Identifying risks of physical and psychosocial hazards in the workplace is a responsibility faced by businesses. With state-based laws enforced by local regulators, employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment for their staff. Such an environment has reputational benefits, reduces rates of injury, and improves staff retention.
Unsafe practices, on the other hand, can come with significant financial penalties for employers. In 2021, the national median compensation for a serious workplace injury was $55,270 per serious claim1 and seven weeks' lost time per employee. Severe cases in some jurisdictions could see unsafe workplaces pay a maximum penalty of $3 million or, in the case of industrial manslaughter, penalties of over $10 million or 25 years imprisonment.
Stress and other psychosocial hazards
Aside from physical hazards such as heavy equipment, working from heights, slips and falls, employees can be faced with stressful and tiring situations and an employer must take steps to manage the risks of psychological harm.
Recently, states and territories have introduced WHS Regulations, supported by Codes of Practice or Guidelines, that require employers to ensure safe systems of work, training and supervision to remove the risk of harm caused by bullying, harassment, stress, fatigue and other psychosocial hazards. See our previous guide on how to manage psychosocial hazards at work.
In Victoria, the introduction of anti-bullying legislation as long ago as 2011, known as Brodie's Law, came after the tragic suicide of a young woman, Brodie Panlock, who was subjected to relentless bullying at the café she worked at. Serious bullying is now a crime in Victoria, punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment.
How should employers best protect their staff from workplace injuries?
Employers should implement a comprehensive workplace health and safety plan to eliminate or minimise exposure to hazards, properly train staff, and report incidents effectively. This includes:
- having a clear understanding of your responsibilities and duties as an employer as outlined in your state's workplace health and safety legislation
- identifying all potential hazards and either removing them or providing proper safety processes, equipment, signage and training
- training staff and regularly conducting refreshers on how to safely perform tasks, including providing adequate supervision. Provide staff with a written safety procedure and obtain their sign-off on completion of the training
- ensuring all machinery is safely guarded and maintained, and equipment is used in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions
- designing workplaces and work processes and providing equipment that limits staff physical strain such as overstretching, twisting, bending and awkward postures
- adopt comprehensive emergency management and written incident reporting processes, and train staff to comply with them.
What happens if an employee is injured?
Under Australian law, employers are required to have insurance to cover employees in the case that they are injured or get sick as a result of work.
To be eligible for workers' compensation, the worker must:
- be an employee of the business (full-time, part-time, casual, voluntary or under apprenticeship)
- have a medical condition that has been diagnosed by a medical practitioner
- have a medical condition caused by the work
- have suffered a financial loss as a result of their injury.
If an employee is injured at work, they usually have six months to notify their employer of the injury and make a claim with their state's regulator (e.g. WorkSafe Victoria, iCare NSW). This timeframe can be extended to up to three years in exceptional cases, such as if the worker did not become aware of their injury until much later.
The regulator will review the claim and decide whether the injured party is entitled to receive workers' compensation from their employer. Depending on the nature of the injury, workers' compensation may cover an employee's lost wages, medical costs, pay a lump sum or pay funeral expenses if the injury results in a fatality.
How we can help
Work health and safety laws and obligations vary from state to state, so it's important to ensure you are operating in accordance with your state's regulations. If you have any questions about this article or ways you, as an employer, can reduce the risk of physical or psychosocial harm in the workplace, please get in touch with a member of our Workplace Relations & Safety team below.
This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.