Taking a proactive approach to workplace health and safety is essential for any business. The consequences – both in ethical and legal terms – of businesses failing to provide a safe workplace is simply too high to be ignored.
The main legislation that governs a business’s obligation to maintain a safe workplace is the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) (‘OHS Act’). WorkSafe is the authority responsible for regulating businesses and enforcing the OHS Act.
General responsibilities for employers
Under the OHS Act, employers must “so far as is reasonably practicable, provide and maintain … a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.” This duty extends to:
- Contractors, and
- Insofar as risks arise from the conduct of the employer’s undertaking, other people in general.
Employers must also, so far as is reasonably practicable:
- Monitor the health of their employees
- Monitor conditions in any workplace under their control
- Advise employees about workplace health and safety matters, including who they can contact to make an enquiry or complaint about health and safety matters
- Keep information and records relating to the health and safety of employees, and
- Engage suitably qualified people to provide advice to the employer on health and safety matters.
Employees also have a duty to care for the health and safety of themselves and others in the workplace and to cooperate with their employer in ensuring compliance with the OHS Act.
Individuals and organisations that breach these provisions of the Act can face fines and, in serious cases where someone recklessly endangers a person in the workplace, imprisonment of up to five years.
Codes of Practice
In addition to the general obligations under the Act, the OHS Regulations establish obligations for employers with respect to specific risks in workplaces. WorkSafe provides Codes of Practice to assist employers with complying with their specific obligations under the Regulations, including with respect to:
- First aid
- Storage and handling of dangerous goods
- Confined spaces
- Noise, and
We recommend looking at the Codes of Practice to see if any apply to your business.
Health and Safety representatives and Union representatives
The OHS Act established mechanisms that employees and unions can use which requires employers to address health and safety issues in the workplace.
Employees are able to form working groups and elect a Health and Safety Representative to speak on their behalf to their employer.
The powers of a Health and Safety Representative are significant, and include the power to issue interim improvement notices to the employer which requires that they address health or safety issues in the workplace.
The employer must either comply with the notice or, if they consider the notice misconceived, ask WorkSafe to send an inspector to inspect the workplace. The inspector will then determine whether the employer is required to address the issue which was raised.
Unions can also have their authorised representatives enter a workplace, where the representative believes that the employer is in breach of the OHS Act. The representative must have a valid entry permit, which they need to produce to the employer upon entering the workplace.
WorkSafe inspectors can enter a workplace for an inspection of health and safety risks. Where an inspector believes an employer is in breach of their OHS obligations, they can issue an improvement notice to the employer.
In serious cases, where the inspector believes that an activity is occurring that involves an immediate risk to health or safety, the inspector can issue a prohibition notice. This notice prohibits the person in charge of the workplace from allowing the activity to continue.
Preventative steps employers should take to mitigate risk
Of course, you do not want to be in a situation where there are unmanaged health and safety risks in your business. The first step for any employer is to identify the particular risks in their workplace.
Once you have identified the risks, you should:
- Eliminate unnecessary risks
- Establish procedures to mitigate and control the risks that you cannot completely eliminate, and
- Regularly review the risks in your workplace and your OHS policies and procedures to ensure that they are up to date and follow best practice.
Every business and industry is different and will therefore have different requirements. Some businesses will have relatively straightforward methods of managing risks, whereas others will require far more elaborate health and safety protocols and procedures. We recommend reading the relevant WorkSafe Codes of Practice as these provide a good starting point when considering health and safety in the workplace.
How can Sharrock Pitman Legal assist?
If you have any further queries in relation to the above, please do not hesitate to get in contact. Call Managing Principal and Accredited Commercial Law Specialist Mitchell Zadow on 1300 205 506 or complete the form below.
The information contained in this article is intended to be of a general nature only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Any legal matters should be discussed specifically with one of our lawyers.
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For further information contact
Mitchell is the Managing Principal of our law practice.
He is an Accredited Specialist in Commercial Law (accredited by the Law Institute of Victoria). He also deals with areas of Employment Law, Wills & Estate Planning and Probate. For further information, contact Mitchell on his direct line (03) 8561 3318.