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Guide to health and safety laws

The law governing health and safety in workplaces can seem overwhelming.

This guide gives an overview of the laws, how they fit together and what they require of employers and workers. It gives you links to follow for more detailed information.

The purpose of the laws

Work health and safety laws apply uniformly across Australia, to ensure that all workers get the same standard of health and safety protection, regardless of the work they do or where they work.

Relevant Acts

There are some key pieces of legislation that govern health and safety in workplaces.

Some of the main aims of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 are to:

  • protect the health and safety of workers and other people by eliminating or minimising workplace risks
  • ensure that there’s representation, consultation and cooperation in the workplace to address health and safety issues
  • promote information, education and training on health and safety
  • provide effective compliance and enforcement measures

The Act covers employees, contractors, subcontractors, outworkers, apprentices and trainees, work experience students, volunteers and employers who perform work. When it refers to ‘health’, this includes psychological health as well as physical health.

Duties of a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU)

The WHS Act outlines the duties required, so far as is reasonably practical, of people who conduct a business or undertaking. These include:

  • providing and maintaining a work environment that is safe and without risks to health, including the entering and exiting of the workplace
  • providing and maintaining plant, structure and systems of work that are safe and do not pose health risks (e.g. providing effective guards on machines and regulating the pace and frequency of work)
  • ensuring the safe use, handling, storage and transport of plant, structure and substances (e.g. toxic chemicals, dusts and fibres)
  • providing adequate facilities for the welfare of workers at workplaces under their management and control (e.g. washrooms, lockers and dining areas)
  • providing workers with information, instruction, training or supervision needed for them to work safely and without risks to their health
  • monitoring the health of their workers and the conditions of the workplace under their management and control to prevent injury or illness.

PCBUs also have a duty to consult with workers about matters that directly affect them. This extends to consulting with contractors and their workers, employees of labour hire companies, students on work experience, apprentices and trainees, as well as with the PCBUs own employees and volunteer workers.

Duty of workers

Workers also have obligations under the Act. They’re required to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and that of others who might be affected by their actions or omissions. They’re also required to cooperate with any reasonable instruction given by the PCBU and any reasonable policy or procedure of the PCBU to comply with the WHS Act and WHS Regulation.

Penalties for non-compliance

The Act sets out the penalties that can be imposed for breaches of the Act.

 Corporation Individual as PCBU or officer Individual as worker or other
Industrial manslaughter $10M for a body corporate 20 years imprisonment for an individual N/A
Category 1 $3 million $600,000, five years jail, or both $300,000, five years jail, or both
Category 2 $1.5 million $300,000 $150,000
Category 3 $500,000 $100,000 $50,000

See the Guide to the Work Health and Safety Act(PDF, 0.32 MB) for a useful overview of the legislation.

The Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 establishes the workers' compensation scheme in Queensland. Each State and Territory has equivalent legislation. Under the 'no fault' scheme, workers can apply for compensation when they’ve been injured as a result of their work. no matter who or what caused the injury. The scheme covers psychological as well as physical injuries. Workers can claim weekly compensation for lost wages while they’re not fit to work and may be reimbursed for medical expenses and rehabilitation costs, provided they’re reasonable and medically necessary.

Either an injured worker or employer can lodge a claim with WorkCover Queensland or a self-insurer. Workers are required to get medical help and start rehabilitation as soon as they can. They should also be actively involved in planning to return to work, even if they’re waiting for their claim for compensation to be assessed. Employers are required to provide rehabilitation and to help workers return to work as soon as possible.

Find out more about workers compensation.

People who work with electricity face unique risks. The Electrical Safety Act 2002 is designed to stop injuries and damage resulting from the use of electricity. It imposes duties on those who may affect the electrical safety of others, it establishes regulations and codes of practice for working with and around electricity and provides a system of licensing for electrical workers and contractors. It imposes penalties for breaches of the Act. Where there’s overlap between this and the WHS Act, the Electrical Safety Act takes precedence.

The Safety in Recreational Water Activities Act 2011 imposes additional duties on those conducting businesses which provide recreational water activities. For example, they need to ensure that they provide and maintain safe plant and structures and provide information, training, instruction and supervision to those engaging in activities.

Regulations

The Acts are supported by a number of Regulations. These give more specific detail about how a duty under the Act must be performed. They also cover some administrative matters, like record keeping and the licences required for specific activities.

Codes of practice

Codes of practice provide practical guidance on how to meet the standards set out in the WHS Act and the WHS Regulation. They give information on how a hazard or risk can be controlled or managed and can be used to help decide what’s reasonably practicable to reduce risk.

These codes don’t cover every conceivable risk and it’s still up to employers to identify and manage the risks unique to their workplace. Where possible, employers should comply with an approved code of practice. If they choose a different approach, this needs to either give the same or a higher standard of protection than the code.

Search the full list of codes of practice.

Exemptions and other legislative provisions

Amendments

From time to time, amendments are made to the Acts and their supporting Regulations.

Exemptions

Under the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011, the regulator can grant an exemption from compliance with any provision of the Regulation. To get an exemption, the agreed course of action needs to provide at least an equivalent level of health and safety to that achieved by complying with the Regulation. An exemption can be given to a specific person or to a class of persons.

The three types of exemption are:

  • general exemptions
  • high risk work licence exemptions
  • major hazard facility exemptions.

Where do I start?

Once you’re aware of your general obligations under the work health and safety Acts and Regulations, it’s the Codes of Practice that give the most practical guidance on how to fulfil your obligations. You’re likely to refer to these most often. If they don’t cover hazards or risks in your workplace, you should be directed by the more general obligations in the Acts and Regulations.

Further information and support

To find out more about how to create a safe work environment and your obligations, you can:

  • Go to Creating safe work.
  • Reach out to your industry representative body for relevant guidelines and standards.
  • Seek advice from a work health and safety professional or legal professional.