Warning: this article discusses some sensitive topics in relation to domestic violence

As an employer, one of your top priorities is keeping your employees safe. But did you know that under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, this obligation also extends to anyone who visits your workplace? This could be family members of your employees or general visitors. 

It’s important to know your Work Health and Safety (WHS) obligations, particularly with working from home arrangements becoming the norm. 

But before we get into the legal side of things, let’s go through what WHS actually is. 

What Exactly Is Work Health and Safety (WHS)?

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 provides that all employers have a duty to provide a safe work environment for their employees and anyone who visits the workplace. The main goal is to ensure businesses manage any hazards or risks to the health and safety of employees in the course of their work. 

The Act also says that employers must do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure safety. This basically means that the measures you have in place must be proportionate to the risk. 

For example, you wouldn’t need to install about 20 locks on the front door of your office to ensure the safety of your workers – one lock should suffice. 

Safe Work Australia clarified that this responsibility falls on anyone who is defined as ‘a person conducting a business or undertaking’ (or PCBU). So, generally speaking, this is any business. 

How Can I Maintain A Safe Workplace?

There are many ways you can maintain a safe workplace. For example, most workplaces will have a first aid kit in case of an emergency. And, when onboarding a new employee, it’s generally good practice to familiarise them with the relevant workplace policies. 

You could also do the following things:

  • Develop a WHS Policy 
  • Train and supervise employees/managers on relevant safety procedures and policies
  • Provide adequate resources (e.g. first aid kit, fire extinguisher)
  • Provide access to mental health services
  • If the nature of the job carries heavier risks, provide the appropriate gear 

Maintaining a safe workplace can also be as simple as having hand sanitiser available in most parts of the workplace (which you probably see around a lot these days!)

What If My Employees Work From Home?

Even if your employees are Working From Home, your WHS obligations still apply. It might seem a bit strange — after all, it can be difficult to ensure someone’s safety through a screen. 

However, during COVID, Safe Work Australia put together a list of things that employers are advised to do to uphold their WHS obligations even while employees are working remotely. Some of these include:

  • A system for reporting hazards or risks at home
  • Access to mental health services
  • System for checking WFH setup
  • Allowing employees to borrow office equipment 

It can be a bit overwhelming to try and stay on top of all these responsibilities at once. Safe Work Australia has given some useful tips on meeting your WHS obligations here

It’s important to note that WHS laws also provide a duty to consult. If you’re unsure about what obligations you have, you have a responsibility to ask for some advice on what you can do.

Who Do Workplace Health And Safety Laws Apply To?

Under the Act, employers need to minimise risks to the safety of workers

Workers are defined as:

  • Employees
  • Contractors
  • Subcontractors
  • Trainees
  • Interns/Students
  • Volunteers

In some cases, visitors to the workplace will also be considered workers. As such, employers need to take steps to ensure their safety, too. 

For example, prior to entering the workplace, you could have a sign that requires visitors to wash their hands before entering and to social distance where possible. This all falls under visitor obligations — Safe Work has written about this here

What Are Some Risks To Employee Safety?

When we think of reducing risks and hazards in the workplace, we tend to think of physical harm or injury. But since working from home has become more common, it’s important to consider that harm to mental health falls under this category, too. 

Mental Health While Working From Home

WHS obligations mean that employers need to reduce the risk of any mental stress to employees. For example, working from home carries the risk of employees overworking and feeling more stressed than usual.

In response to this, employers are encouraged to provide access to mental health services. It’s also good business practice to have a reporting system in place where employees can talk to employers about their workload and how they’re managing their stress, so this can be adjusted accordingly. 

Workplace Bullying And Harassment 

Bullying and harassment in the workplace is another serious risk to mental health. It is ultimately the employer’s responsibility to have the right policies, systems and work culture in place to prevent these incidents from occurring. 

For example, it’s a good idea to have an Anti-Discrimination Policy that is well enforced in the workplace to promote a positive work culture. It’s also advised to have the appropriate reporting systems in place to manage these incidents if they do happen. 

Domestic Violence

As an employer, it’s absolutely essential not to turn a blind eye to issues like domestic violence. These types of situations can reduce work productivity and employees’ mental health in general. 

In fact, in Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill [2020], it was established that employers have a duty to create a safe working environment for employees experiencing domestic violence. 

If you believe that an employee is ill, unwell or suffering from problems at home, you need to ensure that there are systems in place to address the issue. 

Also consider that it isn’t always easy for employees to share this information, so having the right work culture will create a safe space for them to disclose their situation. 

One of our clients recently opened the Institute of non-violence which works to address this issue in the workplace — we’ve written more about this here

It’s also worth noting that employees have the right to request family and domestic violence leave, personal/carers leave or request flexible working arrangements. As an employer, your duty of care includes the obligation to grant these rights. 

What About Toilet Breaks?

WHS obligations can be enforced even in relation to some basic rights, like whether workers have the right to take toilet breaks at work. 

In the case of Tantex Holdings, it was established that workers do have the right to take toilet breaks outside of their usual break under WHS laws. The case is a good example of how failure to carry out your WHS obligations can bring some heavy penalties, no matter how simple the issue may seem. 

Are WHS Laws Different From State To State?

Safe Work Australia developed model WHS laws which apply to all states in Australia, except for Victoria and Western Australia

We’ve put together a small table which summarises some of the key differences. 

What Documents Do I Need?

Now that we’ve gone through some ways you can maintain a safe workplace, it’s worth considering how you can put this in writing. It’s a good idea to start with the following:

  • Work Health and Safety Policy 
  • Anti-Discrimination Policy
  • Internet and Email Policy

This can all be included in your Staff Handbook, which sets out work culture, policies and expected behaviour in the workplace. 

Next Steps…

Work Health and Safety obligations are important to think about, but it can be a bit overwhelming when running a business. If you need any help, Sprintlaw has a team of experienced lawyers who are happy to chat. 
You can reach out to us at team@sprintlaw.com.au or contact us on 1800 730 617 for an obligation free chat.

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