The construction industry features high on the list when it comes to workplace accidents. Each year, many workers in the building industry sustain permanent injuries and disability, with statistics for catastrophic and fatal injuries dire.

The nature of the construction industry itself presents risk, however many workplace accidents are caused by unsafe work practices.

Managing risk is mandatory and forms a critical part of your business operations. The incidence of workplace injury is something every employer wants to avoid.

Whilst not exhaustive, this article flags important health and safety obligations on a construction site and the processes used to minimise risk of injury and reduce exposure to litigation.

How is workplace health and safety regulated?

Workplace health and safety in Queensland is governed by legislation, regulations and codes of practice. The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) is the principle legislation which sets out key values, duties and rights regarding safety in the workplace.

The Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 (Qld) sets out the procedural or administrative matters required to ensure that the Act is followed.

WorkCover Queensland administers workplace health and safety rules and regulations. Codes of Practice provide practical guidance and assist employers and workers in meeting their obligations.

The codes should be read in conjunction with other codes of practice, technical or industry standards for hazards specific to certain work types such as demolition and excavation, electrical work, working in noisy environments or confined spaces and safe handling of hazardous substances.

Who is responsible for workplace safety?

Developers, builders, sub-contractors, consultants, workers and employees all play a part in managing workplace safety.

The primary duty of care generally falls to the person conducting a business or undertaking who must ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of ‘(a) workers engaged or caused to be engaged by the person, and (b) workers whose activities in carrying out work are influenced or directed by the person’.

The construction industry often has multiple ‘duty holders’ as there will be various businesses and undertakings involved in the works – the designer of the building or structure, the entity commissioning the work, those carrying out the work, the principal contractor, or undertaking appointed with management and control over the workplace.

The obligations of duty holders commonly overlap with the same duty frequently shared between two or more. For example, a sub-contractor is responsible for the safety of its employees however will also be deemed a ‘worker’ to which the principal contractor will owe a duty. In these circumstances, it is sensible to cooperate when meeting safety requirements.

Managing risk in the workplace

Managing risk in the workplace requires a cohesive and systematic approach to:

  • identify reasonably foreseeable health and safety hazards;
  • implement systems and processes to eliminate, control or minimise hazards;
  • maintain, measure and review systems to ensure their effectiveness; and
  • identify new or persistent risks and implement systems to control those.

Managing risk requires that systems are in place to:

  • ensure a safe working environment;
  • provide adequate and accessible facilities;
  • provide access to first aid;
  • ensure emergency plans are in place and made known to workers;
  • manage risks associated with airborne contaminants, flammables and combustibles;
  • manage slips, falls and risks associated with falling objects.

Commissioning construction work generally

Those commissioning construction work have numerous responsibilities involving workplace health and safety management.

Principal contractors must consult with the designers (draftspersons, architects, engineers) of any structure or building about any risks pertinent to the design aspects of those structures.

This communication should be two-way with the principal contractor discussing any construction site risks and both parties working together to eliminate or minimise these. The designer must provide a written safety report for the structure.

Undertaking a ‘construction project’ – principal contractors

Construction work valued at $250,000 or more is defined as a ‘construction project’ under the Regulations and must be overseen by a principal contractor. A developer, builder or other business undertaking that commissions the project is deemed to be the principal contractor unless another party is appointed with authority, management and control over the project and workplace.

Work Health and Safety Management Plans

Construction projects have additional safety requirements including the preparation of a Work Health and Safety Management Plan (WHSM). The principal contractor is responsible for preparing this document which sets out the processes to be implemented to manage health and safety risks associated with the construction project.

The WHSM must be retained, reviewed and updated for the duration of the project and thereafter constitutes a written record of the processes in place for workplace health and safety management. It must be available to workers who should be made aware of those parts of the WHSM that are relevant to the work they are undertaking.

The WHSM must contain:

  • details of site supervisors, project managers, first aid officers or any other persons whose role includes workplace health and safety matters;
  • processes for consultation, cooperation and coordination of workplace safety;
  • site-specific health and safety rules and how workers will be informed of these rules;
  • processes in place for reporting health and safety incidents;
  • arrangements to collect and assess, monitor and review SWMS (see below).

The WHSM may also include specific processes on maintaining hazardous chemicals, safe use and storage of plant, traffic management plans, security and public safety and processes for ensuring workers have the necessary licences and training to undertake the work.

Talking the talk – effective toolbox talks

The Act requires that duty holders consult, cooperate and coordinate activities to ensure the objectives of workplace health and safety are met. Communication and involvement between all players is key in identifying hazards and concerns and implementing methods to manage, minimise and eliminate these hazards.

The consultation process includes sharing information with workers (and their representatives) who are directly affected by a specific hazard and providing an opportunity for them to express their views, raise issues and contribute.

Consultation may take place during toolbox talks which may also be used for general induction training, to inform workers of site-specific issues, to address ongoing or imminent safety concerns, changes in site access and security.

Toolbox talks should be documented to provide a record of attendees, topics covered, feedback received, instructions given, decisions made and action taken with respect to safety issues.

Safe Work Method Statements

The Regulations provide a list of work deemed to be ‘high risk’ for which a Safe Work Method Statement (SWMS) is required.

An SWMS must identify the work that is considered high risk, describe the hazards relating to that work, and the health and safety risks incidental to the hazards. The SWMS must set out the processes that will be implemented to control the risks and how those measures will be monitored and reviewed.

Summary

There are no shorts cuts when it comes to managing workplace safety.

If you have a primary duty of care you should ensure your workplace health and safety practices are tailored to the project being undertaken and reviewed regularly during construction and for each subsequent build to ensure compliance.

If you need any assistance contact one of our lawyers at cairns@wgc.com.au or call 07 4046 1111 for a no-obligation discussion and for expert legal advice.