Thinking | 15 September 2017

Western Australia finally joins the work health and safety bandwagon

Western Australia was the last colony to join the Federation. It is also the only Australian state or territory where secession is still regularly discussed. Does that explain why WA has taken longer than any other jurisdiction to decide on its approach to the harmonised work health and safety (WHS) laws that have been adopted across the nation (other than in Victoria)? Probably not.

The Commonwealth, Queensland, NSW, ACT and NT adopted the harmonised WHS regime on 1 January 2012. South Australia and Tasmania followed suit a year later. Victoria opted out in mid-2012, but WA has been busily prevaricating these past five years.

Two green bills have been introduced (one for the resources industry and one for general industry), public comment periods have opened and closed, and there has been stakeholder consultation aplenty. When WorkSafe WA released its discussion paper on 1 June 2016 recommending 132 changes to the model WHS Regulations, the then Liberal government ceased using the term ‘harmonisation’ and began referring instead to ‘modernisation.’

But with the election of a Labor government in March this year, it seems the wait is now over. On 12 July 2017, the Commerce and IR Minister Bill Johnston announced that the WA government had approved the development of a single mirror WHS bill, dumping plans for a separate bill for the resources industry. He said that WA’s WHS bill would be based on the national model WHS Act and improve consistency across the rest of Australia. Looks like ‘harmonisation’ is back in the vernacular then.

The WA government’s decision to go with a ‘single Act approach’ follows the recent amalgamation of the Department of Commerce (which included WorkSafe) with the Department of Mines and Petroleum. The new department – known as the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety – will regulate the mining, building and construction industries. It will also elevate the focus on worker safety, consistent with the government’s pre-election commitments to introduce a new offence of gross negligent conduct which is expected to carry the highest maximum work safety fine in Australia and jail terms of up to 20 years.

So things are finally moving out west, but there’s still a way to go because the WHS bill is not likely to be introduced until mid-2019.

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