Health and safety committees

Information about health and safety committees (HSCs).

Division 7 of Part 7, Occupational Health and Safety Act, 2004

The responsibility for dealing with health and safety issues at the workplace rests with the employer. The HSC, however, has a major consultative role to play on an ongoing basis.

HSCs are established by employers in consultation with employees and are a way for employers and employees to meet regularly and work co-operatively to plan and develop policies and procedures that improve health and safety outcomes. HSCs bring together employees' knowledge and experience of jobs and tasks and the employer's perspective of the workplace and business requirements.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) recognises the benefits of employee involvement in occupational health and safety (OHS) matters. Employees are entitled, and should be encouraged, to be represented in health and safety issues. Employers and employees should exchange information and ideas about risks to health and safety and measures that can be taken to eliminate or reduce those risks.

When must an employer establish an HSC?

An employer must establish an HSC within three months after being requested to do so by a health and safety representative (HSR) or if required by the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) to do so. Penalties may apply to contraventions of this requirement.

In workplaces where there is more than one HSR, a representative who desires to have a committee established may wish to consult with other HSRs before approaching the employer.

Who should be on an HSC?

At least half the membership of an HSC must be employees (and, so far as practicable, HSRs or deputy HSRs (DHSRs)) of the employer. For example, if the number of employee positions on an HSC is less than the number of willing and available HSRs, then all the employee positions should be HSRs. The HSRs should decide jointly which of them will join the HSC.

Note: WorkSafe interprets the term 'so far as practicable' in this section of the OHS Act according to its dictionary definition meaning 'that which is feasible and which can be done'.

Employers must, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with employees when determining the membership of any HSC.

Note: Penalties may apply to contraventions of these provisions.

Employer representatives on the HSC should be persons involved at senior management levels in the organisation who are able to make decisions about health and safety.

Employer representatives should be drawn from senior managers, line managers, supervisors, safety officers, technical experts and personnel officers. This ensures that the HSC is provided with the necessary knowledge and expertise regarding matters including, for example, company policy, production needs, financial authority and technical matters concerning premises, processes, plant (including machinery and equipment) and systems of work. Employer representatives should include someone who can either authorise budgets or expenditures.

Where specialist health and safety personnel are not members of the committee, the HSC may consider inviting them in an advisory capacity. In other words, the employer representation on the committee should be such that the committee has all the information, experience and skills it needs to deal with health and safety issues in the workplace.

What are the functions of an HSC?

The functions of an HSC as set out in the OHS Act are very broad and aimed at creating an environment of co-operation between employer and employees. The functions include:

  • facilitating co-operation between employer and employees in instigating, developing and carrying out measures designed to ensure the health and safety at work of the employees
  • to formulate, review and disseminate to the employees the standards, rules and procedures relating to health and safety that are to be carried out or complied with at the workplace (where appropriate these should be in other languages)

In addition, other functions may be determined and agreed on by the committee and the employer, provided they are consistent with the OHS Act.

HSC members should clearly define and document agreed objectives.

In general, HSCs should give consideration to broad concerns, including, for example, health and safety issues that are common to the workplace at large, and to planning, implementing and monitoring programs to address these issues in accordance with the OHS Act. In this way, the activities of the HSC will be complementary to the role of the HSRs, whose powers are generally limited to issues affecting their particular designated work group (DWG) unless there is an immediate risk, or another HSR is absent or a member of another DWG asks for their assistance.

Within the agreed objectives, certain specific functions are likely to be defined. For example:

  • formulation of agreed procedures, including, for example, issue resolution procedures and the committee's own procedures
  • analysing hazard reports, work-related incidents, notifiable disease statistics (where available) and trends, so that reports can be made to management on unsafe/unhealthy conditions and practices, together with recommendations for corrective action
  • examination of health and safety audit, monitoring reports
  • consideration of reports and information provided by inspectors, including entry reports and notices
  • consideration of reports that HSRs may wish to submit
  • the development of systems to ensure that health and safety issues are considered during the selection of new plant and processes
  • assistance in the development of safe working procedures and healthy and safe systems of work
  • linking with workers' compensation and return to work programs
  • selection of consultants

How often must an HSC meet?

An HSC must meet at least once every three months and at any other time if at least half of the members require a meeting. However, the committee members may decide that more frequent regular meetings are necessary. Issues that may be relevant when determining the frequency of meetings include the:

  • likely volume of work to be handled by the committee
  • size of the workplace or area covered by the committee
  • number of employees and DWGs covered
  • kind of work carried out
  • nature and degree of risk across the workplace or area covered by the committee

Reasonable time should be allowed during each meeting to ensure discussion of all business.

Importantly, the employer should ensure that work arrangements are such that all employee members of the HSC are able to attend, during paid time.

Can an HSC determine its own procedures?

An HSC may determine its own procedures for organising and conducting meetings, subject to the OHS Act.

It is recommended that the dates of the meetings, as far as possible, be arranged well in advance, even to the extent of planning a program six months or a year ahead. In these circumstances, all members of the committee and all HSRs and DHSRs in the workplace (not all may be members of the HSC) should be given a personal copy of the program listing the dates of the meetings. Notices of the dates of meetings should also be published where all employees can see them.

All HSC members should get a copy of the agenda and accompanying papers at least one week before each meeting. Every effort should be made to ensure scheduled meetings take place. Where postponement cannot be avoided, an agreed date for an alternative meeting should be made and announced as soon as possible.

The HSC may need to develop procedures and rules for the planning and conduct of meetings. Issues the committee should consider include:

  • who will chair the meeting
  • whether there will be a quorum for meetings
  • who will take the notes or minutes of the meetings
  • who will issue the notes or minutes
  • who will draw up and issue the agenda
  • how long items will remain on the agenda
  • processes by which decisions will be made

In certain workplaces, it might be useful for the HSC to appoint sub-committees to study and report on particular health and safety issues.

The HSC should decide whether to record full and detailed minutes of meetings or simply to keep summary notes. Where notes are preferred to minutes, these should include details of decisions made, who is responsible for carrying out these decisions and the timetable for action.

A copy of agreed minutes or notes of each meeting should be supplied as soon as possible after the meeting to each member of the HSC and a copy sent to each HSR for the DWGs covered by the committee.

A copy of the minutes or notes should also be sent to the most senior executive responsible for OHS, and arrangements should be made to ensure that senior management is kept informed generally of the work of the committee. Enough copies of the notes or minutes should be displayed or made available by other means for the information of employees.

Does membership of an HSC impose legal duties on the employee members?

There are no duties imposed by the OHS Act on employee members (including HSRs) of the HSC other than those imposed on all employees in the workplace under section 25 (duties of employees) of the OHS Act.

How large should an HSC be?

The overall aim, while keeping the size manageable, should be to ensure that the HSC is representative of the workplace. In large workplaces, a single committee may be too large and unwieldy or too small to reflect adequately the needs of the workplace. In these circumstances, it may be necessary to set up several committees with communication links for co-ordination between them. Criteria that may be relevant when determining whether more than one committee needs to be established include:

  • the size and complexity of the workplace
  • the nature and degree of risk involved in the workplace
  • the structure of the DWGs
  • the optimum size of committees

What applies in a small workplace?

Although there is nothing to prevent a small business from establishing an HSC, such committees are more common in medium to large workplaces. Large workplaces tend to involve more complex management structures than small workplaces; therefore, HSCs are often an effective means of coordinating a systematic approach to health and safety across the organisation.

However, small workplaces that do not have an HSC should nevertheless involve staff in developing policies and procedures and in periodically reviewing their effectiveness in line with the employers' duty to consult with employees on OHS matters. In workplaces with HSRs, this must be done through the HSR.

Should an HSC be used for resolving health and safety disputes?

No. Health and safety dispute resolution is not an appropriate function for HSCs. Dispute resolution requires specific procedures, and the nature of committees makes them unsuitable for resolving issues.

The OHS Act makes provision for this under section 73 Resolution of health and safety issues. Refer also to WorkSafe's guidance Resolution of health and safety issues.

What factors will contribute to making the HSC more effective?

The effectiveness of an HSC may depend on a number of factors. Significant among these may be the degree of co-operation the committee has been able to develop and the respect with which the workplace parties, especially the CEO and management team, view the committee's work. The following activities could assist in maintaining the impetus of a committee's work:

  • regular meetings with effective publicity of the committee's discussions and recommendations
  • speedy decisions by management on the HSCs recommendations and, where necessary and appropriate, prompt action with effective publicity
  • mechanisms for ensuring all employees are informed about and support the committee
  • setting of priorities and monitoring of results

Good communication between the committee, management and employees may also contribute to the effectiveness of the HSC. For example, outcomes of the meetings may be placed on prominent noticeboards and verbal briefings or emails organised by the HSRs to update employees. In addition, there should be a genuine desire on the part of management to draw on the knowledge and experience of employees and to improve the standards of health and safety at the workplace.

Information on the committee's functions and HSC decisions relating to agreed procedures should be provided to HSRs and all employees. Committee members should consider appropriate ways to communicate such information. If appropriate, the committee should determine what languages are spoken in the workplace to ensure that information is provided in other languages as necessary.

Employee representatives and/or HSRs should be given time (during work hours) to prepare for and attend committee meetings and for reporting the outcomes to other HSRs and employees in the workplace.

Health and safety committee case studies

Case studies which demonstrate the work of health and safety committees (HSCs) in the public sector and in the meat industry.

A public sector health and safety committee (HSC) in action

The A Team HSC was established within a large public sector agency and represents employees from various offices in a regional area. The work has a strong client focus.

The DWGs have recently been renegotiated and health and safety representatives (HSRs) elected by the members in their designated work groups (DWGs). Shortly after the elections, the HSRs attended an HSR initial occupational health and safety (OHS) training course and now have the information they need to represent the health and safety interests of the employees in their DWGs. The HSRs meet on a regular basis with the members of their DWGs to report on the activities and recommendations of the HSC and enable any health and safety issues to be raised.

Being a large public sector agency, there is an agreed procedure for resolving health and safety issues, which has been negotiated centrally with the appropriate unions. The agreed resolution procedure contains a negotiated escalation process identifying levels of responsibility when issues are not able to be dealt with locally.

The HSC is made up of 60% HSRs, who represent the DWGs established in offices across the region, and 40% management staff. One employer representative on the committee is in a senior decision-making position within the region and is also able to represent the region within the organisation's executive structure.

The A Team HSC has an agenda for each meeting containing fixed items. Information is analysed by the committee from incident reports, sick leave records and workers' compensation claims, always making sure that individual employees' personal details are not identified in the material. Results of any audits and inspections are reported, as are circumstances in which provisional improvement notices (PINs) were issued or WorkSafe inspectors called in.

HSC meetings normally occur on a monthly basis, but currently the meetings are occurring twice-monthly as there have been a number of safety issues reported that require the development of a local regional policy. The issues relate to a number of reported incidents of occupational violence. Upon analysing the incidents, the HSC finds that the violent and threatening behaviours mostly occur during the night shift in which staff members are employed singly in units accommodating clients.

Of particular concern is one area in which 52 clients with a potential for violent behaviour are housed with only one staff member to supervise them during the night. There have been a number of troubling occurrences in this area. Staff members are very concerned about the potential for a serious incident resulting in life-threatening injury and, as a consequence, stress and anxiety levels are elevated among these employees.

The HSC, after some deliberation, decides to recommend that management implements a trial by placing two staff members in each unit at night, with back-up at short notice in case of an emergency. Management agrees to a trial. Procedures for passing on information regarding the clients at the end of each shift are also improved. Those clients who have shown violent behaviour have alerts placed on their files and staff members at hand-over of the shift are informed of the potential risks. All the staff members in the region are notified of the pilot and the change to procedures and additional training is provided. The committee establishes a process to monitor and review the pilot.

After reviewing the pilot program some months later, management decides (on the committee's recommendations) to formally adopt the proposed changes as the number of incidents declined during the night shift. This outcome results in a lift in the morale of the affected staff in the region.

A meat industry health and safety committee (HSC) in action

An HSC was established for the purpose of designing a new boning room for an existing meat works. The meat works employs approximately 60 people and, to date, has functioned exclusively as an abattoir, for example, as a slaughterhouse for beef and small-stock. Boning is not yet carried out there.

Boning operations may involve substantial health and safety risks, especially in relation to manual handling. These risks are exacerbated by the work being performed in a moderately cold environment. The employer, aware of these risks, wanted to design a boning room that would control these health and safety risks effectively.

The employer consulted the employees' HSRs and job delegates with regard to the development of the proposed boning room. A specific purpose HSC was established for the project. It consisted of the employer, the quality assurance/health and safety officer, two HSRs from the kill floor, the building/maintenance worker, the proposed boning room supervisor, two boning room labourers from another boning room, a meat industry consultant, the contract engineer, the union organiser (an experienced slicer), and a consultant facilitator/researcher.

The boning room HSC met regularly. Not all members were required for every meeting. There was a core of members, at least half of whom were employee representatives, who attended all meetings. The project was undertaken in stages, which included determining the scope of the project, an examination of innovative and effective alternative designs, the development of a basic design proposal, a simulation of the design proposal, and testing, refining and validation of the design. The members of the committee agreed that consensus on key features of the design and layout had to be achieved.

At all stages of the process, consideration was given to both operational and health and safety requirements. For example, in terms of operations, the boning room would have to achieve a certain volume of carcasses per day, a meat surface temperature of no more than 10°C, Ausmeat accreditation, and flexibility in numbers and species. From a health and safety perspective, the design sought to eliminate or reduce lifting, throwing, twisting, double handling, bending the back at 45 degrees, the need to reach too high or low and the exertion of excessive force.

Consensus was reached, the design was finalised and construction of the boning room was started. The originally conceived design of the boning room was changed significantly, reducing risks to health and safety by the consultative process. Overall, the committee was satisfied with the process. The establishment and involvement of the boning room HSC resulted in a design that met production needs and reduced risks to employees' health and safety.

Guide in portable document format (PDF)

This information can be found in the PDF version of the handbook Employee representation: A comprehensive guide to Part 7 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.