There is a lot to consider when managing health and safety compliance. Getting it right can easily be delegated to the too-hard basket but getting it wrong can have catastrophic consequences. Trying to get your head around the legislative and regulatory requirements at a State, Territory or national level as well as requirements of Australian standards and other guidance material can be onerous and confusing.
Getting on the right track when it comes to work health and safety (WHS) compliance is essential. While this may be an evolving and moving target, setting up a good foundation means that it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or unachievable.
So, what is the foundation of WHS compliance?
There are many perspectives on where to start with WHS compliance. To some, the documents are the answer, to others training or auditing are the solution. While these are all important aspects of managing WHS, the Work Health and Safety Act gives us some guidance as to where to start and that is, where the buck stops.
Ultimate accountability for WHS under the Act lies with the person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) and through it, its officers. So, the jargon has already started but bear with us (link if you would like more information on who officers are or what a PCBU is). The obligations under the Act are backed up by significant penalties that can be applied even if an incident or injury hasn’t occurred. These include hefty fines for organisations (up to $10,000,000), but for individual officers this could mean being held civilly and criminally liable, losing your job, house, and in some cases facing jail time of up to 20 years. The Act does however pave the way for meeting these duties, stepping out what good WHS leadership looks like by defining due diligence.
Due diligence is a term that is often thrown around but what does it actually mean?
The business leaders set the culture and hold the purse strings. What they care about and look at, others will too. Due diligence is appreciating that these leaders making informed decisions is critical and this can’t happen without access to the right information and the right structures in place to use the information to get the desired outcome. This means taking reasonable steps to do the following.
- Acquiring and keeping up-to-date knowledge of health and safety matters
- Understanding the nature of operations and the inherent hazards and risks
- Ensuring adequate resources and processes for managing risks are available and used (for example implementing management plans)
- Ensuring processes are in place to become aware of and action in a timely way, information regarding incidents, hazards, and risks
- Ensuring that internal processes are in place to comply with legislative and regulatory requirements
- Verifying that the resources and processes mentioned above are in place and effective.
Officers can meet these requirements by prioritising:
- Understanding WHS requirements and how they apply to your organisation;
- Having the information you need to know what resources and processes are; and
- Monitoring how effective the resources and processes in place are to continually improve them.
To steal a well-worn quote, surround yourself with people smarter than you. Whether you are a sole trader or a CEO, you can’t be all things to all people. While the duty to exercise due diligence always remains with the officers of the organisation and cannot be delegated, that doesn’t mean you have to do it all yourself. Investing in trained and competent people while maintaining ongoing oversight is one, cost-effective way for officers to demonstrate due diligence. There are a few options to consider when deciding how to fill such a WHS advisory position or positions. These include:
- Employing a trained safety advisor; or
- Training up existing employees; or
- Bringing in experts in the area (cough, hi there 👋); or
- A combination of the above.
Having the right information at the right time allows you to know what is going well, and what is going wrong. No WHS duty is met by sticking your head in the sand. Critically looking at how things are going, not to lay blame, but to learn and improve embodies the proactive WHS approach. It is easy to think that being proactive in WHS means that we have to never get things wrong. But that is not practical and can lead to a distorted view from under-reporting or being too eager to pass on the blame. Rather, due diligence tries to focus leaders on gathering information to take in the big picture, be sensitive to potential outcomes, tap into how work is really done and read the signs that things are heading in the wrong direction.
This oversight, however, has little effect if we are not able to adjust and adapt to achieve the desired outcomes. Change is inevitable and a big red flag for WHS management is ‘this is the way it has always been done.’ Having structures in place, whether communication flows, reporting, processes or procedures, not only help to define expectations and what needs to be achieved, but also track how effective they are and respond when new information comes to light. This monitoring allows us to continually improve and reach our objectives.
And where does this get us?
The overall objective, however expressed and which WHS compliance is trying to direct businesses to, is to keep people healthy and safe. While health and safety compliance is an unavoidable fact of business, remembering what is important, the safety of you and your workers can help keep some perspective when managing these requirements. Effective health and safety leaders within your organisation, who have access to current information and are ready to learn and adapt, are vital to ensuring your organisation and its officers meet their obligations and send everyone home safely at the end of the day.
Have you done your due diligence?