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Occupational Safety and Health: Complete Overview and Guide

Occupational Safety and Health: Complete Overview and Guide

Apr 23rd 2024

Occupational Safety and Health: Complete Overview and Guide

Prevalence of Workplace Incidents in Australia

Injuries in the workplace are a leading cause of fatalities and injury in Australia. While workplace accidents can happen in any industry, specific sectors are reported to have more casualties than others.

According to Safe Work Australia's data, the transport, postal, and warehousing industries had the highest fatalities, with 47 workers killed. The agriculture, forestry, and fishing industries were the second highest, with 22 worker deaths. The third highest is the construction industry, with 11 worker fatalities. These numbers make it clear that workplace safety is a problem in Australia and that more needs to be done to protect workers from harm.

What is Occupational Health and Safety?

Occupational health and safety (OHS), or OSH, is a branch of public health focused on promoting and maintaining workers' highest degree of physical, mental, and social well-being in all workplaces. It can be defined as the discipline dealing with preventing work-related injuries and diseases. OHS strongly focuses on preventing hazards, intending to avoid accidents and harm to people from work-related activities.

Safe Work Australia is a national policy body coordinating OHS activities across Australia's jurisdictions and territories. It does not have direct OHS powers or enforcement functions. Instead, its role is to develop national policy, promote improvement in workplace health and safety practices, set national priorities for Workplace Health and Safety research and help prevent workplace fatalities, injuries and diseases.

Types of Workplace Hazards

Every workplace must prioritise health and safety. Accidents, injuries, and toxic exposure can all harm workers, with the primary goal of occupational health and safety to protect employees from such potential hazards. There are many potential hazards that workers may be exposed to while on the job. Hazards are why occupational health and safety measures exist, as they can significantly impact worker health and well-being. The following are some of the most common types of workplace hazards:

  1. Physical Hazards: can cause harm through physical means, such as noise, vibration, radiation, extreme temperatures, and ergonomic factors.
  2. Chemical Hazards: Exposure to chemicals in the workplace can lead to acute or chronic health effects. This includes exposure to hazardous substances such as asbestos, lead, and pesticides.
  3. Biological Hazards: They come from living organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Workers may be exposed to these hazards in industries like healthcare or agriculture.
  4. Psychosocial Hazards: These refer to the impact of work on mental health and well-being. This includes stress, bullying, and harassment in the workplace.
  5. Ergonomic Hazards: These hazards, such as repetitive strain injuries and poor posture, affect the musculoskeletal system. Ergonomic factors include uncomfortable workstations, repetitive movements, and heavy lifting.
  6. Safety Hazards: These refer to the risks of accidents or injuries in the workplace. Examples include slips and falls, machine malfunctions, and electrical hazards.Work Organisation Hazards: These are related to how work is organised and managed, including workload, shift patterns, and lack of control over one's tasks.

Caution Hazard tape and sign


The primary goal of OHS is to protect employees in the workplace from workplace hazards mentioned above. Prioritising OHS at a business has several key benefits, including:

  • Reduced risk of accidents or injuries: Employers can create a safer work environment for their employees by identifying and addressing potential hazards.
  • Improved efficiency and productivity: A safe and healthy work environment leads to happier and healthier employees. This, in turn, leads to increased efficiency and productivity as employees can focus on their tasks without worrying about safety concerns.
  • Improved employee relations and morale: A safer work environment is a less stressful work environment, which can positively impact employee morale and satisfaction. This can also lead to improved relationships between employees and employers.
  • Reduced costs: By addressing and preventing potential hazards, employers can save on medical expenses, insurance premiums, and legal fees associated with workplace accidents or injuries.

What are OHS and WHS?

OHS and WHS are two familiar terms if you work in the safety industry. They describe the safety of individuals working on the job site or in a company. OHS is the acronym for Occupational Health and Safety, while WHS is for Workplace Health and Safety.

In Safe Work Australia's draft model for OHS, the term 'work' rather than 'occupational' was used to 'apply more broadly to work, rather than only to occupations.' As a result, the definition of 'workplace' extended supervisors' responsibilities to include temporary workers such as day labourers and contractors. This has led to the development of the term WHS, which is used when referencing material associated with the model regulations and model codes of practice. But keep in mind that OHS and WHS are still used interchangeably.

History of OHS in Australia

Occupational health and safety can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution in Europe. People in pre-industrial societies made a living through agriculture or home production. Still, with new machinery and manufacturing processes, people began to work in city factories. Factory-based societies led to dangerous and inhumane working conditions for children and adults.

The Factory Act (1802) was introduced in response to child labour complaints and reduced the legal working day to 10 hours. Over the next few decades, several other acts were introduced that further expanded rights until the first actual Occupational Safety and Health legislation was passed in the UK in the 1900s.

In Australia, several statutes aim to ensure occupational health and safety. The six state Acts, two territory Acts, and the Commonwealth Act cover a wide range of industries and employers to protect workers from potential harm. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) was established in 1984 to oversee the implementation of these various safety work health laws but was replaced by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) in 2005.

Safe Work Australia took over from the ASCC in 2009 in the development of national occupational health and safety policies and workers' compensation. Australia has made significant progress in preventing workplace accidents and injuries by ensuring that all workers are protected by law.

Legal Framework and Compliance in Australia

The management of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in Australia is a collaborative effort involving both the federal government and the governments of the states and territories. Due to this shared responsibility, the specific laws and regulations regarding workplace safety can vary significantly depending on the geographical location of a workplace, leading to a diverse regulatory landscape across the country. Here's an overview of the key elements related to OHS in Australia:

Unified Framework for Workplace Health and Safety (WHS)

Australia has established a unified framework known as the Model Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws. This framework consists of three main components: the model WHS Act, model WHS Regulations, and model Codes of Practice. Together, these elements create a comprehensive structure to ensure workers' health and safety across various industries.

Model Work Health and Safety Act

The centrepiece of the WHS laws is the Model Work Health and Safety Act, formulated by Safe Work Australia. This Act is designed to provide a balanced and harmonised approach to safeguarding the health and safety of workers and workplaces throughout Australia. It outlines the responsibilities and duties of employers, employees, and health and safety representatives, with a strong focus on the obligation of employers and businesses to protect the safety and well-being of their employees and any other individuals who might be affected by their operations.

Model WHS Regulations

Complementing the Act, the Model WHS Regulations offer specific guidelines to promote and maintain worker health and safety. These regulations are developed by government agencies or industry bodies and cover a wide range of topics, including risk assessment, hazard identification, and the implementation of control measures. While the WHS Regulations strive for uniform application across the country, there may be variations or additional provisions in the individual WHS Acts of each jurisdiction, reflecting local needs and conditions.

Victoria's Distinct Approach

It's important to note that Victoria maintains a unique stance within this national framework. Instead of adopting the Model WHS laws, Victoria continues to operate under its own Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) and the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017. Governed by WorkSafe Victoria, this separate legislative framework allows the state to tailor its approach to workplace health and safety, catering specifically to the needs and conditions of Victoria's workplaces and industries.

Codes of Practice

Codes of practice are practical guides that provide detailed information on achieving the safety standards required under the work health and safety (WHS) laws. They are developed by Safe Work Australia or approved code by a Ministerial exemption and cover a wide range of industries and activities, from office work to construction. While they are not law, approved codes of practice are admissible in court proceedings and can be used as evidence of what is known about a hazard, risk, or control.


Non-compliance with the model WHS laws in Australia incurs penalties classified into three levels of criminal offences. These penalties apply to duty holders who neglect their health and safety duties. Here are the three categories of criminal offences and their maximum penalties under the model WHS Act:

  • Category 1: Involves conduct with gross negligence or recklessness, exposing individuals to the risk of death or severe injury. The maximum penalties for a category one offence include fines of up to $3,000,000 for a corporate body.
  • Category 2: Involves a duty holder failing to comply with a health and safety duty that exposes a person to risk. The maximum penalties for a category two offence include fines of up to $500,000 for a corporate body.
  • Category 3: Involves a duty holder failing to comply with a health and safety duty. The maximum penalties for a category three offence can include fines of up to $500,000 for a body corporate

OHS Management

Complying with occupational health and safety (OHS) laws is essential to running a business. Preventing workplace injuries and ill health is another primary objective of anyOHS management system, rather than attempting to solve problems after they have occurred. Here are some of the methods of prevention-oriented approaches:

1. Hazard identification and risk assessment

Identifying hazards and assessing their risks is the first step in preventing workplace accidents and injuries. This can be done through various methods, such as job safety analysishazard identification walks, risk assessment forms, and safety audits.

Risk Assessment Process | SafetyDocs by SafetyCulture

2. Implementation of control measures

After hazards have been identified and their risks assessed, appropriate control measures need to be implemented to eliminate or minimise them. This may involve changes to work practices, the use of personal protective equipment, or the introduction of engineering controls.

3. Communication and consultation

Effective communication and consultation with workers are essential for the success of any OHS management system. This helps ensure that everyone knows the hazards and risks present in the workplace and what needs to be done to control them. You can conduct toolbox talks, safety meetings, or training sessions to communicate OHS information and policies to workers.

4. Monitoring and review

Monitoring and review are essential for the continual improvement of an OHS management system. This may involve the regular recording and reporting of accidents and incidents, as well as the conduct of audits and inspections.

An effective OHS management system should be able to address the following:

  • WHS responsibilities of employers, employees, contractors, manufacturers, importers, designers, and suppliers
  • The identification, assessment, and control of hazards and risks in the workplace
  • Safe work practices and procedures
  • Training and consultation arrangements
  • Monitoring, evaluation, and review of the system

Remember that an effective OHS management system can only be developed with the total commitment and involvement of everyone in the organisation, from top management down to the workers.

OHS Management

The right safety documentation is the foundation of a successful OHS management system. Here are the types of documents needed for compliance and best practices:

1. Safety Policies and Procedures

safety policy is a statement of an organisation's commitment to ensuring the health and safety of its workers. It should outline the responsibilities of all parties involved, including employers, employees, contractors, and suppliers.

2. Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment

A hazard identification and risk assessment document should detail all potential hazards in the workplace, their level of risk, and controls in place to mitigate or eliminate them. This document is crucial in ensuring a safe working environment for employees.

3. Emergency and Evacuation Plans

In an emergency, having a clearly defined evacuation plan can save lives. This document should include procedures for emergencies, such as fire, natural disasters, or workplace violence.

4. Incident Reporting and Investigation

An incident reporting and investigation form is necessary to record any workplace accidents or near misses. It allows for identifying root causes and implementing corrective measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

5. Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS)

SWMS outlines the step-by-step process for completing a high-risk task or activity. It identifies potential hazards and controls to ensure the safety of employees carrying out the task.

7. Training and Induction Programs

Proper training and induction programs ensure employees have the knowledge and skills to do their jobs safely. These programs should cover hazard identification, emergency procedures, and safe work practices.

Prioritise OHS With SafetyDocs!

Workplace safety is non-negotiable. You cannot afford to take shortcuts when it comes to the safety of your workers. Make sure you continuously comply with the with your safety obligations by using essential safety documentation from SafetyDocs by SafetyCulture.

SafetyDocs is one of Australia's leading providers of Occupational Health and Safety Documents. We have been helping businesses meet their legislative compliance requirements for over 10 years, and our safety solutions are used by businesses of all sizes across various industries.

Our content-rich, fully editable documents are designed to save your business the time, money and resources of producing them yourself. Check out our collection of safe work method statements (SWMS)safe operating procedures (SOPs), management systems, and management plan templates to guide you in developing your workplace safety programme.

Contact us today to learn more about keeping your workplace safe using our safety documents.

Available for instant download and supplied in fully editable MS Word format for use in your business.

Please note that the above information is provided as a comment only and should not be relied on as professional, legal or financial advice.

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