentation and compliance.