A ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU), who is usually the employer, has the primary duty of care under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) to ensure the health and safety of workers and others at the workplace, so far as is reasonably practicable.
The role of PCBUs
Definition of PCBU
Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act), the primary duty holder is known as a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU).
A PCBU may be:
- a CEO or agency head
- an organisation – a company, an association or a partnership
- an individual – someone conducting a business as a sole trader or self-employed person.
In some cases, there may be multiple PCBUs involved in work at the same location who share responsibilities under work health and safety laws. For example, a principal contractor and sub-contractors at a construction site.
See the definition of a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ on Safe Work Australia.
Notify the regulator
‘Persons conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBUs) are responsible for ensuring that the regulator is notified of any serious:
- work-related injuries and illnesses
- incidents that occur at a workplace.
A PCBU must notify the regulator as soon as they become aware of a notifiable incident by the fastest possible means.
A PCBU must also ensure that all workers are aware of their responsibility to:
- report incidents through the internal policies and procedures
- protect an incident site until an inspector attends the site or advises otherwise.
Duty of care obligations
The ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (PCBU) must do everything reasonably practicable to provide a work environment free of risks to health and safety including:
- the provision and maintenance of a work environment without risks to health or safety
- safe plant and structures
- safe systems of work
- the safe use, handling and storage of plant, structures and substances
- the provision of and access to adequate facilities for the welfare of workers
- the provision of information, training, instruction or supervision
- monitoring of the health of workers and the conditions at the workplace.
Definition of ‘reasonably practicable’
‘Reasonably practicable’ is defined as that which is, or was, reasonably able to be done taking into account and weighing up all relevant matters such as:
- the likelihood of hazard or risk occurring
- the degree of harm
- what the person knows or ought to reasonably know about the hazard or risk and ways of eliminating or minimising the risk
- the availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimise the risk
- cost - after assessing the extent of the risk and the available ways (of control), the cost of the available ways, including whether the cost is grossly disproportionate to the risk.
See Guidelines on the meaning of ‘reasonably practicable’ on Safe Work Australia.
Persons included under duty of care obligations
The duty of care obligations for a PCBU include:
- independent contractors
- outworkers – such as home based
- work experience students
- volunteers who work in an employment-like setting.
A due diligence framework
A PCBU must establish a due diligence framework to meet their duty of care obligations which takes the following matters into consideration:
- contractors are owed the same duty as employees or any other worker
- a person is a worker if they carry out work in any capacity for a PCBU
- a PCBU has a duty to consult with all workers including contractors
- a PCBU retains overall responsibility even if they contract out activities to others to ensure compliance with duties
- more than one person can concurrently owe the same duty
- if more than one person has a duty of care for the same matter, then each person:
- retains responsibility for their duty in relation to the matter
- must discharge their duty to the extent the matter is within the person’s capacity to influence or control
- must consult, cooperate and coordinate activities with all other persons who have a duty in relation to the same matter
- multiple PCBUs in the same workplace must consult with each other and workers to clearly define who has control over activities and to what extent.
Duty of care for psychological health
The duty of care to ensure the health and safety of workers extends beyond just the physical work. Health is defined under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) to include both physical and psychological health.
A psychologically safe and healthy workplace is one that promotes workers’ psychological wellbeing and does not harm their mental health.
Improving the psychological safety of a work setting involves managing risks that have a powerful impact on individual and organisational health.
For more information, see Working Together: Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work guide (PDF, 13.8 MB)
PCBUs should ensure the organisation has systems, policies and procedures in place to prevent bullying and effectively respond to allegations that may arise, in order to provide a safe and healthy workplace and meet their duties under the Work Health and Safety Act (2011) (WHS Act).
The risk of workplace bullying can be eliminated or minimised by creating an environment where everyone treats each other with dignity and respect. It is best dealt with by taking a preventative approach that involves:
- early identification of bullying, unreasonable behaviour and situations likely to increase the risk of bullying
- implementing control measures to prevent the risks and respond to workplace bullying
- monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the control measures.
Control measures include:
- ensuring senior management commitment to a workplace that does not tolerate unacceptable behaviours and deals with reports of bullying in a confidential, fair and timely manner
- consulting with workers to create and promote a mentally healthy workplace culture
- ensuring the organisation has appropriate workplace bullying policies and procedures in place and workers are trained in these procedures
- actively managing workplace psychosocial risk factors
- providing regular and respectful performance feedback
- having a harassment officer – sometimes known as a contact officer, equal opportunity officer or equity contact officer – in place for workers to speak to
- ensuring there is training for workers and managers on workplace bullying
- including bullying and harassment information in workplace induction programs.
Consultation and communication
A safe and healthy workplace is more easily achieved when workers at all levels within the business talk to each other about potential problems and work together to find solutions.
Consultation is also a legal requirement under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) and an essential part of managing health and safety risks.
PCBUs should promote and foster open lines of communication and consultation about health and safety across the organisation. This can be achieved by:
- creating and nurturing joint partnerships with:
- workplace work groups and representatives
- health and safety representatives
- other relevant PCBUs
- ensuring effective consultation processes are built in to the business through its systems, policies and procedures
- engaging with senior managers and workers by being visible and open to feedback and ideas.
When consultation is required
The WHS Act identifies specific matters that trigger the need for consultation. These include:
- identifying hazards and assessing risks arising from work
- making decisions about ways to eliminate or minimise those risks
- making decisions about the adequacy of facilities for the welfare of workers
- proposing changes that may affect the health or safety of workers
- making decisions about the procedures for resolving health or safety issues
- monitoring the health of workers or workplace conditions, information and training or consultation with workers.
It may also be useful to consult workers about matters that are not listed above, for example when conducting investigations into incidents or ‘near misses’.
Ensure authorisations are in place
A PCBU has the overall duty to ensure that any licences, permits or registrations required for high risk work or plant are in place before any work or plant commences.
Authorisations are required for activities that are of such high risk that they require demonstrated competency or a specific standard of safety.
Manage a HSR listing
PCBUs are required to:
- have an up-to-date list of HSRs and Deputy HSRs (if any) for each work group and display this list in the workplace
- submit this list and any changes to Comcare—email the list and updates to email@example.com.
Set up work health and safety committees
Under the WHS Act a health and safety committee brings together workers and management to develop and review health and safety policies and procedures for the workplace.
Where a health and safety representative (HSR), or five or more workers, at a workplace request the creation of a health and safety committee, the PCBU must create one within two months of the request.
A PCBU may create a health and safety committee at any time.
See workplace health and safety management system for information on the functions of the committee.
Support work health and safety entry permit holders
The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) confers specific rights of entry on people who hold office, or are employees of a union. These rights are called work health and safety entry permits.
Work health and safety entry permit holders are allowed to enter workplaces and exercise certain powers while at a workplace.
As a PCBU, you must not:
- without reasonable excuse, refuse or unduly delay an entry permit holder from entering a workplace
- intentionally and unreasonably hinder or obstruct an entry permit holder from entering a workplace or exercising any rights.
When a PCBU contracts other people or businesses to do work for it, such as contracting workers, cleaning and maintenance, or consultants, the PCBU won’t necessarily have the sole responsibility for health and safety requirements.
The person a PCBU contracts has responsibilities as a worker and may be a PCBU in their own right, with responsibilities to not put workers and others at risk from the work they do.
This is termed shared duties and both PCBUs need to ensure they consult, cooperate and coordinate the activities they undertake.
For more information about managing contractors, including strategies and practical examples, see:
Manage risk in the workplace
Efficiently managing work health and safety risks in the workplace involves:
Governance - effective and relevant policies and procedures
A PCBU needs to develop and embed organisational work health and safety policies and procedures that clearly define and articulate:
- roles and responsibilities in the workplace relating to work health and safety
- consultation and communication processes and practices
- safe work practices and expectations
- work health and safety reporting requirements.
The first step to achieving a culture with a focus on prevention is to ensure that there is commitment to compliance with work health and safety legislation. This includes identifying and eliminating hazards and the risks they pose before they enter the workplace.
Workers should be encouraged to identify and report hazards and risks as well as unsafe work practices or work environments.
PCBUs should include policies and procedures that directly relate to the work being performed and should adopt a reasonably foreseeable approach to the management of risk
If a health and safety incident occurs, a PCBU must use a reasonably practicable approach to remove the hazard that caused it, and implement changes to stop it from happening again.
Information relating to incident investigation, notification requirements, emergency preparedness and response (including first aid) should be included in any relevant policies and procedures and communicated effectively to all workers.
An effective risk and hazard management policy enables PCBUs to identify hazards before they cause injury or illness.
The policy should outline the process for identifying hazards including the risk, any control measures and resources needed to manage specific hazards.
PCBUs should ensure that they have processes in place that promote early intervention and rehabilitation for workers with a work-related injury or illness.
Build a strong health and safety culture
A strong health and safety culture can support a stable workforce, promote low absenteeism and help reduce compensation costs.
Strategies to build a strong health and safety culture include:
Focus on innovation
Compliance with legislative requirements is a great foundation but it does not lead to performance improvement alone. Encourage an environment of innovation in health and safety and share successes across the organisation.
Engage employees in a collaborative conversation and develop resilient cultures
Providing employees with an understanding of work practices and the need for change will lead to significantly better work health and safety outcomes, such as more effective management of hazards and risks.
Improve work health and safety skills and knowledge
Education around health and safety should cover a broad-based curriculum including:
- business strategy
- change management
- safe working behaviour
- technical work health and safety components.
Upgrade data quality and availability
This will enable insightful decision-making at strategic and operational levels.
Create learning forums for business leaders
These forums should focus on health and safety strategy and topics such as:
- safe behaviour
- culture change
- change management
- innovation and transformation.
Support technology development
Support or implement new technologies that can effectively reduce and eliminate risks and hazards within the workplace.
Support research to understand best practice at a global level and how these practices might best be applied in the Australian context. For example, how people see and understand risk and what drives appropriate safety behaviours.
For more information, see:
- Workplace Health and Safety Culture chart (PDF, 132.0 KB)
- Workplace health and safety management system
Ensure effective leadership style and attitude
Management attitude, behaviour and style can have a very powerful effect on workforce health and safety. Specific qualities and attributes that signal leadership commitment and contribute to a good health and safety culture include:
Interpersonal trust between management and workers is important for many organisational variables such as quality of communication, performance and co-operation.
Frequent and informal communications between workers and management on safety issues is critical for improved performance. These behaviours demonstrate a manager’s concern for safety and provide opportunities for early recognition of hazards.
Management commitment and involvement in safety programs is associated with good safety performance. Involvement includes making a personal contribution to work health and safety consultation and frequent contact between workers, management and supervisors.
People work more safely when they are involved in the decision-making process, have specific and reasonable responsibilities and have immediate feedback about their work.
Management styles characterised by openness and encouragement of worker participation are likely to be the most effective in promoting a positive safety culture.
Locus of control
The degree that control over work organisation and task structure is centralised is an important consideration in the culture of safety, with greater decentralisation making for better health and safety outcomes.
Investment in work health and safety promotion
Better health promotion and work health and safety programs have also been found to improve worker health directly and to ‘immunise’ against workplace injury.
Investment in these areas has been found to foster perceptions of organisational commitment and build worker loyalty in areas such as safety behaviour. This may be because these programs are seen by workers as evidence of management’s concern for their wellbeing.
Courses on the WHS Act for employers
We provide training through our learning management system called Comcare LMS.
To access our training, you first need to create an account in Comcare LMS (see the steps to create an account). Then, select the training course you are interested in and login with your email and password.
For more information about the courses we offer, see Training and learning.