Being an officer under WHS law is a significant responsibility in Australia. You have a legal duty to comply with WHS obligations and to take reasonably practicable steps towards compliance. That means continually and comprehensively ensuring that your workers, volunteers and visitors are safe.

But, first and foremost, you have to ascertain whether you’re an officer. Understanding the definition and the responsibilities that the position holds are fundamental.

Most WHS professionals understand what constitutes an officer under the WHS Act, but it’s not always obvious? If you’re an officer, do you know your obligations under your due diligence responsibilities? Or under what’s deemed reasonably practicable? If there is any doubt in your mind, perhaps it’s time you brush up your knowledge. The risk of non-compliance not only leaves employees vulnerable but, if you’re an officer, it puts you at risk of prosecution.

Who is an Officer?

Anyone who can be defined as a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), has legal obligations under work health and safety laws. The position of an officer is determined by the role you hold within the business. While this is different for each person and company, an officer can broadly be defined as someone who:

  • Makes significant business decisions
  • Can significantly affect the business’s financial position

As an officer, you’ll have an influential role within your company. This might not mean you’re always directly involved in implementing safety measures. However, you should be able to ensure the resources and systems are in place for the business to comply with Australian WHS law.

What are the Due Diligence Obligations of an Officer?

The WHS Act stipulates that all workers have a duty of care towards others in the workplace. If you’re an officer, however, you have additional responsibilities. You need to exercise due diligence by taking the following six steps:

  1. Maintaining up-to-date knowledge of work health and safety
  2. Understanding the nature of the organisation and its hazards and risks
  3. Ensuring the resources and processes are in place to manage risks
  4. Establishing WHS reporting systems that work in a timely manner
  5. Building processes that comply with WHS law
  6. Verifying that all the steps have been adequately met

Note: You can’t delegate these responsibilities to anyone; you need to personally ensure each of the steps is met.

How Officers Can Meet Their WHS Obligations

If you’re an officer, it is one thing to understand WHS obligations, but another to know how to meet them. To comply with your duty as an officer, you should consider:

  • Working on your professional development and seeking out opportunities to increase your knowledge of work health and safety matters.
  • Consulting workers on their day-to-day operations, identifying hazards and analysing trends from incident and hazard reports.
  • Actively checking that WHS matters are adequately resourced, creating WHS or risk management roles and ensuring there is sufficient staff to safely manage business operations.
  • Incorporating incident reporting training, ensuring systems enable management to receive, investigate and review incident reports, and creating a reporting structure that ensures incidents are dealt with promptly.
  • Consulting with staff about WHS matters, providing the necessary training, and monitoring that incidents are being reported and addressed.
  • Consider a workforce or contractor management solution to provide you oversite of WHS compliance of your workers
  • Auditing the risk management program and verifying that the organisation has a legally compliant WHS system.
Understanding Reasonably Practicable

Your responsibilities as an officer are relative to how realistically achievable they are. All obligations must be taken into account and weighed up to determine what is realistic in the particular business circumstances, including:

  • The chance of the risk occurring
  • The degree of harm that could result from the risk
  • The knowledge the person undertaking the risk needs
  • The availability of ways to eliminate or minimise the risk
  • The cost associated with removing or reducing the risk

The term reasonably practicable is a legal requirement that involves considering what can be done and determining whether it is reasonable to do so. Officers must try to eliminate risks. If a risk can’t be removed, it should be minimised by substituting the activity, isolating the hazard or implementing additional controls.

The Risk of Non-Compliance

The risk of non-compliance is certainly not one worth taking. By ignoring your duties, you put your workers at risk of injury, illness or worse. And you’re putting yourself at risk too. Officers can be prosecuted for an offence under WHS law, even if an incident hasn’t taken place.

Don’t take any chances. Make sure you know whether you are an officer under WHS law, follow your obligations and practice due diligence. The alternative really isn’t worth the risk.

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