What is work health and safety (WHS)?

Work health and safety (WHS) means managing risks to the health and safety of everyone in your workplace. This includes your:

  • workers
  • customers
  • visitors
  • suppliers.

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

It can cost money and time to implement WHS practices and install safety equipment. But 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

You are legally required to provide a safe work environment. It’s also critical to the long-term success of your business and will help you:

  • keep 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 or territory has its own WHS laws and a regulator to enforce them. The WHS framework for each state or territory includes:

  • an Act that outlines your broad responsibilities
  • Regulations that set out specific requirements for particular hazards and risks, such as noise, machinery, and manual handling
  • codes of practice that provide practical information on how you can meet the requirements in the Act and Regulations.
  • a regulating agency (regulator) that administers WHS laws, inspects workplaces, provides advice and enforces the laws. Some states have a different regulator for workers compensation.

The Commonwealth jurisdiction covers workers for the Australian Government, such as the public service and the Australian Defence Force. It also covers businesses licensed to self-insure under the Comcare scheme.

Safe Work Australia’s role

Safe Work Australia develops policies to improve WHS and workers compensation across Australia.

It does not regulate or enforce WHS laws. State and territory governments regulate and enforce WHS laws in their jurisdiction.

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

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.

You should also consider getting independent advice on 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:

  • have an emergency plan
  • do a first aid assessment of your business
  • have enough trained first aiders to cover unplanned staff absences
  • make sure the first aid equipment in your workplace is easy to find and access
  • run emergency drills in your workplace
  • evaluate your business activities to identify areas with higher risk.

Work in extreme weather

Extreme weather (such as extreme heat, cold, hail or strong winds) may affect your business. Under WHS laws you must provide a safe working environment and keep your workers safe in extreme weather.

Extreme heat is an issue in many parts of Australia. Make sure you’re aware of the
signs of heat-related illness and how to manage the risks.

Some employers have to provide leave if their employees can’t work because of extreme weather. 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, you can either:

Work parties and WHS

Work parties are a great way to celebrate and thank your staff for their hard work. But you're still responsible for your staff's health and safety at the event, even if they are not being paid. 

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

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 still apply when staff are working remotely or from home.

If you employ remote staff, make sure your policies and procedures include them. You may have to update your policies to account for your employees' remote work environments.

When considering WHS for remote workers, think about:

  • how staff can report incidents or injuries while working at home
  • providing guidance on safe home office environments
  • letting workers borrow equipment from the office if available
  • information to support mental health and wellbeing.

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