Determining workplace safety conditions is the joint responsibility of employers and employees. Health and safe work groups and designated representatives are consulted, and cease work options apply in unsafe conditions. Representatives are protected against discrimination and unions can gain access to workplaces for inspection and investigation.
Employers and employees must both participate in determining safe and healthy working conditions in the workplace. To facilitate this joint participation, the OHSA 2004 sets out the following procedures:
•“Designated work groups” are established in the workplace. Each of these groups elects a representative – known as the health and safety representative (HSR) (pt 7 OHSA 2004) – who represents the employees’ interests. The HSR may, in certain circumstances, inspect the part of the workplace for which they are the HSR. (For other powers, see ss 58–60.)
•HSRs may, after consulting the employer, issue Provisional Improvement Notices (see “Enforcement”), which are legal directions requiring the employer to comply with a provision of the OHSA 2004 (s 60) or Regulations. Failure to take the appropriate actions after receiving a notice is a criminal offence.
•Health and safety committees facilitate cooperation between employers and employees in the formulation and operation of health and safety measures, procedures and standards (s 72).
Where an immediate threat to health and safety exists, and the resolution process has failed, either the employer or the HSR may direct work to stop (s 74). Suitable alternative work may be assigned to employees during a work stopage.
If a resolution cannot be reached, a WorkSafe inspector may be called in. If the inspector issues a Prohibition Notice (see “Enforcement”) or determines that there was reasonable cause for concern, employees are entitled to receive wages for the period of the work stoppage. Disputes about wages can be referred to the Magistrates’ Court.
HSRs can also seek court orders in the Magistrates’ Court that direct an employer to allow access to the workplace to an outside person whose assistance the HSR needs to perform a function or duty (s 70).
Protection of Health and Safety Representatives
Because of the vital role played by HSRs under the OHSA 2004, section 76 makes it a criminal offence for an employer to treat an employee less favourably “for the dominant reason” that the employee has been an HSR or has been otherwise active in promoting health and safety. These offences attract significant penalties under the OHSA 2004. For example, Patricks Ports Pty Ltd was convicted and fined $180,000 for standing down a HSR without pay for one week because he refused to work in a manner that he considered unsafe. As with other offences, these section 76 offences can only be enforced by WorkSafe inspectors (see “Enforcement”).
In addition to penalising an employer, a court that finds a charge under section 76 proved can order that the employee concerned be compensated and/or reinstated to their former position.
As a result of recent amendments to the OHSA 2004, claims of discrimination against HSRs and others can now be raised in civil proceedings (ss 78A–78E). A plaintiff has one year to bring a civil claim. Civil cases are easier to establish than criminal ones as it is only necessary to show that the HSR was dismissed “because of” their occupational health and safety activities. The civil standard of proof applies.
It may also be possible for an employee who considers they have been targeted for raising health and safety concerns to pursue an “adverse action” claim under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (“FW Act”). Benefits of such an approach include the ability to obtain speedy, temporary relief (see AFMEPKIU v Visy Packaging Pty Ltd  FCA 953).
Under part 8 of the OHSA 2004, an employee or officer of a trade union registered under the FW Act may be issued with an entry permit by the Magistrates’ Court (s 83). A permit holder is entitled, in defined circumstances, to access certain workplaces for the purpose of investigating particular alleged contraventions of the OHSA 2004 (s 87). A permit holder who enters a workplace in accordance with the OHSA 2004 may exercise the powers of investigation set out in section 89. As a result of changes to federal legislation, a permit holder seeking to gain entry under the OHSA 2004 must also comply with parts 3–4 of the FW Act.