In January 2012, new work health and safety (WHS) laws commenced in most states and territories to harmonise occupational health and safety (OH&S) laws across Australia.

With it came a change in terminology. Bar the two states yet to introduce harmonised laws – Victoria and Western Australia- ‘work’ health and safety’ replaced ‘occupational’ health and safety in the legislation.

The style bible for bureaucrats – the Federal Government style manual – now lists work health and safety (WHS) as the recommended term for authors, editors and printers. Non-government health and safety titles have adopted the style in their news content – but like the Australian Institute of OHS, retain ‘occupational’ in their titles eg, ‘Occupational’ Health News, and ‘OHS’ Alert.

Outside Victoria and WA, the harmonised legislation includes a model WHS Act, WHS regulations, codes of practice and a national compliance and enforcement policy. The Federal Government’s business website acknowledges the model WHS Act is “not significantly different” from previous occupational health & safety (OH&S) laws – but “makes it easier” for businesses and workers to comply with their requirements across different states and territories.

So if it is “not significantly different”, who decided that ‘WHS’ should replace ‘OHS’ as the recognised term – and why?

Is WHS a “different/better/clearer” description than OHS or was it simply a case of the harmonised legislation stamping its mark with a jazzy new name? Or is the shorter term “work” easier to understand than ‘occupational”?

Safe Work Australia (SWA) is the national body in charge of developing work health and safety and workers’ compensation policy. AlertForce asked SWA to explain the genesis of the term WHS at a federal level and why it was thought preferable to OHS. Also, were there any remaining legacy issues still to address? Similar questions were posed to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and industry body the Australian Industry Group (AIG).

SWA told AlertForce the term ‘work health and safety’ was adopted during the development of the model WHS Act.

The development of the model WHS Act involved “substantial” public consultation and an independent review of OHS laws in each state, territory and the Commonwealth, it said. The draft of the model WHS Act was based on the decisions of the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council (WRMC) in relation to the review findings.

An exposure draft Model Act and a discussion paper were released for public comment in September 2009, providing all members of the Australian community an opportunity to contribute through written submissions. SWA said one of the matters raised in the discussion paper was the title of the Act and people were invited to comment on ‘an appropriate title.’

The relevant paragraph in the discussion paper explains why the term ‘work’ rather than ‘occupational’ was proposed:

It is proposed to call the model Act the Safe Work Act 2009 and that this citation be uniformly adopted for the Acts in the jurisdictions. The titles of OHS laws in Australia vary, with ‘Occupational Health and Safety Act’ the most common. Other titles are ‘work safety’, ‘workplace health and safety’; or ‘occupational health, safety and welfare’. The term ‘work’ is proposed in the title instead of ‘occupational’ to reflect that the Act applies more broadly to work, rather than only to occupations. An alternative is to include ‘health’ in the title eg, Work Health and Safety Act.”

SWA said a total of 480 submissions were received in response to the appropriate title and of those that commented on the title of the act, a majority preferred ‘Work Health and Safety Act.’

The WRMC endorsed the model WHS Act at its December 2009 meeting and recommended adoption into law by all states, territories and the Commonwealth by the end of 2011. All jurisdictions except Victoria and Western Australia have implemented the model legislation.

Safe Work Australia and the jurisdictions that have adopted the model legislation use work health and safety more generally and not just when referring to their Work Health and Safety Act, SWA said.

A spokesperson for SWA said the body understood the term “occupational health and safety” was still used by many people. “This may be something that changes over time,” he said.

ACTU assistant secretary Michael Borowick told AlertForce, meantime, said it “doesn’t matter” if it is called OHS or WHS. “What matters is that workers are protected in legislation and have compensation if they are injured at work,” Borowick said.

“The term occupational health and safety (OHS) is still widely used as workers and the general public are more familiar with OHS than workplace health and safety (WHS). In Victoria, the act is still known as the OHS Act.

“With 83 Australians killed at work since January 2015, Australian unions will continue to focus on strengthening safety at work. “

Director of WHS policy for AIG Mark Goodsell told AlertForce WHS was the preferred terminology in the harmonised legislation, but acknowledged OHS remained in use. “I suspect some see the term ‘work’ is more specific and says something different to ‘occupational’ – exactly what, remains debatable, “ he said. “There has always been debate about where the boundaries of work stop – travel claims are one example of this ongoing debate. Perhaps, ‘work’ is seen as saying something about those boundaries. It could also come down to a short word being preferred over a longer word.”

Goodsell said use of the term workplace/work health and safety originated in the states (Ed: eg, the Queensland Workplace Health and Safety Act 1995 became the Queensland Work Health and Safety Act 2011), but said WHS was increasingly being used following the introduction of the federal harmonisation legislation.

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