Work Health and Safety (WHS) policy and law is a relatively recent focus for the world’s workplaces. Led by union action for a century and developed through state legislature, policies and standards began in industrial and construction industries in the late 1800s, but a national approach to workplace health and safety wasn’t achieved until 1985.1

The current Australian model Work Health and Safety laws2 were established in 2011 by Safe Work Australia, detailing the specific training, policies and frameworks required to help minimise risks to Australian workers. This includes requirements for workers to complete specified training and assessment before they can undertake certain work or roles.

At the time of writing, a modernised Work Health and Safety Act for Western Australia3 is still in the process of being confirmed through Parliament. This will supersede the current 1996 regulations, modelled on the thirty-six-year-old Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984, and bring WA into the present, and in line with the national model Work Health and Safety laws.

The slow-moving century-long struggle to implement national WHS laws has come to a head in 2020 with the global shock of COVID and its impact on the modern workplace.

Along with increasing globalisation of industries, organisations and workforces, COVID has posed huge challenges for workplaces in keeping their employees and customers safe, changing the way businesses run and how and where workers can safely work. Recent estimates have put nearly a third of Australian workers working from home during the pandemic4, leading to a variety of new health and safety risks from ergonomics to mental health and infection susceptibility.

It has also impacted the ability of training organisations to deliver regular face-to-face WHS training. Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID, bespoke training needed to be quickly developed to ensure workers, particularly in the services industries, had up to date knowledge of both infection control measures and Coronavirus. Between March and July over a million Australians had undertaken the Government’s bespoke module5, allowing Australia’s service industry in particular to recover and keep going during very uncertain times.

This has highlighted the importance of training and the need for it to respond to health, environmental and societal changes in order for workplaces to remain as safe as possible. In the case of COVID, a rapid uptake in training and updating of WHS policies and procedures not only helped employee and customer health and safety, but helped reduce the impacts on the wider society and the economy as a whole.

Beyond legal requirements, the main objective of WHS training is of course to reduce workplace injuries and fatalities, but it does have wider organisational impacts too. A comprehensive WHS policy that incorporates training can help the bottom line by not only avoiding penalties, fines, compensation and other legal expenses, but it can also improve productivity with fewer injury-related absences. A focus on WHS and its direct benefits can also improve worker morale and retention, as well as reputation.

COVID has forced workplaces and training providers to act swiftly and embed the latest in infection prevention, ergonomics, mental health and more into workplace culture. The implications of COVID on all workplaces is still continually evolving. It is likely WHS needs in all industries will continue to change over the next year and beyond, and policies and training will need to respond.

Refreshing training regularly for all workers has added overall benefits, reducing complacency and reinforces key best practice information retention. The need to complete updated training due to COVID can only have a positive effect on workplaces, encouraging all employees to gain the latest knowledge to keep themselves, their colleagues and customers safe.

As Australia’s WHS agenda moves further into the 21st century, the lessons learned from 2020 will no doubt only add to the incentive of continual improvement based on the latest knowledge of the time, and the need for a consistent approach.

  1. Workplace Health and Safety in Australia, Australian Council of Trade Unions
  2. Model WHS Laws, Safe Work Australia
  3. Modernising work health and safety laws in Western Australia, Government of Western Australia, 2018
  4. Nearly a third of Australian workers have been ‘#WFH’, Roy Morgan, 2020
  5. COVID-19: over 1 million online training completions, Australian Department of Health, 2020

If you or your team needs training in the latest in WHS practices, see the courses available on our Workplace Health and Safety courses page.