New work health and safety policy

Joan Lemaire
Senior Vice President

The Department of Education and Communities has issued a new Work Health and Safety policy to apply to schools, TAFE colleges and other public education workplaces. The Department has advised Federation it will also publish new consultation procedures and issue resolution procedures in the near future.

The policy and procedures have been developed in discussions with Federation and the Public Service Association over almost two years since the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 commenced. During this time the Government announced Local Schools, Local Decisions and made significant cuts to a range of positions and other changes in the so called ‘realignment’ of the Department.

Federation was particularly concerned that in developing the policy and procedures the Department would attempt to devolve more responsibility to individual principals and schools. Federation pursued the need for the inclusion of reference to the Department’s primary duty of care to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees, others undertaking work and others in departmental workplaces”.

The policy now states, “While the DEC has the primary duty of care,” and refers also to employee responsibilities.

The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 imposes new duties on “officers” defined as “a person who makes, or participates in making, decisions that affect the whole, or a substantial part of the business”.

These duties are significant and include the need for these people to exercise “due diligence” in ensuring that employers like the Department comply with their legislated duties. This includes taking reasonable steps to:

•acquire and keep up to date knowledge of work health and safety

•understand the risks and hazards common to the Department and TAFE workplaces

•ensure the Department or TAFE has “appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise risks to health and safety from work carried out”

•ensure the Department or TAFE complies with its duties in terms of matters like consulting with workers, reporting and notifying incidents, providing training and instruction to workers.

The policy acknowledges that the Senior Executive of the Department of Education and Communities are deemed to be officers under the Act. These “officers” are not principals or workplace managers.

Federation was successful in ensuring that the reference to the responsibilities of principals and other workplace managers was qualified by recognition that school or other workplaces may not have sufficient resources, support or training to ensure compliance with the legislation. This qualification is set out in Section 4.3 with a list of matters which principals and workplace managers are “to take action to ensure”. This means that if there are not enough resources, or support, or access to training to implement each of the listed items then the workplace manager should notify the Work Health and Safety Directorate and/or a member of the Department’s Senior Executive to seek appropriate support. The policy states: “Where workplace managers are unable to ensure any of these provisions they should escalate them for appropriate action and support.”

The union also raised concerns that the initial drafts of the policy sought to impose additional responsibilities on employees. The policy, like the provisions of the Work Health and Safety Act, qualify the responsibilities of workers by referring to taking “reasonable care” of their own and others’ health and safety and “reasonable care” that their actions or omissions don’t “adversely affect the health and safety of others”.

Similarly, employees should comply with reasonable instructions or lawful directions “so far as they are reasonably able”. Importantly there is a recognition that the participation of workers in consultation and training is “with the support of DEC”, not simply imposed.

The policy also acknowledges that students and all visitors to schools, TAFE colleges and other public education workplaces also have duties under the Work Health and Safety Act. These duties are similar to the duties of employers including taking reasonable care of their own and others health and safety, reporting issues, and following workplace health and safety procedures.

Federation will provide information and advice on the Department’s consultation and issue resolution procedures after they are finalised and published. The consultation procedures will require considerable workplace discussion and will not require immediate implementation.