During the Australian summer, media reports have documented a tragic spike in drownings at unpatrolled Australian beaches, as people search for remote swimming spots they might not normally use during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of swimming lessons – a rite of passage to a core element of Australian life — have also been missed during the pandemic and associated lockdowns.

These statistics call up a related question about the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the perception and tolerance of other critical safety risks in Australian businesses, workplaces and workforces. Critical safety risks are those that can kill or seriously injure people.

In 2020, faced with a once in a 100 year pandemic, the lion’s share of attention (from regulators, governments, businesses, and the public at large) was unsurprisingly focused on the newly emerging (and continuing) risks associated with COVID-19 infection and transmission. Huge resources were diverted to controlling that risk, and devising and responding to entire new legal and regulatory schemes and ways of working and living which quickly evolved under Australia’s OHS/WHS laws and public health legislation to guard against that emerging threat.

But the emergence of a new critical safety risk (COVID-19) does not diminish the continuation or potential accentuation of critical safety risks in Australian workplaces that pre-date the onset of the pandemic. Resource implications and psychological impacts on workforces who had to adapt to new ways of working in the context of life during a global pandemic, may have created new and different health and safety risks which need to be identified, and managed in accordance with risk management principles under Australian OHS/WHS law.

Employers that have been managing the work health and safety risks posed by COVID-19 alongside their other health and safety risks have done so by considering the following questions:

  • Is there a potential for us to take our eyes off the ball in terms of identifying and managing critical health and safety risks because we are focused primarily on COVID-19 risks?
  • What, if any, new and different health and safety risks are we introducing by trying to manage health and safety risks associated with COVID-19?
  • What are the impacts on risk perception, risk tolerance and engaging in high risk behaviour for workforces who have now been working under an increased strain of a global pandemic for almost 12 months?
  • What are the potential impacts of winding back some of the COVID-19 control measures as workers head back to workplaces?
  • Does the change in these control measures impact or require amendment to existing health and safety controls or only those directed to COVID-19?

No doubt these questions are under current consideration by academics, safety professionals and regulators globally.

Work health and safety law – balancing competing risks and applying the risk management process to all critical safety risks

At its core, the risk management process is the practical way to facilitate compliance with safety duties imposed by OHS and WHS law.

A summary of these concepts is outlined in Part 3.1 of the harmonised WHS Regulations and the approved Codes of Practice on How to Manage WHS Risks, which is modelled on the version published by SafeWork Australia.

The risk assessment process should not only identify critical safety risks (i.e. what could kill people), but other health and safety hazards, assess the risks, identify existing control measures and if any additional control measures should be introduced. Importantly, internal processes should include triggers for review of the hazards, risks arising from those hazards and the control measures to manage those risks. Those processes should align with workplace health and safety laws which require duty-holders to review, and if necessary revise, their control measures in certain circumstances.

COVID-19 no doubt falls into the category of a ‘critical safety risk’ and warrants continued focus. However, control measures that are introduced in response should not be at the expense of other critical safety risks in work processes or workplaces, nor should they introduce new, greater health and safety risks.



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