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Small businesses account for more than 95% of all Australian businesses and are responsible for the health and safety of approximately 4.8 million workers.

Small business: a definition

Small businesses have less than 20 workers and will often be single director companies and family businesses. Leaders of these businesses are likely to be part of the day-to-day work and workplace.

Work health and safety duties

In Australia, businesses have the primary duty of care for WHS. PCBUs must ensure the health and safety of workers so as far as is reasonably practicable, as well as others such as visitors.

  • PCBUs include individuals, for example sole traders or people who are self-employed, partners in a partnership as well as companies and organisations.

Business owners or those who make decisions that affect the business—referred to as ‘officers’ in the model regulations—must exercise due diligence and make sure the PCBU complies with its health and safety obligations.

This includes making sure there are appropriate practices or systems of work in place as well as actively monitoring and evaluating health and safety at the workplace.

  • Due diligence requirements are set out in the WHS laws. They are not onerous and there are plenty of resources to help you understand your obligations.

Workers’ compensation

Most employers are required to have workers’ compensation insurance. This generally covers payments to workers for any lost wages if they are unable to work due to an injury or ill health, as well as medical costs and rehabilitation expenses to help them return to work as soon as possible.

Each state and territory has its own workers’ compensation scheme and there are differences between them. For more information about the workers’ compensation scheme that applies to you, contact your local workers’ compensation authority.

Safety leadership in small business

Small business owners have a vital role to play when it comes to leading safety. When workers know their employer places high importance on WHS they are more likely to be motivated to follow safety procedures and raise safety issues.

If you support and encourage positive workplace health and safety practices, over time you will improve the culture in your business. A positive culture can help small business owners improve WHS and avoid costly incidents and injuries, minimise productivity disruptions and reduce overheads.

Figure 1: Leadership principles

Principles of effective leadership in work health and safety

Safe Work Australia Members have developed five leadership principles to help you develop your safety leadership practices and create a workplace culture that promotes safety. They include:

  • commit to safety
  • get involved
  • encourage participation
  • make WHS part of your business
  • review your performance.

Commit to safety

Be clear that you are serious about good WHS by your personal and business practices. You can clearly show your commitment to safety by spending the time, money and resources needed to provide a safe and healthy working environment.

Business practices

  • Have a clear safety policy and make it visible to staff and visitors.
  • Include your staff in planning ways to raise the importance of safety in your business; have a safety suggestion box.
  • Understand the safety risks in your business and do something about them.
  • Formally show your focus on safety on your website or social media page.
  • Put up WHS signs, posters or a notice board.

Leader practices

  • Personally decide to make safety as important as any other part of your business process.
  • Be able to explain to others why safety is important to you and your business.
  • Show enthusiasm and interest for good health and safety outcomes.
  • Walk around your business, talk to workers about safety and find out what their biggest safety issues are.
  • Be ready to act on safety issues as they are raised, explain your actions.

Get involved

When supervisors and managers are actively involved in safety workers are more likely to raise safety issues and follow safe work procedures. You can help improve everyone’s attitude to WHS by leading by example in your business.

Business practices

  • Set goals for the safe work environment you want and regularly check progress against these goals.
  • Put in place systems for safety issues to be communicated, both from your workers up to you and from you down to your workers.
  • Include these systems for communicating about safety in your business documentation, for example planning inductions and updates.
  • Formally communicate your focus on safety to everyone involved in your business, for example by email or in meetings.
  • Make sure any supervisors in your business are consulted on safety and that they all apply the same approach to safety practices when supervising work.

Leader practices

  • Communicate the importance of safety in different ways so everyone can understand the message, for example talks, emails, posters and demonstrations.
  • Give regular feedback about the safety and practices in your workplace and help improve them.
  • Lead by example, show your workers how you expect them to wear correct PPE, follow safe work procedures and take part in safety training.
  • Hold regular toolbox talks about safety.
  • Help with identifying hazards and developing safe work procedures.

Encourage participation

You can improve the safety culture in your workplace by encouraging others to get on board with your approach to WHS. This can include the way you speak about safety, respond to safety issues and involve others in thinking about and acting upon safety issues.

Business practices

  • Schedule regular paid time for workers to talk about and act on health and safety issues. This may include developing safe work procedures, maintaining tools and equipment, making changes to workplace layout that improve safety, and refreshing their knowledge of good safety practices.
  • Have different ways to reward and recognise good WHS practices, for example spoken and written encouragement.
  • Have a formal way of quickly and easily raising and resolving safety issues, for example a form or an email template.
  • Inform new staff of the practices and procedures you have in place to get them involved in health and safety.

Leader practices

  • Make time to attend and actively contribute to your business safety management practices.
  • Regularly reward your workers’ WHS contributions and give prompt feedback on safety issues.
  • Talk to your managers and staff about safety.
  • Walk around the business and speak with your staff about safety.
  • Ask for input on planned equipment or machinery purchases.
  • Check in on safety once business changes have occurred.
  • Act on feedback or give reasons why you didn’t.
  • Promote an open, positive environment for dealing with health and safety concerns.

Make work health and safety part of your business

Make WHS a regular part of running your business. Including WHS in your standard processes can improve normal standard practice for everyone involved in your business.

Business practices

  • Include WHS when you allocate responsibilities to people in your business and follow up on their progress.
  • Provide resources to manage WHS risks.
  • Make sure workers have the right equipment and training to carry out their tasks safely.
  • Allocate time to check that safety related activities such as reviewing procedures and pre-start checks are being done.
  • Make sure all staff, including supervisors, are sufficiently trained and competent.
  • Consider WHS at the same time as you are making other business decisions such as buying equipment and engaging sub-contractors.
  • Include WHS in your induction for new workers.

Leader practices

  • Discuss safety with your managers or staff as part of a regular performance review.
  • Review your budget and make sure that money allocated for safety has been spent on safety and the amount is appropriate.
  • Hold your staff and contractors accountable for safety performance.
  • Ask staff to explain safety protocols to you and check whether or not they are easy to follow.
  • Be present for new worker inductions or important team updates relating to safe work practices.

Review your performance

Once you’ve set things in place for good WHS management and culture in your business, you will need to regularly check your systems and activities to make sure your improvements are maintained.

Business practices

  • Document the WHS risks in your business and review your documents regularly.
  • Check control measures are implemented and working as planned.
  • Seek advice as needed from WHS professionals about how best to manage health and safety risks.
  • Review your reports into safety performance and issues and act on any trends you see emerging.
  • Include safety in your business planning and make sure you consider safety during times of change for your business
  • Join your regulator’s or employer association’s safety network or leadership program and learn from others who are facing the same safety issues you are.

Leader practices

  • Be aware of what is happening on the ground including activities carried out internally or by contractors.
  • Share relevant WHS data and information with your workers.
  • Address any health and safety problems when they are identified from your review.
  • Encourage your workers to report incidents and near misses and learn from these.
  • Take a personal interest in staying up-to-date on safety issues relevant to your business.

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about work health and safety for small businesses. If you need help, please contact your state or territory WHS regulator.



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