All workers have a right to a safe and healthy work environment. Unsafe working conditions can lead to serious health complications for workers and even workers’ deaths. Unions take safety at work very seriously. One of the central functions of unions is to advocate for workers’ safety to businesses and the Government and to assist individual members who have suffered work injury.
It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their worksites and their employees. There should be clear avenues available for employees to express concerns about potential health risks, including employees being encouraged to make any safety concerns known as they occur.
While employers can be investigated and fined for providing unsafe work, emphasis should always be placed upon avoiding injury at work through observance of proper health and safety practices, and through open and responsive communication about workplace safety.
Workers have an important role to play in ensuring their own safety as well, and there are a number of things that workers can do to improve safety at work.
Note that health and safety laws are different depending on which State or Territory you are in and according to your employer.
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Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs)
Health and Safety Representatives, or HSRs, are team members elected by their fellow workmates and their role is to communicate between workers and management about safety issues.
An HSR can speak up for workers’ safety, monitor the safety of the workplace, investigate concerns, and attempt to initiate resolutions of workplace safety threats.
HSRs can also issue Provisional Improvement Notices, or PINs*. The issuing of a PIN occurs where regular communication has not been able to resolve an issue, and it puts the employer on notice that they are required resolve a work safety complaint. If an employer fails to respond to the issuing of a PIN then the HSR can lawfully put a stop to work.
HSRs must not be discriminated against by management as a result of their role and responsibilities.
* Note that the laws surrounding HSRs vary between States and Territories, so the best way to find out what provisions apply at your workplace is to get in touch with your union and your relevant State or Territory Workcover or Safework body.
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Union workplaces are safer
Workplaces in which employees feel too intimidated to speak up about workplace safety are likely to see higher incidences of injury and illness, while workers who enjoy the protections of union membership feel more confident to broach issues of health and safety.
Unions facilitate workers’ safety by providing safety advice for workers, convening workplace meetings to discuss concerns, and if required, by representing workers’ concerns to management through meetings or letters. Where unions can represent workers’ concerns, workers are protected from the threat of being singled out for approaching the boss individually.
Evidence shows that having union members in the workplace increases Health and Safety awareness by up to 70%.
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Reporting incidents and workplace inspections
State or Territory Workcover or Safework bodies should be notified of workplaces that remain unsafe in spite of efforts to improve them, and of and workplace safety incidents. These bodies can send workplace inspectors to investigate workplaces. They can also issue improvement notices and fines to employers who are risking their employees’ safety.
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As a minimum standard you should receive at least one half-hour unpaid break for every 5 hours of work. Most awards and agreements will also provide for 10 minute paid breaks during shifts of 3 or more hours in length on top of this.
Your boss should offer you your break. If they don’t you should feel entitled to request it. Working without breaks can lead to a loss in concentration and fatigue, and if breaks are denied consistently, this can lead to illness and an increased incidence of workplace accidents.
When taking breaks they should be genuine. You should not do any work during your breaks.
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Bullying at work is typically defined as repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards an employee or a group of employees that creates a risk to their health and safety.
Bullying presents a threat to the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of a worker and is dealt with under the same health and safety laws that cover physical dangers. Forms of bullying can include:
- Unreasonable demands or petty targets/key performance indicators
- Restrictive and petty work rules
- Compulsory overtime, unfair rostering or allocation of work
- Constant intrusive surveillance or monitoring
- Having no say in how one’s job is done
- Abusive language
- Being ignored or excluded
- Being threatened with the sack or demotion
If you feel bullied at work you should see a doctor. Bullying can lead to loss of sleep, muscle ache, nausea, depression, anxiety, headaches, digestive difficulties, irritability and anger. Bullying at work also often places strain on a worker’s personal and family life.
It is important that the doctor consulted about these issues has an understanding of the effects of workplace bullying at the safety measures that should be taken to prevent the situation worsening.
If you are being bullied at work your boss needs to know. If there is an elected Health and Safety Representative at your workplace they also should be made aware, as should your union delegate who can help stop the bullying.
Workers being bullied may be able to lodge a Workcover claim to cover time away from work and lost wages.
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Harassment and discrimination
Bullying may take the form of harassment on grounds of discrimination. That is, bullying can be accompanied by a worker being targeted on grounds of their gender, ethnicity, age, health, sexuality, religion, or a number of other grounds. Bullying may also come in the form of sexual harassment.
Workers who are experiencing discriminatory treatment can lodge a complaint with the body that oversees Equal Opportunity law in their State of Territory. Please visit the website www.humanrights.gov.au for more information on Equal Opportunity Legislation, or to find the relevant Equal Opportunity body in your State or Territory.
If you are being sexually intimidated or harassed at work, as well as following the above procedures, you should notify the police.
If harassment at work is taking a physically abusive form it should be reported to the police immediately, and employees should remove themselves from the workplace.
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If you are injured at work, your employer should be notified as soon as is possible in writing — either by an incident book at the workplace, or through a letter.
Workers who have sustained injury should contact their union immediately for assistance. They should also advise the Health and Safety Representative (HSR) at work.
Injured workers should see their doctor as soon as possible and receive certification of their injury. If the worker injured is unable to do their ordinary work as a result, or is unable to do any work, they should receive a Certificate of Capacity from their doctor advocating either light duties or time away from work.
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Workers can lodge compensation claims for the expenses associated with being injured at work.
Most workers fall under the WorkCover system in their State or Territory, although some working for large national employers may be covered by the Comcare system.
A claim form, obtainable from your employer or from Post Offices, should be filled out with your doctor’s assistance and sent to your employer. Your employer is obliged to send the claim form to their insurance company, which will investigate the claim and decide if compensation is payable or not.
A successful claim will result in compensation for lost wages if the worker has had to reduce or cease work, and for the medical expenses associated with the injury.
Workers should not be made to return to work before they are ready, and workers should not be at risk of injuring themselves in the same way when they return to work.
A worker should never be discriminated against for having been injured at work. Under Equal Opportunity Legislation it is illegal to discriminate against a person on grounds of injury or health, or for having made a work-related complaint. To fire a worker in discriminatory circumstances in unlawful termination and can result in prosecution.
For further information about this please see the fact sheet Unfair Dismissal, Discrimination and Redundancy.