Workplace health and safety laws: challenges for building owners and managers
Do you know the significance of the harmonisation of workplace health and safety laws, and the challenges faced by service providers and building managers to provide a safer working environment for workers?
The harmonisation of work health and safety laws came into effect in January 2012. A collaborative and consultative process for developing greater consistency in work health and safety regulations germinated from a need for national standards to have legal status and for them to be enforceable, as there was no binding agreement nationally on how and when national standards should be adopted.
There is a multitude of Model Codes of Practice, and Peter Stemi, EHS manager at Schindler Lifts Australia explains to Facility Management the significance of harmonising the Workplace Health and Safety Laws; the challenges faced by service providers and building managers to provide a safe working environment for workers; and if the harmonised laws have had an effect on facility managers and building owners as a whole, paying more attention to ensuring safety in the buildings they maintain and own.
FM: Tell us more about the significant changes brought about by harmonisation.
Peter Stemi: I think by and large, people are aware of them. What some aren’t aware of is that under the new laws is what constitutes as their responsibility. What the new harmonisation laws have actually done is shared the responsibility among stakeholders in worker safety. The previous term ‘employer’ has been replaced by ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU). PCBU includes employers, building owners and strata or building managers. Anybody who is responsible for the workplace, for example, a facility manager has the responsibility or duty of care for anyone that comes in for any kind of servicing, be it lift maintenance, fire safety, electrical works, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) and any other service.
In addition, there were previously different categories for workers who came in. You had subcontractors, employees, labour hire, trainees and apprentices – all of who are now classified as ‘workers’ who represent an organisation regardless of title or position. Whoever comes in a building or facility is therefore entitled to a safe working environment, regardless.
What’s the reason do you think for the re-categorisation of ‘employer’ and ‘employee’?
Previous terminology afforded ambiguity and led to disputes between employers and building owners on who should pay for improvements for a safe work environment. Although previous laws indicated that both were responsible, there was often confusion that sometimes resulted in friction between service providers and building owners or building managers. For example, building owners would think it was the subcontractor’s responsibility to ensure worker safety, but subcontractors are limited in their measures, as some safety features need to be incorporated into building infrastructure – guardrails, for example. So there was friction. And despite the harmonisation of workplace health and safety laws, there’s still a bit friction and confusion over the responsibility of providing a safe workplace. Using lift maintenance servicing as an example, we can provide safety harnesses to prevent our workers from fall accidents, but installing permanent guardrails would be the duty and responsibility of the building owner.
Do you feel that harmonising and standardising safety laws has led to facility managers and building mangers having to bear the brunt of it – from building owners and service providers/subcontractors?
I think they are impacted from a financial perspective, but from the perspective of providing a safe working environment, they are assisted by the service provider/contractor. Subcontractors will provide guidance, information and quotes for providing improvements and benefits to a safe working environment – we all want to keep our workers safe and to maximise productivity. Personally, as a safety manager, my main interest is to eliminate potential disaster situations – those that lead to serious or fatal incidents, such as falling off the top of a lift car. Even a small gap of 300 millimetres is enough for someone to fall through and its been known to happen. Having these high-risk areas without guardrails is akin to standing on top of a skyscraper without balustrades. The most important thing for safety managers is to eliminate those sorts of accidents, and with the new WHS laws, this responsibility is also borne by PCBUs. There’s a shared responsibility to ensure workers are safe and to avoid serious and fatal accidents.
Using the lift industry as an example, what are the biggest challenges in ensuring worker safety?
There are some old lifts out there, 40 to 60 years old, that have no top of car handrails, with very deep pits, that also have no guarding on machines. All of these safety vulnerabilities are eliminated today in modern builds and installations. These old lifts pose a major risk to anyone who works in that environment and it can be a battle to convince building owners that there’s a need to modernise these lifts or at least install safety features. What we get from them are: “They’ve been like that for 40 years, no one’s gotten killed.” This doesn’t mean no one will in future. And the reason behind this is because WHS laws are separate from the standards for lifts, escalators and moving walks. You can’t put a lift in without complying with the standard. But the standard is not retrospective, therefore, building owners who don’t want to spend on modernising or installing safety features, will say there’s no legal requirement for them to modernise their lifts or put in safety features. On the other hand, WHS laws separately legislate that PCBUs need to provide a safe working place, so there’s a conflict here which then leads to friction. This isn’t unique to the lift industry, it can happen with any subcontractor whose workers work at height. Lighting and HVAC contractors for example, they face the same issues too.
There’s definitely an effort to provide a safe working environment such as providing temporary guarding or safety rails, but what building owners need to realise is that temporary safety measures slows down the job and compromises productivity. The downtime from erecting temporary fixtures and taking them down results in more cost long-term, compared to installing a permanent guardrail, for example – you end up paying more for manpower over installing a permanent guardrail.
From a national perspective, how are the new laws working?
Western Australia and Victoria did not sign up for the WHS laws due to a change of governments. This takes a bit of shine off because for subcontractors like us that provide service in all states, two states have different laws to observe. Interestingly enough, New Zealand is close to adopting the Australian WHS laws. So if we can get consistency across the Tasman, it bodes well for Victoria and Western Australia to come on board in future. A uniform safety code across all Australian states would definitely streamline safety procedures.
From both a subcontractor’s point of view and also from the perspective of a facility manager, what are the challenges in complying with the law?
Time-starved, it’s mainly administrative requirements like conducting regular checks on safety harnesses for example. The challenge is finding time to observe parts of the legislation that are highly administrative. Regular checks on fall prevention equipment and recording training sessions are time-intensive. For facility managers, there are a lot of codes for them to be up to date across the board. Subcontractors deal with specific codes within the legislation but facility managers have a suite of different industries and services that they deal with on a day-to-day basis. Therefore it is imperative that they work with their service providers and subcontractors to partner them on getting up to speed on WHS requirements to get great outcomes for building owners.
Peter Stemi is the EH&S manager at Schindler Lifts Australia.