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The International Labour Organization estimates that approximately 2.3 million work-related deaths and 500 million work-related accidents or illnesses occur worldwide every year. Safe Work Australia reports that 182 Australian workers died at work in 2020. As an employer, you will likely face situations of workplace injuries or near misses, both big and small and physical or psychological. Work health and safety (WHS) involves managing risks to the health and safety of your workers and workplaces. This is also known as occupational health and safety. Your WHS duties also extend to the health and safety of your contractors, customers, suppliers and visitors.

Safe Work Australia also found that the key reasons for work-related fatalities are:

  • vehicle collisions;
  • workers falling from a height; and
  • workers being hit by falling or moving objects.

WHS laws prevent employers from exploiting workers and making them vulnerable to unsafe practices by ensuring the safe operation of workplaces. Safe Work Australia developed model WHS laws to improve the consistency of WHS standards across Australia. All Australian states and territories have implemented the model WHS laws except for Victoria.

This article provides a background to the historical development of WHS laws and an outline of the model WHS laws in Australia.

Background to the Legislative Regime

In the mid-1980s, a process of recognising the benefits of a consistent approach to WHS began, resulting in the National Standards and National Codes of Practice. However, there was a lack of national agreement to adopt the National Standards. Accordingly, there were significant differences in adopting and applying the Standards across Australia. The lack of national consistency of WHS laws subsequently became the subject of review by various Commissions. They recommended implementing national consistent WHS standards.

In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments committed to harmonising WHS laws. They signed the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety (IGA). Likewise, the IGA outlines the principles and processes for cooperation between the Commonwealth, states and territories.

In 2011, Safe Work Australia developed the model WHS laws. 

In 2012 and 2013, the Commonwealth implemented rge model WGS laws, plus the following states and territories:

  • the Australian Capital Territory;
  • the Northern Territory;
  • New South Wales;
  • Queensland;
  • South Australia; and
  • Tasmania.

The model WHS laws are legally binding in these states and territories.

In 2020, Western Australia passed the Work Health and Safety Bill to adopt new WHS laws. These laws are based on the model WHS laws and will likely come into force in 2021.

As of the date of this article, Victoria has not implemented the model WHS laws.

Model Work Health Ssafety laws

The model WHS laws include the model WHS Act, the model WHS Regulations and the model Codes of Practice. WHS regulators in the Commonwealth and each state and territory regulate and enforce these laws.

The principal objective of the model WHS Act is to provide for a balanced and nationally consistent framework to ensure the health and safety of workers and workplaces by:

  • protecting workers against harm to their health, safety and welfare through the elimination or minimisation of risks in the workplace;
  • providing for fair and effective workplace representation, consultation, cooperation and resolution on WHS issues;
  • encouraging employers and unions to take a constructive role in promoting improvements in WHS practices;
  • endorsing the provision of advice, information, education and training on WHS;
  • introducing measures to ensure compliance with WHS obligations;
  • ensuring appropriate investigation and review of actions taken by those who exercise powers and perform functions under the WHS Act;
  • providing a structure for ongoing improvement and progressively higher WHS standards; and
  • maintaining and strengthening the harmonisation of national WHS laws.

The model WHS Regulations outline requirements (e.g. procedural or administrative requirements) to support the duties in the model WHS Act.

The model Codes of Practice provide practical guidelines to achieving the WHS standards required under the model WHS Act and Regulations.

Key Takeaways

The health and safety of your workers should be a priority of your business. WHS laws have been harmonised in Australia through a framework to allow for greater national consistency in WHS standards. The model WHS laws ensure the protection of workers against harm to their health and safety through the elimination or minimisation of risks in the workplace. All states and territories in Australia, except Victoria, have implemented the model WHS laws.

If you have any questions about your WHS obligations or the WHS laws in your state or territory, contact LegalVision’s employment lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is work health safety?

Work health and safety (WHS), also known as occupational health and safety, involves managing risks to the health and safety of your workers and workplaces.

What are the model WHS laws?

The model WHS laws aim to protect the health and safety of workers and harmonise the WHS laws in Australia. The model WHS laws include the model WHS Act, the model WHS Regulations and the model Codes of Practice.

Which states or territories have implemented the model WHS laws?

All states and territories in Australia, except for Victoria, have implemented the model WHS laws.

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