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Work Health & Safety Law for Small Businesses

  • Written by Nathan Owen Safety Consultant

Small businesses are subject to a vast array of legal requirements, from tax and accounting to HR and industrial relations. In this article we'll break down the key WHS (work health and safety) legal requirements and provide some advice to ensure your business is compliant.

WHS Law Advice for Small Business

The Harmonised WHS Legislation

For work health and safety, the states and territories have authority to set laws and enforce compliance (with the exception of commonwealth employees). To assist businesses and to reduce red tape, the harmonised legislation was created to provide legislative consistency across the states and territories.

The Harmonised WHS Act and Regulations

The harmonised WHS Act ("the Act") sets out key WHS laws for business owners (called "PCBUs"). It also provides the framework for enforcement and gives powers to certain parties, for example, WHS inspectors or union officials.

The Regulations provide more specific guidance on how to comply with the Act and also give further legal duties for specific workplace hazards, for example, hazardous chemicals or confined space work.

The Harmonised WHS Codes of Practice

The Codes of Practice ("the Codes") provide detailed advice on many common hazards and hazardous activities. The Codes are written in plain English and cover subjects like:

  • Working at Heights

  • Asbestos and Demolition

  • Plant and Equipment.

To help manage risks in your business, the Codes are more useful than the Act or Regulations as the Codes will provide step-by-step, practical advice on how to manage hazards.

Complying with the WHS Act

Key Legal Duties and How to Comply

The main legal requirement for businesses under the Act is the “Primary Duty of Care”. This essentially states that businesses are responsible for ensuring the safety of all workers, and must:

  • Provide a safe work environment, safe plant / structures and safe systems of work

  • Ensure the safe use of plant, structures and substances

  • Provide welfare facilities (like toilets and eating areas)

  • Provide training and supervision.

In relation to these duties, and many others, the term "reasonably practical" is used. In simple terms, businesses must do all that they reasonably can to ensure a safe workplace.

Duty to Consult with Workers

Another key legal requirement under the Act is that businesses must consult with workers on WHS matters. For example, if you are writing a new safety policy or procedure, workers should be consulted with. During this consultation it is vital that workers are given opportunity to express their views and to contribute to the decision-making process.

Complying with the WHS Regulations

Compliance with the Regulations is also legally required, however, many of these regulations may not be relevant for your business, depending on what industry you are in.

General WHS Duties

Regulations that are relevant for most industries are outlined in the General Workplace Management section. These regulations include duties for business owners to ensure:

  • Adequate information, training and instruction (appropriate to the level of risk involved with the job or task)

  • A safe general working environment (including safe access and egress, sufficient lighting and ventilation)

  • Adequate first aid and emergency plans (relevant to the nature of work or workplace)

  • Provision of suitable personal protective equipment (PPE)

  • Effective management of remote or isolated work, airborne contaminants, falling objects and psychosocial risks.

Other Duties

The Regulations then outline specific requirements for hazardous work or high risk industries. Depending on what industry you work in, these may or may not be relevant, and include:

  • Noise, manual handling, confined spaces and working at heights

  • High risk work (including licensing requirements)

  • Construction, demolition, asbestos and other industry specific requirements.

The Regulations differ from the Act in that they provide some detailed requirements on how to comply. For example, for working at heights the regulations state that the work should be completed from the ground (e.g., by using an extendable tool) or off a solid construction (e.g., scaffolding) if possible.

Complying with the Codes of Practice

The Codes should be the "go to document" for small business owners looking to improve their WHS performance. The Codes are written in a way that is readily understandable and provide step by step and detailed advice on how to conduct a job safely.

General Advice for Small Business

A good place to start is to review the relevant Codes and make notes on the requirements that are relevant to your workplace. After this, talk to your workers and go through the Code and decide which controls or safety practices will work and how you plan to implement them.

All decision making should take a risk-based approach. That is, the higher the risk is, the higher the amount of effort that should go into managing that risk.

Where to Get Help

The state regulators publish a wealth of material online to help businesses and sole traders comply with legislation and improve safety performance. Some even offer free programs to help the promotion of workplace health and safety. For example, the IPAM program is provided by Work Health and Safety Queensland free of charge. Check their website for contact information for general enquiries. Safe Work Australia also publishes content and material which can be useful in meeting your WHS obligations and managing safety issues.

Other NGOs may provide free services in relation to specific hazards, for example, Beyond Blue provide services to assist with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

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