Key Takeaways from Safe Work Australia's 10 Year Strategy

A yellow sign on dark blue tiles reading "caution wet floor" with an illustration of a person slipping

This week, Safe Work Australia released the 2023-2033 strategy, sharing a vision designed to inspire renewed commitment and dedication to creating safer workplaces. Promisingly, the organisation says that the number of fatalities and injuries has decreased significantly in the past decade. It does, however, note that progress has slowed in recent years.

The strategy sets ambitious safety targets, seeking renewed commitment to collaboration between government, industry, workers, and their representatives. This commitment to collaboration is one of the major enablers detailed in the plan, to drive towards a vision of reduced worker fatalities, injuries and illnesses.

Australia's changing risk profile

While physical injury still holds a primary place in the plan, increased focus is placed on psychological conditions. According to the plan, these injuries are rising in number and severity, with the number of workers compensation claims made for mental health conditions increasing by 28% from 2007-08 and 2019-20.

This contrasts with a reduction in the number of claims for physical injury of approximately 21% in the same reporting period.

In addition to the dramatic increase in the number of claims made, the plan notes that time off work for psychological conditions is significantly longer than other injuries.

Mental health

It is impossible to ignore the role of the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to the number of mental health claims. The direct mental health impacts of the pandemic aside, the plan also lists “hybrid work” as one of the primary emerging challenges for WHS.

This is partially due to the increased hours spent working as a by-product of greater flexibility.

This increased focus on psychological claims is unsurprising, given the broader state of mental health in Australia. The ABS reports that during 2017-18, one in five Australians suffered a mental or behavioural condition, an increase of 17.5% from 2012-15. Across this same reporting period, the number of Australians with an anxiety-related condition increased by 11.2%.

Alongside these increases is a concerted effort by crisis organisations to raise awareness to mental health conditions; intended to encourage individuals to actively seek the help they need.

The rise of the gig economy

Gig economy roles through organisations like Airtasker and HiPages have offered new ways of working, and WHS regulation will need to evolve to encapsulate these workers. While in traditional workplace settings, it is relatively straightforward to understand the roles and responsibilities related to WHS, new organisational structures and ways of working somewhat blur the lines.

The rise of alternate working arrangements in the years following the 2012 revision of the WHS Act mean workers in these industries are under-represented.

A lack of support

Some key industries such as agriculture, healthcare and social assistance face elevated risks resulting from worker shortages. A lack of workers in these areas puts additional pressures on existing workers and increases reliance on culturally and linguistically diverse workers (CALD workers).

The plan highlights that these workers suffer disproportionately from a lack of support in their workplace when it comes to WHS. Inefficient communication that fails to recognise diverse needs, insufficient support, and a lack of development capability are cited as the primary factors which place CALD workers at greater risk of workplace incident.

Mental health concerns for workers in these industries has also been elevated in the wake of the pandemic. The healthcare and aged care sectors, who bore the full force of the pandemic, are now dealing with the effects of mass resignations and/or burnout.

The way forward

While the plan lists multiple enablers and actions intended to achieve the goal of safer workplaces for Australians, all are underpinned by gaining greater insight, and deepening understanding.

The plan places emphasis on improving WHS legislation at a national level, calling for greater collaboration between different jurisdictions. This call for greater collaboration is not limited to Government, with the need to collaborate with industry leaders and workers also highlighted in the plan.  

Of note is a call for “open and timely information sharing and coordination between regulatory partnerships, social partners and other stakeholders”. For facilities managers, this need for additional information could result in additional reporting and compliance obligations.  

On compliance, the plan hints at increased enforcement of existing regulation. Potentially resulting in nuanced changes to existing obligations, and greater accountability.

What this means for facilities managers

Workplace health and safety is incredibly important in the world of facilities management, and keeping people safe always the number one priority. Risk reduction and mitigation in workplace health and safety often falls on the shoulders of facilities teams.

The ten-year plan seeks to mature workplace health and safety across Australia. It makes sense, in the pursuit of that goal, that the organisation would seek further information, and focus on proactive work, rather than reactive consequence.

For facilities teams, refining reporting processes and capabilities will be important to ensure compliance with evolving WHS expectations. As insight into workplace safety improves, so too will the proactive enforcement of WHS regulation.

Organisations will have to mirror that proactive approach when it comes to compliance with safety obligations. The inference in the plan being that it won’t be just those workplaces where an incident has occurred that will be held accountable.