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Do Your Inspection! Essential Legal Tips for Conducting a Health & Safety Audit

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, employers must act to protect the health and safety of all workers, including casual or part-time employees, contractors, consultants, designers, suppliers, visitors, customers and in some cases the general public.

The law casts a very wide net.

·       Liability does not require an incident or injury but can be predicated on a failure to identify and address even latent hazards.

·       Further, it imposes this obligation upon a large category of people, including directors, executives, senior managers and others with significant decision-making responsibility.

The common and widely accepted approach is to measure behaviour and regulate and constrain how workers perform activities in the workplace. The motivation is to comply with workplace health and safety legislation and provide a reasonable strategy for harm minimisation. The reasonable system in many circumstances is to set in place behavioral regimes through set expected actions, inspections, and audits.

Safety inspections and audits for legal compliance are, in the absence of a culture of inherent safety awareness, among the officers’ best tools to protect workers from injury and ward off many kinds of penalties. Adverse publicity and court-ordered WHS undertakings are bad for business, but the consequences of serious offences may include hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, even occasionally reaching officers’ personal assets, not to mention the risk of imprisonment.

Who should audit what and how often?

At the outset, it is important to note that any audit plan should be systematic, ongoing and should cover the entire occupational health and safety management system, including the policy and programs used to promote workplace health and safety and to prevent workplace accidents and work related illnesses.

There is a case to be made for both internally and externally conducted audits. The first may draw on the expertise of those who know the business and hazards at first hand, and the second may bring specialized expertise in certain kinds of hazard remediation and give an appearance of greater objectivity. Both are probably appropriate at different intervals.

An external, independent, whole-workplace audit of safety hazards might be necessary only every three years, especially if supplemented by annual, in-house audits of the workplace. A review of critical safety features, on the other hand, might be best conducted by machinery operators at the start of every shift.

Safety audits tend to fall into three main categories:

·       Legislative compliance audits;

·       Hazard specific audits; and

·       Management system audits.

An employer’s systematic plan should include all three.

Legislative compliance audits

These types of audits can be specific and undertaken to determine if workplace practices are meeting legislative requirements. The compliance audit will identify hazards, unsafe work practices and procedures, and systems of work that do not meet legislated standards. The hazards addressed during a legislative compliance audit are determined by the workplace environment along with information obtained from specific training, relevant injury data and industry input. Legislative compliance audits will indicate whether compliance is being achieved or whether further actions are required to meet legal standards.

Legislative compliance audits should be repeated periodically in the light of both the evolving standards of the law and practices that may change over time.

Hazard specific audits

Hazard specific audits address particular issues such as heavy lifting or using hazardous substances and involve the inspection and testing of current workplace control methods. This type of audit has a narrow focus and looks at the effectiveness of policies and procedures in dealing with specific hazards. Unlike compliance audits, the standards set may exceed legislative requirements.

The general workplace hazards that may need to be specifically addressed might include hazardous substances, noise, electrical systems or training in and supervision of the use of hazardous materials.  

Management system audits

These have a wider scope, looking at workplace structures, planning activities, responsibilities, implemented procedures, review cycles and measurement and evaluation issues. The goal of the management system audit is to ensure that business practices and procedures are adequate to achieve the standards mandated by the law.

A basic occupational health and safety management audit might include a review of:

·       How health and safety policy is communicated to staff;

·       How responsibilities and accountability for health and safety matters are allocated;

·       What controls are in place for suppliers, sub-contractors and purchasing departments;

·       How incidents are recorded, investigated and reviewed;

·       How work health and safety performance are measured and evaluated; and

·       What crisis management system is in place?

What can be achieved through a culture of safety awareness

The systematic methodology of inspections, audits and managed behavior set out above are the best known and effective approach to safety management in the absence of transformational cultural change. However in a cultural and organisational environment where focus on safety is paramount then other relational and social issues are fundamental to the cultural behavior giving rise to a safe environment.

The suggested approach in the new regime of "Safety Differently" is to shift the focus from behavioral controls to relationships, leadership and culture in the workplace. Education and motivation focused upon through cultural means and measurable indicators of workers' engagement it is argued can lead to improved outcomes with respect to workplace safety. There is evidence to support these contentions. Transformational change in this manner can be extremely effective in safety management and efficient from a business perspective. For compliance with health and safety legislation the driving KPI's of the social and cultural imperative of safety focus need to become the subject of inspection and audit and form the key indicators of successful improvement.

At Owen Hodge Lawyers, our specialized Work Health & Safety practice is dedicated to helping employers comply with the requirements of the law, with the greater goal of protecting employees from harm and the business and important decision-makers from liability. A well-designed plan of safety audits and inspections is the best way to achieve this goal. Call us to schedule a consultation at 1 800 770 780, so that we can assist you in this vital work.

 

Tim Southwell-Keely, Special Counsel & Accredited Specialist in Business Law,

Owen Hodge lawyer

Tim was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1969. He is a member of the Law Society of New South Wales and is accredited by the Law Society as a Specialist in Business Law.

Tim has more than 10 years' experience in workplace relations and OH&S law. He advises employer clients on all manner of workplace issues arising under various legislation, in particular the Fair Work Act (C'lth) 2009 and the former Occupational Health and Safety Act (NSW) 2000 (now repealed) and the Work Health and Safety Act (NSW) 2011. He applies his knowledge of such legislation to provide clients with practical advice regarding their WHS responsibilities and to assist them in WorkCover investigations.