History of the model WHS laws

Safe Work Australia developed a single set of work health and safety laws (WHS laws) for jurisdictions to implement across Australia. These are known as ‘model’ laws. Each state and territory, and the Commonwealth, has its own WHS laws, including an Act, regulations and codes of practice.

Early attempts to achieve harmonisation of WHS laws

The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC), carried out the early work in relation to harmonisation of WHS laws. The NOHSC was a tripartite body that included representatives from Commonwealth, state and territory Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) regulators. In the 1980s, the NOHSC developed:

  • National Standards
  • National Codes of Practice

The National Standards did not have legal status and were not enforceable unless a jurisdiction adopted them into their OHS regulations. This led to significant differences nationwide regarding which protocols were adopted, how jurisdictions drafted and applied them, and whether they were adopted as a code of practice or regulation.

Despite these difficulties, significant improvements in consistency were achieved in the areas of hazardous chemicals, occupational licensing and noise.

Agreement to make model WHS laws

At the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council (WRMC) on 1 February 2008, Ministers agreed model legislation was the most effective way to harmonise WHS laws.

In July 2008, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) signed the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) on how the Commonwealth, states and territories would achieve this.

The agreement was to make and implement:

  • a model Act and Regulations
  • model Codes of Practice
  • a National Compliance and Enforcement Policy
  • an independent body to drive the model laws’ development and implementation (Safe Work Australia).

Making the model WHS laws involved a consultation process, including:

  • an exposure draft bill
  • a regulation impact statement (RIS) – in line with COAG guidelines.

How the model WHS laws began

A National Review into Model Occupational Health and Safety Laws was conducted to make recommendations on the optimal structure and content of a model OHS Act that was capable of being adopted in all jurisdictions.

The national OHS review was carried out by a panel of three independent experts that undertook extensive public consultation with regulators, union and employer organisations, industry representatives, legal professionals, academics and health and safety professionals.

The panel made 232 recommendations in two reports and in May 2009 the Workplace Relations Ministers' Council (WRMC) set policy parameters for developing a model Act based on these recommendations.

In May 2009, the WRMC set a policy framework to develop a model Act based on recommendations from:

To drive the development and implementation of model WHS laws, the IGA also required the formation of an independent body, Safe Work Australia.

Forming the model WHS Act

In September 2009, we released a draft model WHS Act for public comment.

A total of 480 submissions were received, which resulted in several amendments to the draft.  

Ministers endorsed the revised model WHS Act on 11 December 2009. They authorised Safe Work Australia to make any further technical or drafting changes. On 29 April 2010, Safe Work Australia members endorsed the amendments to the model WHS Act and a final version was published on our website.  This was accompanied by a Regulation Impact Statement on the draft model WHS Act.

Model WHS Regulations and Codes of Practice

Under the IGA, the process for developing the model WHS Regulations required us to consider areas that were the subject of existing regulations. Unless matters were already regulated in a majority of the jurisdictions, they were not included in the model WHS Regulations.

The draft model WHS Regulations and an initial group of draft model Codes of Practice were released for public comment in December 2010, with a total of 1,343 submissions received. A second group of draft model Codes of Practice were released for comment in September 2011.

On 4 November 2011, Safe Work Australia published the agreed model WHS Regulations.

Between December 2011 and July 2012, Safe Work Australia published 23 model codes of practice.

Safe Work Australia released the Regulation Impact Statement on the model WHS Regulations and Codes of Practice on our website.

Implementing WHS laws

The Commonwealth, Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Queensland implemented the model WHS laws in their jurisdiction on 1 January 2012. South Australia and Tasmania implemented the model WHS laws on 1 January 2013. On 10 November 2020, Western Australia passed a version of the model laws, which became operational on 31 March 2022. Victoria is the only jurisdiction who has not implemented the model WHS laws.