What is work health and safety (WHS)?

Work health and safety (WHS) involves managing risks to the health and safety of everyone in your workplace, including your:

  • workers
  • customers
  • visitors
  • suppliers.

It is sometimes known as occupational health and safety (OH&S).

Managing WHS may initially cost money and time to implement safe practices and install safety equipment. However, not taking action can result in prosecution, fines and loss of your skilled staff.

Workers’ compensation laws also require you to have a workers’ compensation insurance policy for your employees.

Benefits of WHS in your business

Creating a safe work environment is a legal requirement. It’s also critical to the long term success of your business and can:

  • help you keep your staff
  • improve staff productivity
  • reduce injury and illness in the workplace
  • reduce the costs of injury and workers' compensation.

Your WHS obligations

You must put health and safety practices in place as soon as you start your business. Under Australian WHS laws your business must:

  • ensure the health and safety of your workers
  • not put the health and safety of other people at risk.

To do this you must:

  • provide a safe work environment
  • provide and maintain safe machinery and structures
  • provide safe ways of working
  • ensure safe use, handling and storage of machinery, structures and substances
  • provide and maintain adequate facilities
  • provide any information, training, instruction or supervision needed for safety
  • monitor the health of workers and conditions at the workplace.

Your workers' WHS obligations

People working in your business also have WHS obligations. They must:

  • take care of their own health and safety
  • take care not to do anything that could hurt others
  • follow WHS instructions
  • follow the workplace’s WHS policies and procedures.

WHS requirements in your state or territory

Each state has its own WHS laws and a regulator to enforce them. The WHS framework for each state includes the:

  • Act – outlines your broad responsibilities.
  • Regulations – set out specific requirements for particular hazards and risks, such as noise, machinery, and manual handling.
  • Codes of practice – provide practical information on how you can meet the requirements in the Act and Regulations.
  • Regulating agency (regulator) – administers WHS laws, inspects workplaces, provides advice and enforces the laws. Check their website for WHS information and resources.

In some states there is a different regulator for workers' compensation.

The Commonwealth jurisdiction covers:

  • workers for the Commonwealth Government (e.g. the public service and the Australian Defence Force)
  • businesses licensed to self-insure under the Comcare scheme.

Safe Work Australia’s role

Safe Work Australia develops policy for WHS and workers’ compensation to improve WHS across Australia. Safe Work Australia does not regulate or enforce WHS laws. State and territory governments regulate and enforce the WHS laws in their jurisdiction.

Check the Safe Work Australia website for WHS information and statistics.

WHS requirements for your industry

Your business’s WHS requirements depend on the risks in your workplace. Check our industry information pages to find the requirements for your industry.

It may be worth getting independent advice on the WHS requirements for your business.

Emergency plans and first aid

Part of WHS is being ready to respond if an accident or emergency happens. To help minimise workplace risks and be better prepared for emergencies, check:

  1. Do you have an emergency plan?
  2. Have you done a first aid assessment of your business?
  3. Do you have enough trained first aiders to cover unplanned staff absences?
  4. Is the first aid equipment in your workplace easy to find and access?
  5. Does your workplace run emergency drills?
  6. Have you evaluated your business activities to identify areas of increased risk?

Work in extreme weather

Extreme weather, including extreme heat, cold, hail or strong winds may affect your business. It's important you understand your obligations to workers when these events happen.

Under WHS laws you must provide a safe working environment and keep your workers safe in extreme weather. You should make sure you’re aware of the signs of heat-related illness and how to manage the risks.

Not all employers have to provide leave if their employees can’t work because of extreme weather, but some do. Check whether your employees have entitlements to leave under your award or agreement. If you’re not clear on your rights and responsibilities as an employer:

Work functions and WHS

Work functions are a great way to celebrate and thank your staff for their hard work. However, while your staff may be 'off the clock' at the event, you're still responsible for their health and safety. Here are some suggestions to help celebrate safely.

Before the event make sure your internal policies and procedures are up to date. These include the policies for acceptable behaviour, and bullying and harassment in the workplace

You can send a friendly email to staff, reminding them that:

  • while the party is a time to relax, it's still a work function
  • the usual rules still apply, including those around sexual harassment
  • they should be careful if consuming alcohol.

At the event:

  • if you serve alcohol, make sure it's served legally and responsibly
  • there should be enough food and non-alcoholic drinks available
  • make arrangements for staff to get home safely afterwards. For example, organising a bus, pre-ordering taxis or arranging designated drivers.

Working with remote team members

Your WHS obligations as an employer still applies when your staff are working remotely or from home.

If you have staff working remotely, make sure your policies and procedures accomodate it. For example, you may have to update them to account for your employees' remote work environments.

When considering WHS implications for remote working, think about how to:

  • report incidents or injuries while working at home
  • provide guidance on what a safe home office environment is
  • allow workers to borrow equipment from an office if available
  • provide information supporting mental health and wellbeing.

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