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Role and functions

Safe Work Australia was established as a statutory agency on 1 November 2009 under the Safe Work Australia Act 2008 (the Act). It is the body leading the development of national policy to improve work health and safety (WHS) and workers’ compensation across Australia. Safe Work Australia does not undertake any regulatory functions.

The establishment of Safe Work Australia was provided for in the Intergovernmental Agreement for Regulatory and Operational Reform in Occupational Health and Safety (the IGA) agreed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on 3 July 2008.

Safe Work Australia is responsible for coordinating and developing national policy and strategies, developing and maintaining model WHS laws, undertaking research and collecting, analysing and reporting data. Safe Work Australia works collaboratively with WHS authorities, industry groups and unions to achieve the national vision of healthy, safe and productive working lives.

The agency is jointly funded by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. This funding arrangement promotes collaboration with jurisdictions on policy development, implementation, compliance and enforcement, and communication activities.

Safe Work Australia Members work with staff to deliver the objectives of the Safe Work Australia Corporate Plan 2015-2019 (the corporate plan) and Safe Work Australia Operational Plan 2015-2016 (the operational plan).

Safe Work Australia’s functions are set out in the Act. At the time of its establishment, a central function was to develop the model WHS laws. Other activities to support the functions include:

  • Monitoring, reviewing and evaluating the model WHS laws including making changes that improve the operational efficiency of the laws, reduce regulatory burden and support ongoing reform to improve safety outcomes.
  • Developing policy proposals to improve the consistency of explosives legislation across Australia.
  • Facilitatating the provision of simple, practical guidance to aid compliance, especially for small business.
  • Collecting, maintaining, improving and reporting on national WHS and workers’ compensation data.
  • Undertaking and disseminating high quality nationally significant WHS and workers’ compensation research, including on emerging issues.
  • Supporting the implementation of the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 (Australian Strategy).
  • Promoting consistent WHS and workers’ compensation messaging.
  • Improving consistency in workers’ compensation arrangements.
  • Liaising with other countries and international organisations on matters relating to WHS and workers’ compensation.

Safe Work Australia is subject to the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (PGPA Act).

Work health and safety statistics

Safe Work Australia infographic

Chief Executive Officer’s review

Michelle Baxter

Safe Work Australia is committed to ensuring healthier, safe and more productive workplaces through improvements to Australian WHS and workers’ compensation arrangements. This annual report highlights our achievements, the opportunities and the challenges of the past financial year and provides information on how we are meeting the objectives of our corporate and operational plans.

Safe Work Australia data shows the number of work-related fatalities is falling, down to 188 in 2014 from a long-term average of 250 fatalities—a reduction of 27 per cent. The rate of serious injury claims also continues to fall, with the 116,325 serious claims lodged by Australian workers in 2012–13 representing a 13 per cent reduction since 2000–01. While just one death or serious injury is too many, I am pleased that we have actively contributed to the ongoing reduction in work-related death, injury and illness.

This year we welcomed a new Chair, with Ms Diane Smith-Gander who commenced working with us in February 2016. She brings to this role a strong passion for WHS and an extensive background in the private sector, as well as being active in non-government organisations. I would like to extend my thanks to the outgoing Chair, Ms Ann Sherry AO, for her strong leadership and guidance over her three productive years in the role.

Over 2015–16, Safe Work Australia continued to use the Australian Strategy as a national platform to tackle key areas that have the most potential to improve health and safety. This included releasing the Principles of Good Work Design handbook to show how the 10 principles of good work design can be practically applied by business and industry. We also worked collaboratively with Australian Government agencies to develop a practical framework to help integrate WHS into government policies and programs.

Safe Work Australia ran the third National Return to Work Survey in May 2016. This survey measures return to work outcomes of injured workers receiving workers’ compensation and helps us to better understand the factors that may have an effect on their recovery. In the year to come, Safe Work Australia will continue to work on projects to improve return to work outcomes, including the development of best practice for claims management of people with psychological injuries; and work to promote the effective involvement of treating general practitioners in the process.

We continued our focus on prevention activities for the Australian Strategy’s seven priority industries, shown pictorially throughout this report. Data continues to show that these industries account for the majority of fatalities and serious injuries in Australia. Continued focus on prevention in these industries will mean measurable and enduring reductions in work-related fatalities and serious injuries across Australia. All levels of government, industry and unions must work together towards this goal.

Safe Work Australia is focused on improving communication about health and safety, specifically to integrate WHS into normal business practices and aid understanding and compliance, particularly for small business and individuals. In particular, we are working on using the array of technology available to develop innovative communication solutions to make guidance material more accessible.

To this end, Safe Work Australia hosted another successful Virtual Seminar Series, a collection of free seminars broadcast every day throughout National Safe Work Month in October. We featured panel discussions, video presentations, reports and infographics from WHS experts, business leaders and academics on key issues of supply chains, good work design and the construction and manufacturing industries.

As well as supporting national campaigns, such as World Day for Safety and Health at Work, Workers’ Memorial Day, and National Safe Work Month, we partnered with a number of organisations to make WHS a prominent feature of national awards. In May 2015, Good Design Australia awarded the inaugural Safe Work Australia Award for Good Design to an innovative lifting device to prevent workers’ back and shoulder injuries.

It has now been seven years since we took on the role of developing model WHS laws for Australia—the biggest reform to WHS in Australia’s history. By setting the legislative framework for WHS, this reform has allowed us to address the key challenges affecting the way Australians approach WHS. We have continued to work with jurisdictions and social partners to refine the model WHS laws to remove unnecessary regulation and ensure the legislative framework reflects the needs of contemporary work places and workforce and indeed, the workforce and workplaces of the future.

Safe Work Australia Members approved the development of a national mental health plan to determine the types of resources that would assist businesses prevent psychological injuries, support workers recovering at work and ensure a safe and sustainable return to work after a psychological injury.

A key feature of the model WHS laws—the system of chemical classification and hazard communication for workplace chemicals (the ‘GHS’)—will be mandatory from 1 January 2017. We will continue our work to ensure Austalian businesses, importers and manufacturers are ready for this new requirement. We have also commenced a comprehensive review of exposure standards for airborne contaminants in the workplace.

Safe Work Australia Members have endorsed the preferred reform option for progressing the development of nationally consistent explosives regulation, which is expected to be considered by WHS ministers later in 2016. Leading this work will continue to be a priority for Safe Work Australia in 2016–17.

I look forward to continuing working with everyone to drive real and measurable change in WHS and workers’ compensation outcomes throughout Australia.

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