Health and safety at work

This section was updated in April 2013 by LawAccess NSW to reflect changes to the law about work health and safety.

Workplace Health and Safety Laws

New legislation

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011replaced the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 on 1 January 2012. This new Act enacts the nationally agreed Model Work Health and Safety Act in New South Wales. It is supplemented by Model Work Health and Safety Regulations and Codes of Practice.

You can read about the new legislation on the WorkCover website.

The national model laws began in force from 1 January 2012. Information about the national model laws is available at Safe Work Australia.

Employers have a legal duty to identify and control all hazards in the workplace. In New South Wales, obligations about workplace health and safety are found in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Under this new Act, employers are now known as 'persons conducting a business or undertaking' (or PCBU). The Act says that employers, managers, and employees are responsible for health and safety at work. In particular, directors, executives, senior managers or others who have a substantial role in making decisions in the business or undertaking, must take 'reasonable steps' to identify hazards arising from work practices and work systems, including psychological hazards.

Risks that can occur at work include:

  • ergonomic risks arising from poor equipment, lighting, or excessive noise levels;
  • psychological risks, caused by stress, trauma, or bullying;
  • fatigue, particularly for shift workers;
  • risks posed by the operation and maintenance of machinery and equipment;
  • incidents requiring emergency evacuation;
  • dangerous materials present in the workplace;
  • trip hazards; and
  • heavy lifting or repetitive tasks.

To meet their responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act employers must:

  • develop procedures for working safely;
  • ensure that adequate resources are committed to an occupational health and safety management system;
  • supply safety information on any chemicals in the workplace;
  • provide you with any safety equipment necessary to do the job safely – such as hearing protection, gloves, safety footwear, or sunscreen;
  • train you in the safety procedures for your job; and
  • talk to you about any safety issues or changes to your job.

Employers have a responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all persons at work, including casual or part-time workers. This also applies to people other than employees, such as contractors, consultants, designers, suppliers, visitors, customers and in some cases the general public.

Hot Tip: Workplace safety breaches

A significant change under the new legislation is that most prosecutions for workplace safety breaches are handled by the District Court or the Local Court instead of the Industrial Relations Commission. There are 3 categories of offences and penalties under the Act with the following maximum penalties:

  • up to 5 years imprisonment and/or $50,000 to $300,000 for individuals;
  • 5 years imprisonment and/or $100,000 to $600,000 for persons conducting a business or undertaking;
  • from $500,000 up to $3million for a corporation.

Volunteers

Volunteer associations and unincorporated associations are generally excluded from the definition of 'a person running a business or undertaking' and similarly persons volunteering in such organisations are excluded from protection. However, if you are being employed in return for pay or for some other form of remuneration by such an organisation, it has a responsibility for your safety under the Act. If you are volunteering for an organisation that employs other people, then it has a responsibility for your safety under the Act.

Hot Tip

If you are a volunteer not covered by the Work Health and Safety Act you can still check with your volunteer organisation to see of it has private insurance to cover its volunteers.

Young Workers

Young workers have a significant risk of being injured at work. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • lack of experience, including experience with safety risks in the workplace;
  • inadequate training or supervision; and
  • the types of physically risky work sometimes allocated to young workers.

It is critical that you understand what you and your employer are required to do to ensure your safety and the safety of others at work.

What are your responsibilities?

In New South Wales, under the Work Health and Safety Act, you must cooperate with your employer in whatever procedures are in place to ensure your health and safety. Similar legislation exists in other states. This includes:

  • following all the safety procedures for your job;
  • wearing the safety gear provided, such as hearing protection or safety glasses – these are not optional. You are required to wear them by law;
  • reporting any problem you see which may place yourself or others at risk;
  • immediately reporting any injury to your supervisor;
  • undertaking appropriate training;
  • following the reasonable health and safety directions given by your manager or by an elected health and safety representative who has undergone approved training.

What to Do If You Have a Safety Problem

There are a number of different approaches to handling a problem at work, whether related to safety, or some other issue. There are many things you could consider when deciding on how you are going to deal with a situation. Here are some possibilities:

  • If you have been injured or nearly injured then you should make a report. All employers must have a system of recording injuries and 'near misses' in the workplace. This should draw attention to the fact that there is a problem;
  • If someone is likely to be injured due to a problem you are aware of, then you should report the problem quickly. If there is something practical which you can safely do to reduce the risk, then you should do it; and
  • Who you talk to depends on who you feel comfortable with, the size of the organisation you work for, and who knows about the problem already. It is your employer’s responsibility to ensure your safety, but they can only address your concerns if you talk to them.

The person you report to (your manager or supervisor) is probably the best starting point; however, most workplaces have safety committees or safety representatives. It is their job to take your health and safety concerns to management, and you may find it easier to talk to them.

Hospitality industry high risk

A significant number of young workers employed in the hospitality industry are recent school leavers or school students working in part-time jobs. If you are in this group you stand a much higher risk of being injured than older workers – particularly in your first year at work.

WorkCover has published a number of useful posters, fact sheets, and tools, to help keep young workers safe. These can be downloaded or free hard copies ordered from the WorkCover website.

Health and Safety Training

As part of your employer’s responsibility to ensure your health and safety at work you must be trained to do your job safely. You are required to:

  • attend all safety training conducted by your employer;
  • follow the procedures in which you have been trained; and
  • report any safety problems.

Safety training can take many forms:

  • on-the-job training, where the supervisor takes you through all the tasks that you are required to do and shows you how to do them safely;
  • talks, where the supervisor explains safety issues and how to deal with them;
  • induction training, where you are formally trained at the time you start your job; and
  • training for specific issues such as the use of particular chemicals or equipment.

Hot Tip: Chemical handling

If you don’t understand how to use the chemicals you need to work with, you can ask your employer for an information sheet called a Safety Data Sheet.

What should safety training involve?

Whatever form your safety training takes, it should cover:

  • Arrangements at the workplace for ensuring health and safety, including the procedure for reporting risks. This includes (but is not limited to) training in evacuation procedures; what to do in the event of a bomb threat; how to handle a strange object or substance that comes in the mail or otherwise appears at the workplace; ergonomic assessments and procedures for desks and workstations;
  • The specific policies and procedures which apply to your job and how to minimise the risks associated with your job. This should include the safety gear you may need and how to use the equipment; and
  • How you can get access to health and safety information later if you need it.

The outcome of the training should be that you are aware of the risks associated with your job, and you know how to eliminate or minimise those risks.

Hot Tip

Some employers do not see a need for training. If there are safety issues with your job, or you are uncertain how to do your job safely, you should attempt to resolve your problem within your workplace. If you are unable to resolve the problem, you can contact WorkCover. Workcover can do a workplace inspection and audit and require the employer to make changes.

Case study

An employee of a glazing company was helping to unload a crate of large glass sheets. He had been employed by the glazing company for two weeks.

The crate fell on the employee, and he suffered very serious crush injuries. He later died of those injuries.

The company had not assessed the risks associated with unpacking heavy crates of glass, and had not done anything to manage those risks. The company was fined $190,000 for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000. (This Act is no longer in force, replaced by the Work Health and Safety Act 2011).