Workplace health and safety (WHS) has been in the spotlight recently following a spate of incidents on construction sites and other workplaces. Preliminary findings (pending official investigations) show 116 fatal accidents in Australian workplaces so far this year, compared to 106 last year. In September alone this year, there were four fatal incidents on Sydney worksites, including one involving a man crushed by a shipping container in Port Botany.
What’s more, October and November are the two months when most workplace accidents occur, according to SafeWork Australia, workers are more likely to suffer injury in the eight week-period leading into the holiday season than any other time.
The concerning figures are a timely reminder for commercial property owners, managers and lessees to exercise vigilance over WHS matters. Whether landlords running businesses and employing people on their own premises, or prospective tenants, those charged with a duty of care are responsible for ensuring a worksite poses no risks to either employees or visitors to the property. Safe Work Australia defines risk as “the possibility that harm (death, injury or illness) might occur when exposed to a hazard”. Workplaces are therefore advised to identify and assess hazards, then implement appropriate measures to control the risks posed. Legislation differs by state so always be sure to check the laws relevant to you.
For peace of mind, the best way to provide a safe workplace is by engaging the specialised skills of a professional WHS consultant. An inspection will generally review:
- Access – whether points of entry and exit are acceptable and safe
- Fire safety – compliance with fire safety and other emergency safety regulations
- Hazardous materials and toxins –investigate the presence of such substances as asbestos, lead paint or mould
- Surfaces – slippery floors can pose a big danger
- Security – safety and security systems
- Air quality and adequate ventilation
Both old and new buildings can present with problems, and rectification while costly is imperative. Most common in recent builds are structural defects, cracks and leaks. Leading culprits in older buildings are asbestos and lead dust which often accumulate in hidden cavities that can be difficult to access. Mould too is a common problem says principal WHS consultant for Sydney-based Safety and Environmental Services Australia Ibrahim Ech. The toxic fungus affects commercial properties “across the board” and is often the cause of “sick building syndrome”, but it can be overlooked as unlike asbestos there are still no firm regulations requiring testing of moulds.
“Mould is a serious health risk and thankfully more property managers are becoming aware of this,” Mr Ech says. “Certain people are sensitive to mould and those with compromised immune systems and a tendency to contract allergies are at high risk.”
In one particularly serious case of havoc attributed to mould, SESA inspected the air conditioning system of a 50-year-old airtight Sydney CBD property where staff were suffering various mystery illnesses, and absenteeism was high. Some levels were worse than others, too. SESA inspectors found all parts of the air conditioning system were clean until reached the final component – the fan – which was covered in mould. “It had to be thoroughly cleaned and in the two years since this was done there have been no complaints, no sickness – the building manager still reports in to tell us,” Mr Ech says. “It’s important to note that all air conditioning systems especially in commercial buildings, if they haven’t been cleaned or maintained properly there will be a significant level of dust or partical build up and together with elevated humidity mould can occur in the system.”
Duty of care
Determining who is responsible for health and safety around asbestos must be considered carefully. As with all WHS laws, state legislation around the issues varies, and while federal models for WHS legislation have shifted the onus of responsibility regarding asbestos on to the lessee, commercial property owners should still check where they stand to be safe.
A lease should spell out who carries responsibility for any asbestos issues and exposure, the tenant or landlord. Mr Ech, also a SafeWork NSW Licensed Asbestos Assessor, cites another recent case in which the tenants of a warehouse received a legal letter informing them asbestos had been found in the building. The tenant was storing items in the warehouse before distributing them for sale, and if the landlord had informed them that asbestos existed in the building then it would be up to the tenant to determine the risk it posed to their goods, and whether their goods were safe from contamination and suitable for use.
“In a case like this if the landlord has shown the lessee the asbestos register and they are aware it is there, then the landlord has discharged their duty of care and it is up to the tenant,” Mr Ech says.
The simplest way forward to ensure a workplace is operating safely within the parameters of the law is to seek professional advice in your State. See these links for more information:
South Australia www.safework.sa.gov.au/law-compliance/laws-regulations/legislation#
West Australia www.commerce.wa.gov.au/worksafe
Northern Territory https://worksafe.nt.gov.au/laws-and-compliance/workplace-safety-laws