Understanding safety and environmental regulations in Australia starts with understanding how the government is organized. The government of Australia is a Commonwealth and a federation, with six states and two internal territories. The Commonwealth Constitution does not give the government a general power to legislate for workplace health and safety across the entire country. Instead, the Commonwealth government, through an agency called Safe Work Australia, plays the role of developing policies and “model laws” for states and territories to use as templates to develop their own regulatory frameworks.
Safe Work Australia and Model WHS Laws
Established in 2009, Safe Work Australia is the Commonwealth agency responsible for developing model work health and safety (WHS) regulations. In 2011, Safe Work Australia developed a set of model WHS laws to be implemented across Australia. For the model WHS laws to become legally binding, the Commonwealth, states and territories must separately implement them as their own laws.
As the text on the cover of the regulations states, “These Regulations are a national model law and are intended to provide the basis for nationally consistent work health and safety laws. These Regulations do not, by themselves, have any legal effect.”
Basically, Safe Work Australia is responsible for maintaining the model WHS laws, but doesn’t regulate or enforce them.
The model WHS laws include:
- Model WHS Act: forms the basis of the WHS acts that have been implemented in most jurisdictions across Australia. The WHS Act provides a balanced and nationally consistent framework for workplace safety.
- Model WHS Regulations: establish detailed requirements to support the provisions of the model WHS Act. The current version of the regulations, issued in January 2019, contains all amendments made since 2011.
- Model Codes of Practice: practical guides to achieving the standards of health and safety required under the model WHS Act and Regulations.
These elements are supported by the National compliance and enforcement policy, which sets out principles of how WHS regulators monitor and enforce compliance with their respective jurisdictions’ WHS laws. Again, there is no centralized national enforcement authority. WHS regulators in the Commonwealth and in each state and territory are responsible for regulating and enforcing the laws in their jurisdictions.
The Model WHS laws have been implemented in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the Commonwealth. Some jurisdictions have made minor variations to make sure the legislation is consistent with their relevant drafting protocols and other laws and processes.
For more information about jurisdictional WHS regulators, their WHS laws and contact information, please check out the information here.
Employer Obligations Under the WHS Regulations
The implementation of the WHS laws create a number of regulatory obligations for employers. These requirements are generally similar to requirements established within other global regulatory frameworks for workplace health and safety, including OSHA standards enforced in the United States.
Some of the major requirements include, but are not limited to:
- Assessment of workplace hazards and risks, and taking appropriate corrective actions. Some of the tools for meeting these obligations include hazard studies, bowtie analysis, and critical controls verification to ensure that controls for risks are in place and working as expected.
- Monitoring airborne contaminant levels to ensure that exposure standards/limits are not exceeded. Workplace exposure standards in Australia currently cover about 700 chemicals.
- Assessing risks of hearing loss from noise exposure
- Preparing and maintaining emergency plans
- Providing appropriate safety training for workers
Facilities are defined as Major Hazard Facilities (MHFs) if they store, handle and process large quantities of hazardous chemicals listed in Schedule 15 above established threshold quantities. The trigger and requirements for these facilities are roughly similar to those who facilities covered by the Process Safety Management (PSM) standard in the US, or by Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) in the UK.
For information on the applicability of WHS laws in your jurisdiction, please contact your WHS regulator using information at this link.
Australia’s model hazard communication regulations are currently aligned with Revision 3 of the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System. That alignment process began in 2011 and concluded 1 Jan 2017. The model regulations require manufacturers and importers of chemicals supplied to a workplace to correctly classify the chemical according to the hazard criteria in GHS Rev. 3, label hazardous chemicals containers, and provide safety data sheets (SDSs) to downstream users.
We should note that there are two non-GHS hazard classes in Australia:
- AUH070- Toxic by eye contact, and;
- AUH071 - Corrosive to the respiratory tract.
These chemical hazard classes need to be included in SDSs or on labels if applicable.
Australia also has its own unique chemical container labelling requirements. These requirements are set forth in the Code of Practice for Labelling of Workplace Hazardous Chemicals. At a basic level, those requirements include:
- Labels must feature Australian domestic manufacturer/importer contact information;
- A maximum of 6-10 precautionary statements should appear on the label, depending on the nature and severity of the hazards;
- Additional info required if available (e.g. the expiry date of the chemical (if applicable), overseas supplier's contact info, emergency contact number, website address and reference to SDSs);
- Label sizing requirements (see chart below);
- Labels for small containers (size not defined):
- Minimum info required: product identifier, Australian contact info, and hazard pictogram or hazard statements;
- Must include as much labelling information as possible, particularly significant hazards, and;
- A statement reading "Refer to the Safety Data Sheet" is recommended.
|Container capacity||Minimum hazard pictogram dimensions||Minimum text size|
|≤ 500 mL||15 x 15 mm||2.5 mm|
|>500 mL and ≤5 L||20 x 20 mm||3 mm|
|>5L and ≤25 L||50 x 50 mm||5 mm|
|≥25 L||100 x 100 mm||7 mm|
A Risk-Focused Approach to Safety
As you read the Model WHS Regulations, you’ll notice that you encounter the word “risk” quite often. Requirements to evaluate risk are interwoven into many areas of the regulations, including Chapter 3 on “General Risk and Workplace Management.” The Model WHS Regulations establish a general duty to control risks at plants and structures, and specific requirements to assess risks related to noise (Part 4.1), confined spaces (Part 4.3), and to obtain licenses for high risk work (Part 4.5). Safe Work Australia also has developed a Model Code of Practice called “How to manage work health and safety risks,” and maintains a site that provides a step-by-step approach to managing WHS risks.
We should note that this proactive focus on risk closely aligns Australia’s WHS regulations with other modern international occupational health and safety standards, including ISO 45001. Not surprisingly, Australian safety experts contributed significantly to the development of ISO 45001, and both Australia and New Zealand have adopted ISO 45001 into their AS/NZS ISO 45001 standard.
Employers and EHS professionals responsible for establishments in Australia should be comfortable with tools for measuring risk, as well as with the general expectations for a safety management system as set forth in ISO 45001.