Overview of Work Health and Safety (WHS) Laws in Australia

Here's a quick list of WHS laws in the country, with links to the different acts and regulations being enforced by The Commonwealth, States and Territories.

national safe work month badgeIn October, the country observes National Safe Work Month. The theme for 2021 is “Think Safe. Work Safe. Be Safe.” as promoted by Safe Work Australia (SWA).

(Theme and branding belong to Safe Work Australia. Used under Creative Commons 4.0.)

To do so, it's essential to know the work health and safety (WHS) laws enforced separately per state and territory.  

Most jurisdictions have their own WHS laws that are modelled after the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

Disclaimer: AIMS is not a WHS law expert, therefore the information provided herein should not be treated as legal or professional advice. This article only aims to compile resources that may be helpful to your business. Official sources of information are cited. 

 

The Model Law: Work Health and Safety Act 2011

Most states and territories are now governed by the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, which is the model law that “forms the basis of the WHS Acts that have been implemented in most jurisdictions across Australia.”  

The model law aims to provide for a balanced and nationally consistent framework to secure the health and safety of workers and workplaces.  

It took effect on January 1, 2012 in: 

  • Australian Capital Territory 

  • New South Wales 

  • Northern Territory 

  • Queensland 

  • South Australia 

  • Tasmania 

  • The Commonwealth 

In 2020, Western Australia voted to adopt the WHS Act 2011 and replace the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 with the Work Health and Safety Act 2020 (WA)

Victoria still enforces the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004. Furthermore, the Occupational Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 has been passed and given royal assent. 

Amendments to the model law have been made leading up to its current version dated 9 December 2019. These amendments don’t automatically apply in a jurisdiction. 

While WHS laws and their implementation vary by state and territory, they are harmonised by a government statutory body that is Safe Work Australia (SWA), which was established in 2008. 

 

What is Safe Work Australia (SWA)?

SWA has been working in partnership with governments, employers and employees to advance national policies relating to work health and safety (WHS) and workers’ compensation. 

 

What Safe Work Australia does 

SWA leads the development of national policy to improve work health and safety and workers’ compensation. Specifically, it: 

  • Develops and evaluates the model WHS legislative framework 

  • Develops the national WHS compensation policy 

  • Undertakes research and collects, analyses and reports data relating to WHS 

  • Raises awareness of WHS as a key issue in the community 

  • Improves WHS by understanding what influences Australian workplace cultures and putting in place mechanisms to effect change 

  • Unifies WHS laws throughout Australia 

  • Identifies opportunities for improvement in workers’ compensation arrangements. 

 

What Safe Work Australia does not do 

SWA does not regulate or enforce WHS laws. The Commonwealth, States and Territories are responsible for adopting, regulating and enforcing WHS laws in their respective jurisdictions. 

 

Your WHS responsibilities as an employer

SWA has broadly outlined your duties under WHS laws. It covers persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs), small business owners, officers and workers. 

Business.gov.au has a more practical and specific definition: 
“As a business owner, you have a legal responsibility to manage health and safety in your workplace. To do this, it's important to understand the health and safety requirements that apply to your business type and location.” 

Furthermore, it also specifies that businesses must manage the risks to the health and safety of their workers, customers, visitors, and suppliers. This also covers PCBUs. 

According to the law, you should: 

  • Provide a safe work environment 

  • Provide and maintain safe machinery and structures 

  • Provide safe ways of working 

  • Ensure safe use, handling and storage of machinery, structures, and substances 

  • Provide and maintain adequate facilities 

  • Provide any information, training, instruction or supervision needed for safety 

  • Monitor the health of workers and conditions at the workplace 

Furthermore, you must: 

  • Take “a constructive role in improving WHS practices” 

  • Promote “information, education and training” on WHS 

 

List of WHS laws in place in each state and territory

SWA explains that "some jurisdictions have made minor variations to make sure the legislation is consistent with their relevant drafting protocols and other laws and processes.” They have summarised the legal variations between jurisdictions in this comprehensive cross-comparison table

Business.gov.au says that “each state has its own WHS laws and a regulator to enforce them.”  

The WHS framework for each state includes: 

  • Act: Outlines your broad responsibilities 

  • Regulations: Set out specific requirements for particular hazards and risks, such as noise, machinery, and manual handling 

  • Codes of practice: Provide practical information on how you can meet the requirements in the Act and Regulations 

  • Regulating agencies (regulator): Administers WHS laws, inspects workplaces, provides advice and enforces the laws. (Some states, such as NSW, have a different regulator for workers' compensation.) 

For your convenience, here are the links to their respective websites:

State/Territory 

Act 

Regulation 

Code 

Regulator 

Australian Capital Territory 

Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (ACT) 

Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (ACT) 

ACT Codes of Practice 

WorkSafe ACT 

New South Wales 

Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) 

Work Health and Safety Regulation 2017 (NSW) 

NSW Codes of Practice 

SafeWork NSW 

 

Workers' compensation regulator:  

State Insurance Regulatory Authority (NSW) 

Northern Territory 

Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Act 2011 

Work Health and Safety (National Uniform Legislation) Regulations (NT) 

NT Codes of Practice 

NT WorkSafe 

Queensland 

Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) 

Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (Qld) 

Qld Codes of Practice 

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland 

 

Workers' compensation regulator: 

WorkCover Queensland 

South Australia 

Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA) 

Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012 (SA) 

SA Codes of Practice 

SafeWork SA 

 

Workers' compensation regulator:  

ReturnToWork SA 

Tasmania 

Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (Tas) 

Work Health and Safety Regulations 2012 (Tas) 

Tas Codes of Practice 

WorkSafe Tasmania 

 

Workers' compensation regulator: 

WorkCover Tasmania 

 

Victoria 

Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) 

Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (Vic) 

Vic Compliance Codes and codes of practice 

WorkSafe Victoria 

Western Australia 

Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 (WA)

To be replaced by the Work Health and Safety Act 2020 (WA) pending regulations and proclamation

Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 (WA) 

WA Codes of Practice 

WorkSafe WA 

 

Workers' compensation regulator: 

WorkCover WA 

Commonwealth 

Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cwth) 

Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (Cwth) 

Commonwealth Codes of Practice 

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