Preparing for National OHS laws
From 1 January 2012 occupational health and safety (“OH&S“) legislation will be “harmonised,” creating a uniform set of laws and safety standards intended to establish a nationally-consistent OH&S scheme. This harmonisation will represent one of the most significant changes to the OH&S landscape since the release of the Robens Report in 1972. This article explains what organisations need to do as part of preparing for national OHS laws.
Currently, the states, territories and the Commonwealth operate under different OH&S legislation, regulations and codes of practice, which presents a particular conundrum for multi-state businesses, where costly company time may be currently spent interpreting each jurisdiction’s particular requirements.
A nationally-consistent OH&S scheme is expected to benefit organisations by reducing the time spent interpreting and complying with complex legislation, regulations and codes of practice across multiple states, and will consequently provide a more cost-effective system and a much needed simplification of administrative processes.
With the implementation of new OH&S legislation less than nine months away, organisations will need to begin considering how this new legislation will affect their organisation.
The OH&S Harmonisation Process
The development of uniform OH&S legislation has been the subject of many government reviews and commissions since the 1990s. However, in 2007, the Rudd Government promised that, if elected, it would harmonise OH&S legislation and streamline the nine OH&S jurisdictions to create a uniform approach.
The OH&S harmonisation process formally commenced in 2008 with all states and territories (which at that time were all Labor governments) agreeing to co-operate and pass model OH&S legislation to be implemented by 1 January 2012.
To assist with the co-ordination of the OH&S harmonisation process, the Federal Government created a new national body, Safe Work Australia. This organisation, in conjunction with the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council, has been responsible for the drafting and review of model OH&S legislation, regulations and codes of practice.
OH&S Harmonisation – the Key Changes
The model OH&S legislation, which has been approved by the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council, aims to provide organisations with certainty around the key features of the new legislation.
In preparing for national OHS laws, note that the key features of the model OH&S legislation include:
Primary Duty of Care: a primary duty of care to ensure health and safety in the workplace will be imposed on a “person conducting a business or undertaking”. The move away from imposing the primary duty of care on employers (which is the current approach) is designed to reflect the changing nature of work relationships. It is expected that as a result of this change a broader range of people will have a primary duty of care under OH&S legislation.
Standard of Care: a person conducting a business or undertaking has an obligation to ensure health and safety as far as reasonably practicable. This standard of care represents a significant change in Queensland and New South Wales jurisdictions where the standard imposes a more stringent duty whereby the employer “must ensure” the welfare of all workers.
Increased Penalties: there will be significant increases to the maximum penalties under the new legislation. There will be three categories of penalties with the most serious category, category 1, attracting a maximum penalty of $3 million for a corporation and $600,000 and 5 years’ imprisonment for an individual in breach of the legislation.
Union Prosecution: the ability for unions to prosecute organisations or individuals for breaches of the legislation will be removed (although NSW has indicated that it intends to amend the model OH&S legislation so that unions may retain the right to prosecution).
Positive Obligations: the model OH&S legislation will impose a positive obligation on the officers of an organisation to exercise due diligence in ensuring that their company meets its safety obligations. The OH&S legislation sets out a non-exhaustive set of steps that an officer must comply with to discharge their obligations.
Consultation Obligations: while consultation obligations have always existed, the obligations have generally been confined to consultation between employers and employees. Under the new model OH&S legislation a person conducting a business or undertaking will now have an obligation to consult with “workers.” This will require consultation with a broader range of parties such as contractors, subcontractors and employees of labour hire companies.
Reducing your OH&S Risk Exposure
As you will observe as you are preparing for national OHS laws, the new OH&S legislation is no less onerous than current OH&S standards, and in fact, the significant increase in penalties should send a clear message to persons conducting a business or undertaking that they must take their OH&S obligations extremely seriously.
In our view, the new OH&S legislation will result in significant changes and all employers and persons conducting a business or undertaking should ensure they have the necessary checks in place to comply with present and future obligations.
It is hoped that OH&S harmonisation will improve health and safety outcomes for employees, reduce compensation costs, and simplify administrative processes in businesses across Australia. In particular, this new legislation is designed to benefit those who conduct business across multiple states and the employees working alongside them.
Individual directors and managers should be ready, willing and able to meet the duty imposed by the new “due diligence” test, providing appropriate safety management systems, and ensuring that all staff members are properly informed of the impending changes.