What are WHS duties and why are they important?
Work health and safety (WHS) duties are the legal obligations that individuals and organisations have to ensure the health and safety of workers and others who may be affected by their work. WHS duties are established under the model WHS Act, which has been adopted by most states and territories in Australia. WHS duties are important because they help prevent and reduce the risks of work-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities, as well as promote a positive safety culture in the workplace.
What are the four key principles of WHS duties?
SafeWork Australia, the national policy body for WHS and workers’ compensation, has provided a case study that illustrates four key principles applicable to all WHS duties under the model WHS Act, along with the duty to consult, cooperate, and coordinate with other duty holders. These principles are:
- WHS Duties are Not Transferable: This principle emphasizes that WHS duties cannot be contracted out or transferred to another party. Each duty holder is responsible for their own duties under the WHS Act.
- A Person Can Have More Than One Duty: This principle recognizes that individuals or entities can hold multiple WHS duties simultaneously. For example, a principal contractor may have duties as a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), and also as a worker.
- More Than One Person Can Have the Same Duty: Multiple parties can share the same WHS duty. For instance, both the principal contractor and subcontractors may have duties to ensure the health and safety of workers on a construction site.
- Management of Risks: This principle requires duty holders to manage risks to health and safety by eliminating or minimizing those risks as far as reasonably practicable. This involves risk assessment and implementing appropriate control measures.
Construction project case study
The case study focuses on a construction project over $250,000 that involves high-risk work, such as operating cranes and working at heights.
A hospital engages Pickwell Construction as the principal contractor for its expansion project. Pickwell Construction, in turn, hires subcontractors like LoadUp Cranes, Lasso’s Cranes, and JB Facades. Each party has specific WHS duties. For example, Pickwell Construction has a primary duty to ensure the health and safety of workers and others affected by their work. This includes managing risks associated with construction work, such as operating cranes and managing site safety.
It also discusses aspects like the preparation of a WHS management plan, consultation and coordination among different contractors, and the shared responsibilities in risk management, especially in high-risk activities like crane operations and dismantling.
The case study shows how the four key principles of WHS duties apply to the construction project. For instance, the case study shows that Pickwell Construction:
- Cannot transfer its WHS duties to the subcontractors or the hospital. It must ensure that it complies with its own duties and that the subcontractors comply with theirs.
- Has more than one duty. It has a duty as a PCBU to ensure the health and safety of its own workers and subcontractors, as well as a duty as a worker to take reasonable care of its own health and safety and that of others.
- And the subcontractors have the same duty to ensure the health and safety of workers on the construction site. They must consult, cooperate, and coordinate with each other to manage the risks and control measures.
- And the subcontractors must manage the risks to health and safety by eliminating or minimizing them as far as reasonably practicable. They must conduct risk assessments, implement control measures, and monitor and review the outcomes.
"All good things are difficult to achieve" - benefits and challenges
The case study demonstrates the benefits and challenges of applying the four key principles of WHS duties to a construction project. Benefits involved are:
- A clear and consistent framework for WHS compliance and accountability.
- Fostering a collaborative and proactive approach to WHS management.
- Help improve the health and safety outcomes for workers and others.
But it is not without challenges either:
- Duty holders need to have a good understanding of their own and others’ WHS duties and obligations.
- Duty holders need to communicate and cooperate with each other effectively and regularly. This can be challenging in complex and dynamic work environments, such as construction sites, where there may be multiple parties involved, changing work conditions, and competing priorities.
- Balancing the costs and benefits of eliminating or minimizing the risks to health and safety.
You can find more information about the four key principles of WHS duties and the case study on the SafeWork Australia website.
Principles that apply to WHS duties – construction case study by SafeWork Australia, 24th November, 2023.