Senior managers and executives
Senior managers and executives have a duty to ensure their organisation complies with its duties and obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and the Safety Rehabilitation Compensation Act 1988.
The role of senior managers explained
A senior manager or executive makes, or takes part in making, decisions that affect all or a large part of their organisation. They usually have middle managers or supervisors reporting to them.
The role and influence a person has in the organisation determines if they are considered to be an 'officer' under work health and safety laws. Senior managers and executives are almost always 'officers' in their organisation.
Duties of a senior manager or executive
As a worker
All workers, including senior managers and executives, have specific duties and responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act). These include:
- taking care of your own health and safety
- taking care that you do not harm the health and safety of others
- reporting any hazards or work practices you feel may be unsafe
- complying with policies or procedures, such as
- following safety manuals and procedures
- doing safety training
- wearing personal protective equipment
- exercising care and responsibility in your work.
- working with management to identify safety problems and find solutions
- following incident reporting processes
- acting on health and safety matters where you have influence
- promoting health and safety as part of daily work
- contributing to quality data and information which measures health and safety compliance.
As a senior manager
As a senior manager or executive (and an 'officer' under work health and safety laws), the scope of your duty directly relates to the influence of your position.
You have a duty to ensure that:
- the organisation complies with its duties and obligations.
- the resources and systems of the organisation are adequate to comply with its duty of care under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).
- delegations are working effectively. Where you rely on the expertise of another person, their expertise must be verified and the reliance must be reasonable.
- work health and safety laws are integrated into everyday business. This includes engaging workers at all levels to manage the risks and barriers.
You also have to:
- be accountable for any change management processes
- promote open discussions on health and safety at all levels
- promote fair and equitable issue resolution processes.
For a full list of your duties, see the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).
If you do not follow the required procedures, you could face penalties under the WHS Act such as:
- criminal prosecution
- jail sentences.
Exercising due diligence
As a senior manager, executive or officer, you have a duty to exercise ‘due diligence’ to ensure that the ‘person conducting business or undertaking’ (PCBU) complies with any duty or obligation.
- take reasonable steps to stay up-to-date on work health and safety matters
- understand the hazards and risks associated with the nature of your organisation
- ensure that your organisation has appropriate resources to identify hazards and eliminate or minimise risks
- ensure that your organisation has appropriate processes for evaluating and responding in a timely way to incidents, hazards and risks
- ensure that your organisation has processes for complying with its duties and obligations.
For more information, see:
- Due Diligence for Officers snapshot (PDF, 100.6 KB)
- Exercising Due Diligence guidance for officers (PDF, 206.4 KB)
- Safe Work Australia Health and Safety Duty of an Officer guidelines
Notifying the regulator
It is vital that you ensure clear and effective reporting processes that enable the ‘person conducting business or undertaking’ (PCBU) to meet their obligation of responding to an incident and reporting to Comcare.
As part of this, all workers must be aware of:
- the PCBU’s obligations to notify the regulator of certain serious injuries or illnesses that arise out of work and dangerous incidents that occur at a workplace
- the need to report incidents through internal policies and procedures
- the need to preserve an incident site until an inspector attends or advises otherwise.
For more information, see our Work Health and Safety Incident Notification guide (PDF, 150.1 KB).
Consulting and communicating
A safe and healthy workplace is more easily achieved when all levels work together to find solutions to hazards or risks.
Consultation is also a legal requirement under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) and is an essential part of managing work health and safety.
Senior managers or executives should promote open lines of communication and consultation about health and safety across the organisation. This can be achieved by:
- creating and nurturing joint partnerships with work groups, HSRs and other relevant PCBUs
- ensuring effective consultation processes are built in to systems, policies and procedures
- engaging with other managers and workers, and being visible and open to feedback and ideas.
When consultation is required
The WHS Act identifies specific matters that require consultation. These include:
- hazards and risks arising from work
- ways to eliminate or minimise risks
- facilities for the welfare of workers
- changes that affect the health or safety of workers
- procedures for resolving health or safety issues
- monitoring of workers' health or workplace conditions
- activities prescribed by the work health and safety regulations.
Consultation must involve HSRs.
It may also be useful to consult workers about other matters, for example when investigating incidents or ‘near misses’.
Supporting work health and safety entry permit holders
The Work Health and Safety Act 2011 gives specific rights of entry to 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.
You must not intentionally and unreasonably delay or obstruct an entry permit holder from entering a workplace or exercising any rights.
Responsibilities for rehabilitation and return to work
Senior managers or executives have responsibilities under the Safety Rehabilitation Compensation Act 1988 to support the recovery at, or return to work, of employees with a work-related injury or illness. This may include:
- ensuring your organisation complies with the Guidelines for Rehabilitation Authorities Instrument 2019 (PDF, 235.4 KB)
- showing visible commitment to implementing your organisation’s rehabilitation policy effectively
- promoting a workplace culture that prevents injuries and supports injured employees
- supporting your rehabilitation case managers to perform their duties
- monitoring your organisation’s return to work performance and addressing any issues
- improving your organisation’s return to work strategies.
For more information about the responsibilities of the rehabilitation authority (usually the employer), see:
Promoting wellbeing and intervening early
Prevention and early intervention is timely action to minimise the impact and duration of emerging symptoms of work-related ill health or actual injury or illness. As a senior manager or executive you can:
- promote a clear policy and guidelines for early intervention
- ensure middle managers and supervisors can identify early warning signs and put early intervention into practice
- provide training and resources to support middle managers, supervisors and rehabilitation case managers to carry out their duties in prevention and early intervention
- hold other managers accountable for people management outcomes and establish clear expectations through performance management frameworks and workplace agreements
- monitor the health of the organisation to identify and manage risk of ill health
- communicate relevant data to managers and supervisors so they can respond to high risk areas.
- support flexible options for return to work
- set up appropriate service agreements with external providers based on agency needs. This includes employee and manager assistance programs, mediation, training and development, and approved workplace rehabilitation providers
- work with Comcare to facilitate early determination of claims and return to work.
For more information, see our early intervention checklist.
Building 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.
1. Focus on improvement
Complying with legislative requirements is a great foundation but it does not lead to performance improvement alone. Encourage innovation in health and safety and share successes across the organisation.
2. Engage employees in a collaborative conversation
Providing employees with an understanding of work practices and/or the need for change can lead to significantly better work health and safety outcomes.
3. Improve work health and safety skills
Education around health and safety should cover:
- business strategy
- change management
- safe working behaviour
- technical work health and safety components.
4. Upgrade data quality and availability
This will enable insightful decision-making at strategic and operational levels.
5. 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.
6. Support technology development
Implement new technologies that can effectively reduce and eliminate risks and hazards within the workplace.
7. More research funding
Support research to understand best practice and how these practices might best be applied in the Australian context.
9. Get health and safety right
Managing your workplace health and safety well can help improve the overall performance of the organisation.
For more information, see workplace health and safety management system.
Effective leadership style
Specific qualities and behaviours that signal management commitment to a good health and safety culture include:
Trust between management and workers is important for many organisational variables such as quality of communication, performance and co-operation.
Frequent and informal communication on safety issues between workers and management is critical. It shows a manager’s concern for safety and provides opportunities for early recognition of hazards.
Management involvement in safety programs is associated with good safety performance. This includes making a personal contribution to work health and safety consultation and frequent contact between workers, management and supervisors.
Management styles characterised by openness and encouragement of worker participation are likely to be the most effective in promoting a positive safety culture.
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.
Greater decentralisation of work organisation and task structure can provide better health and safety outcomes.
Investment in work health and safety promotion
Better health promotion and work health and safety programs can improve worker health and protect against workplace injury.
It has also been found to improve perception of organisational commitment and build worker loyalty. This may be because it is seen by workers as evidence of management’s concern for their wellbeing.
Supporting workers during times of change
Workplace change can be challenging, and if not managed well can affect morale and engagement. Consequences may include:
- reduced work performance
- increased absenteeism
- psychological or other injuries.
During times of workplace change it is important to consider the mental health and wellbeing of workers as part of an integrated approach to risk management and corporate planning. This includes workers who are away as a result of injury or illness or taking part in a rehabilitation program.