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Health and safety protections

Overview of the health and safety laws

Your employer has a general duty to protect your health and safety at work, as far as this is reasonable. They also have some more specific duties, like making sure machinery and equipment is safe, and making sure you have the training and supervision you need.

These health and safety duties apply not just to your physical work environment but also to your psychological work environment. This could cover issues like work-related stress and fatigue resulting from heavy workloads, deadlines, shift work or overtime.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 deals with health and safety issues in all workplaces and during all work activities. The Act provides a range of enforcement methods for when someone doesn’t comply with the Act. It also requires employers to involve their workers in improving health and safety (“worker participation”).

Who’s responsible for health and safety in the workplace?

Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, s 36

The main responsibility for health and safety in your workplace lies with your employer, or whoever else is responsible for the work. The Health and Safety at Work Act gives them what it calls the “primary duty” for health and safety (see below, “What health and safety duties does my employer owe me?”).

This includes businesses, government departments, local councils and schools, and also not-for-profit organisations that employ staff.

But people other than your employer also have some health and safety duties in the workplace, like people who control or manage a workplace, such as the building owner or the head contractor on a building project where you’re working for a subcontractor or where you’re employed by a labour hire company.

Employees and others doing work also have responsibilities to themselves and others (see below, “Your health and safety duties as an employee”).

Who’s protected by the health and safety laws?

Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, ss 19, 36(1)

The main protections of the Health and Safety at Work Act cover the following people:

  • Paid workers – This includes employees; independent contractors and subcontractors; employees of labour hire companies working at the worksite of a third party like a construction company; homeworkers and outworkers; and apprentices and trainees.
  • On work experience / trials – You’re also covered if you’re working unpaid because you’re on work experience or a work trial.
  • Some regular volunteers – The Act covers a limited category of volunteers who do regular and ongoing work. You’re protected as one of these volunteers (called “volunteer workers” in the Act) only if:
    • the organisation you volunteer for employs one or more staff, and
    • the volunteer work you do is regular and ongoing and is an “integral part” of the organisation, and
    • you’re not involved in any of the following exempted activities: fundraising; helping with sport or recreation (like coaching your child’s team for their school or club); helping schools or other educational institutions with off-site trips and activities; or providing care in your own home.

Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, s 36(2)

Note: Volunteers who aren’t “volunteer workers” – either because they’re more casual volunteers or because they do one of the exempted activities – are owed a lesser health and safety duty by the organisation they’re working for. The organisation must make sure the health and safety of these volunteers isn’t put at risk by the organisation’s work. This is the same duty as applies to visitors, customers and others who don’t do any work for the organisation.

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