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Significant changes to Occupational Health and Safety Laws

Better HR – Australia’s leading online employment relations service for employers

With a spate of planking at work stories in the news of late, I thought it was worthwhile to bring your attention to the new and harmonised OHS reforms which are coming in at the start of next year.

Planking is, as I’m sure you’re aware, the act of lying face down with arms to the sides of the body, in unusual public spaces, photographing it and uploading it to your favourite social media site.

While many would consider the art of planking as a bit of harmless fun, its competitive nature means the more daring the location, the better.

And it’s the daring side of it that has the potential to create big health and safety issues at work.  

So, it was hard to miss the headlines about a number of Woolworths staff being dismissed following planking pranks.

The employees from three states were sacked after colleagues reported a number of incidents to Woolworths management. These incidents included planking on trolleys, display units, shelves, and even a meat mincing machine.

Of course it wasn’t planking per se which led to the dismissals, but the dangerous nature of the activity. The workers were fired for serious breaches of health and safety guidelines – for putting their own safety and that of their customers at risk.  

It can hardly be seen as a harmless stunt when it results in serious endangerment for which the business is responsible.

Employers’ responsibilities for OHS will be thrust further into the spotlight as the significant changes to Occupational Health and Safety Laws come into affect across Australia from 1 January 2012.

Harmonised OHS system

The new reforms are part of a “harmonised” system – rather than a national one. Each jurisdiction enacts its own piece of legislation in line with the agreed model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act, but with state variations of a limited nature.

As an employer, it’s important that you review your OHS policies now. You need to ensure that your policies embrace the new reforms and that your employees understand your policies and the consequences for breaching them. Undertaking an audit of your Work Health & Safety compliance will help minimise your business risk and provide a checklist to remedy any non-compliance.

The reforms are designed to cut red tape and provide wider coverage to reflect contemporary work relationships and an increasingly mobile workforce. They will apply not only to employees, but also to contractors and their employees, subcontractors, labour hire workers, apprentices and volunteers. According to an Access Economics report, harmonising OHS laws will benefit companies, workers and the community by achieving savings estimated at $180 million.

With the new reforms, there are tougher penalties and “officers” of companies (which include directors) will need to exercise due diligence to ensure compliance with OHS laws.

There’s also a wider range of enforcement mechanisms for OHS regulators, and a national compliance and enforcement policy will be developed to ensure a consistent regulatory approach across all jurisdictions.

New OHS content on Better HR

In line with the harmonised system, subscribers to Better HR will have access to updated Occupational Health & Safety information as the reforms take effect next year.

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This article is intended to provide commentary and general information. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice may be necessary in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this article. Better HR Pty Ltd ( is not responsible for the results of any actions taken on the basis of information in this article, nor for any error or omission in this article.