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Employers and employees have certain rights and responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act. Employees have the right to elect a health and safety representative (HSR). Employers have the responsibility to maintain a reasonably safe workplace.
The following guide examines health and safety requirements in the workplace, including a detailed look at the HSR role. Learn how HSRs are elected, what they do, and their connection to health and safety committees (HSCs).
What is Health and Safety and the WHS Act?
Health and safety in the workplace typically revolve around the WHS Act. The WHS Act includes laws and regulations intended to promote the safety of employees. Complying with the WHS Act can help businesses:
- Reduce the risk of injuries and illnesses in the workplace
- Reduce the cost of workers’ compensation
- Improve or maintain staff productivity
Employers are also more likely to retain staff if they maintain the safety of workers. The number of worker fatalities has mostly decreased since the early 2000s. However, Australia still suffered 194 worker fatalities in 2020.
Workplace injuries lead to direct and indirect costs. The direct costs include workers’ compensation. The indirect costs include loss of labour and reduced productivity. The WHS Act provides a framework for establishing effective health and safety policies. Among the recommended steps for ensuring a safer workplace is electing a health and safety representative.
Employer Health and Safety Responsibilities
Employers and persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) have responsibilities under the WHS Act. Businesses need to provide workers with a safe work environment. This may require workers to follow specific codes of practice for completing different activities or types of work.
For example, before working from heights, workers need to complete the corresponding training course. Workers in the construction industry need to complete white card training. These courses cover safety standards and the legal duties of employers and employees.
The WHS Act outlines the employer’s duty of care, which includes the following duties:
- Provide workers with information about any risks and hazards
- Provide instruction and training when necessary for completing work safely
- Consult and co-operate with a health and safety representative (HSR)
When avoiding a hazard is not practical, employers need to provide workers with the necessary training, equipment, and resources to work as safely as possible. Employers are also responsible for the health and safety of visitors and volunteers.
An employer may also need to hold an election for health and safety representatives or set up a safety and health committee when requested by workers.
What is a HSR?
Employees may elect a health and safety representative (HSR) to represent their group in health and safety matters. The HSR looks out for the best interests of the workgroup in discussions related to hazards and safety concerns.
A workgroup is a group of employees who share similar work situations, such as a group of workers at the same facility or working in the same department. The WHS Act allows for one or more work groups at each workplace. Each work group may elect one or more HSRs. HSRs, work groups, and employers negotiate to determine how many groups and HSRs are needed in the workplace. The number may depend on the hazards and risks of the workplace. For example, a workplace with severe hazards may require more HSRs compared to an office setting with minimal risks.
HSRs and workers may also establish a health and safety committee (HSC). An HSC is intended to facilitate communication between the employer and workers related to health and safety measures. An HSC may consult with the employer and HSRs to implement specific safety procedures or address potential hazards.
What Does a Work Health and Safety Representative Do?
The main task of an HSR is to protect the interests of workers in a work group. The workgroup is the group that elected the HSR. A workgroup may also elect multiple HSRs.
Electing HSRs and following WHS laws has gradually helped make Australian workplaces safer. According to statistics compiled by Safe Work Australia, the country has experienced a 23% decrease in serious worker injury claims between 2009 and 2018.
HSRs represent workers and promote the health and safety of the workplace. They act as a bridge between managers and workers in the group to ensure that everyone has a voice when it comes to health and safety issues. Electing HSRs allows workers to participate in addressing safety concerns.
HSRs also have the right to inspect the workplace for safety issues after providing notice to the PCBU. The notice should be provided at least 24 hours before the inspection. However, if the situation involves an immediate risk to health or safety, the HSR may complete the investigation immediately.
Another common role of the HSR is to review control measures. Before engaging in hazardous work, an HSR may review the control measures in place if the measures are not considered effective or a new hazard is identified.
HSR Powers and Functions
HSRs receive several powers and engage in several functions as part of their roles. Here are some of the main powers and functions of an HSR:
- Investigating safety complaints from members of the workgroup
- Representing the workgroup in safety issues
- Monitoring the employer’s compliance with WHS regulations
- Accompanying an inspector or regulator during investigations
- Requesting assistance from a regulator with unresolved safety issues
- Initiating emergency work stop procedures
- Directing workgroup members to stop unsafe work
- Issuing provisional improvement notices (PINs)
Employers need to give HSRs the freedom and time to carry out their duties and responsibilities. If an HSR identifies a health or safety issue, they need to consult with the employer or the person conducting the business or undertaking (PCBU).
What is HSR Training?
HSRs cannot initiate emergency stop-work procedures or issue provisional improvement notices (PINs) until they complete HSR training. As of July 2018, HSR training is also mandatory for HSRs in Queensland if the elected representative asks for it.
After being elected, an HSR has six months to complete the training program. An HSR who fails to complete the training will lose their elected position. HSRs do not need to be health experts. However, they should be aware of health and safety regulations and recommended codes of practice for safe work in their industry. HSR training gives HSRs the skills and knowledge needed to carry out their duties.
HSR training is completed face-to-face over five days of training. The initial five-day course covers a wide range of topics. Some of the main learning objectives include:
- Comprehending the WHS legislative framework and common safety risks
- Identifying the duties and responsibilities of key parties (including PCBUs and HSRs)
- Understanding how to engage in health and safety discussions and consultations
- Assessing health and safety practices to ensure compliance with safety laws
After the initial training, attendees receive a statement of attainment. The course does not include any accreditations. However, the course is necessary for gaining the ability to issue PINs.
HSRs should also complete a one-day refresher course each year. The refresher course may be completed online or in person. Refresher courses provide an overview of the learning outcomes from the initial course and any updates to WHS legislation.
How Are Health and Safety Committees and HSRs Selected?
Health and safety committees (HSCs) and health and safety representatives (HSRs) are chosen by the workers. However, establishing HSCs and electing HSRs involve different processes. Here is a closer look.
Establishing a Health and Safety Committee
An HSR or a group of five or more workers has the right to establish an HSC. An employer may also choose to establish an HSC.
As part of the WHS legislative requirement for establishing safety committees, an employer has two months to comply with the request.
The committee can be created for a fixed period of time or to run long-term. For example, employees may develop an HSC to oversee a specific project.
The composition of the committee is up to the workers and the employer. An employer has the right to nominate up to half of the members of the committee. The committee should also adequately represent the workgroup.
HSRs also have the right to join HSCs. If a workgroup has more than one HSR, multiple HSRs can join the committee. HSRs may also join multiple committees.
Understanding the HSR Election Process
Electing a worker to serve as an HSR involves the following steps:
- Request an election
- Negotiate work groups
- Notify workers of the election
- Elect HSRs
- Notify workers of the outcome
Any worker can request an election for an HSR. After requesting an election, all workers in the workgroup are eligible to nominate HSRs and deputy HSRs. All members of the group are also eligible to be elected.
In some cases, a group of workers may need to negotiate their work groups. This may involve determining which workers are part of the group to ensure adequate representation.
After negotiations, everyone should receive notification of the upcoming election. The election process is often informal. Members of the work group may simply raise their hands to signal their vote for an HSR or a deputy HSR. Everyone should be informed of the outcome of the election as soon as it is completed.
What Are Deputy Health and Safety Representatives?
Workers elect deputy HSRs using the same process for electing HSRs. As with HSRs, work groups may elect more than one deputy HSR. The deputy HSR only represents the workgroup when the elected HSR is unavailable.
How Long Do HSRs Serve in Their Roles?
An HSR is elected for a three-year term. An HSR may be re-nominated after the term ends. An HSR can also be removed from office if they fail to complete HSR training or fail to carry out their duties and responsibilities. An HSR may also leave their position if they stop working in the work group that elected them to the position.
What Are the Responsibilities of HSCs and HSRs?
HSRs are responsible for representing work groups in health and safety discussions. They are responsible for verifying that the employer is taking every practicable step to maintain a safe work environment, such as implementing safety strategies or using personal protective equipment.
If an HSR detects a health or safety issue, they have a responsibility to report it. An HSR may also request for work to stop until the issue can be resolved. Requesting a stop to work requires HSRs to complete HSR training. An HSR may also issue a PIN when they identify a safety concern.
What is a Provisional Improvement Notice?
A provisional improvement notice (PIN) is a notice requiring a worker or person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to address a health or safety concern. HSRs may issue PINs when they believe that a task or situation poses an unnecessary health or safety risk.
The HSR should provide a verbal or written notification about the issue. They should also allow the person in control of the work to express their opinion and views. After receiving a PIN, the individual should receive adequate time to resolve the issue.
General Operation of a Health and Safety Committee
Committees should meet at least once every three months. An HSC may also meet any time that at least half of the members request a meeting. Each member should receive reasonable time to attend the meeting and carry out their functions within the committee. Members should also be paid their normal pay rate during the meeting and when carrying out any tasks related to the committee.
Any information about health risks and hazards should also be provided to each member. During the meeting, the group may discuss health and safety issues and assign members to inspect issues.
Work health and safety should be a major concern for every employer and employee. Under the WHS Act, employees have the right to elect health and safety representatives (HSRs) to look out for their interests in health and safety matters. If you were recently elected as an HSR or want to learn more about the role of an HSR, explore HSR training courses from a qualified registered training organisation.
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