Thinking | 30 May 2022

Labor’s plans for work health and safety reforms

By David Catanese and Nicholas Beech

Reverse-onus workplace health and safety laws are on the agenda for the new Labor Government, as promised in its election campaign. The Government’s national platform sets out sweeping reforms ‘to advance a national workplace health and safety agenda through a refinanced, enhanced and properly tripartite Safe Work Australia.’

Onus of proof reversal

The first reform on the Government’s WHS agenda is to introduce a nationally consistent reverse-onus on those who conduct businesses and their officers to prove they have taken reasonably practicable measures to prevent the occurrence of a WHS offence. Employers should note Labor’s emphasis on the failure to genuinely consult with workers in these instances.

Industrial manslaughter laws

Another key focus for the new Government is to support the introduction of harmonised industrial manslaughter laws across the country.

Other key initiatives

Labor will seek to harmonise the WHS regulation frameworks covering workers in dangerous industries such as shipping, offshore oil and gas, stevedoring and offshore clean energy.

The Government will also implement all the recommendations from:

  • the Boland Review of Australia’s Model Work Health and Safety Laws; and
  • the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Respect@Work Report.

These reforms will include working closely with each jurisdiction to facilitate the protection of workers’ mental health. The government has alluded to the introduction of specific regulations dealing with psychosocial hazards in this space, an example of which is Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety Amendment (Psychological Health) Regulations 2022 (Vic).

Labor has also vowed to recognise the high risks associated with firefighting and aims to include safe work features in occupational health and safety legislation.

The emphasis on workers’ health during the COVID-19 pandemic means the Government pledges to create strategies to deal with industrial diseases. The hope is to introduce stronger regulations to prevent, monitor and respond to deadly diseases like coal workers’ black lung, in addition to implementing a ‘specific national response’ relating to similar occupational lung diseases. For employers, this will mean the observance of ‘minimum safety benchmarks’ in industries where crystalline silica dust is present.

Asbestos is also high on Labor’s agenda, with the Government working toward a full worldwide ban on mining, manufacture, trade and use of asbestos. This work will be done in consultation with unions and victim groups.

Labor wants to ensure the highest level of protection to workers exposed to dangerous chemicals. This will include assessing chemicals and adopting policies to reduce their use. The Government also wants to establish a database to track and support this initiative.

A review into Comcare will be conducted to improve the outcome for all injured workers. During this review, Labor will suspend all new entrants not in the Commonwealth workers’ compensation scheme.

Watch this space to see how the above matters progress as the new Government implements its agenda.

We note that this article is a high-level summary only, and not intended to be a full statement of the Government’s position.

This article was written with the assistance of Laura D'Aprano, Law Graduate.

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