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What is workplace health and safety

Workplace Health and Safety (WHS), often referred to as Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) involves the assessment and migration of risks that may impact the health, safety or welfare of those in your workplace.

This may include the health and safety of your customers, employees, visitors, contractors, volunteers and suppliers. As a business owner there are legal requirements that you must comply with to ensure your workplace meets WHS obligations.

WHS or OH&S – What’s the difference?

Before 2012, workplace health and safety (WHS) laws were known as Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) laws. These laws differed across Australian states and territories. To make the laws more consistent across Australia, in 2012 the state and territory governments agreed to develop model laws (WHS Act and Regulations), on which they could base their health and safety laws.

You can find out more about the model work health and safety laws on the Safe Work Australia website.

Benefits of WHS in your business

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

  • help you retain staff
  • maximise employee productivity
  • minimise injury and illness in the workplace
  • reduce the costs of injury and workers’ compensation
  • ensure you meet your legal obligations and employee responsibilities.

WHS obligations for business

As a business owner you have legal responsibilities to implement health and safety practices in your workplace as soon as you start your business. You need to ensure that your business doesn't create health and safety problems for your employees, contractors, volunteers, visitors, customers or the public.

Knowing and understanding WHS laws and how they apply to business will help you avoid unnecessary costs and damage to your business caused by workplace injury and illness.

Under Australian WHS/OH&S legislation businesses are legally obliged to:

  • provide safe work premises
  • assess risks and implement appropriate measures for controlling them
  • ensure safe use and handling of goods and substances
  • provide and maintain safe machinery and materials
  • assess workplace layout and provide safe systems of work
  • provide a suitable working environment and facilities
  • have insurance and workers compensation workers’ compensation insurance for your employees.

Though it may cost to implement safe practices and install safety equipment, the effect of not taking action can be severe and costly. Complying with WHS requirements can prevent you from being prosecuted and fined, and help you to retain skilled staff.

Your legal obligations may vary according to circumstances and industry. You may wish to seek independent legal advice on what is applicable to your situation.

WHS obligations for workers

People working in your business have work health and safety obligations to themselves and their workmates.

They must:

  • comply with instructions given for work health and safety
  • use any provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and be properly trained in how to use it
  • not wilfully or recklessly interfere with or misuse anything provided for work health and safety at the workplace
  • not wilfully place others at risk
  • not wilfully injure themselves.

WHS/OH&S requirements in your industry, state or territory

Safe Work Australia and WHS authorities in each state or territory have responsibilities for enforcing the WHS legislation. They provide education, training and advice on work health and safety and how to incorporate safety management into your business operations.

Find the WHS/OH&S authority in your state or territory, including the acts, regulators and codes of practice.

WHS laws can affect businesses differently depending on which industries they operate in. For example, a mining company has WHS requirements that are irrelevant to a florist. Read our Industry research for industry specific information and requirements within the workplace. 

© Commonwealth of Australia 2016. 

The article was first published on business.gov.au

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