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Work health and safety

Defence continued to make the health and safety of its people a key priority in 2019–20.

Defence Work Health and Safety Strategy

The Defence Work Health and Safety Strategy sets the direction for Defence to achieve our safety vision. It focuses on embedding an inclusive, proactive and mindful safety culture in support of the health, wellness and safety priority in Pathway to Change: Evolving Defence Culture 2017–2022.

Enterprise work health and safety focus areas

In January 2020, following a thorough analysis of work health and safety risks affecting Defence people, Defence identified six work health and safety focus areas: body stressing, chemicals, electrical incidents, noise, mental stress and vehicle incidents.

Defence has developed an Enterprise Work Health and Safety Focus Areas Management Framework that provides a robust system through which the six work health and safety programs will be managed. Implementation of this framework will occur during financial year 2020–21, with the intention of delivering new and innovative initiatives to reduce the risks the focus areas pose to Defence people.

Prosecution under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

On 9 March 2020, the Commonwealth of Australia (through its responsible agency the Department of Defence) was fined $300,000 by the New South Wales Downing Centre Local Court in relation to an incident involving an Australian Army Cadet that occurred on 19 September 2016.

Following the incident, Defence has taken all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and wellness of Defence youth and Cadets by developing a youth safety culture and promoting individual and collective responsibility for youth safety. Defence also has a program of audits and assurance which feeds into ongoing improvements in looking after the safety of our people.

Mental Health and Wellbeing

The Defence Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2018–2023 (see page 134 'Health and wellbeing of Defence personnel and veterans') supports a common understanding of the need to ensure a mentally healthy and resilient workforce. A number of mental health and wellbeing initiatives are accessible to Defence personnel to decrease stigma, improve knowledge and support mental health and wellbeing:

  • the Defence NewAccess program, which provides a stepped care approach to the provision of support for those experiencing a mental health concern. Defence NewAccess is a tailored version of Beyond Blue’s NewAccess program. Both ADF and APS personnel can use this Defence-only service. NewAccess is provided in addition to the Defence Employee Assistance Program and gives members and employees access to programs that cater for mental health issues of varying levels of complexity
  • the Mental Health Speakers Series, which assists in raising awareness and decreasing the stigma associated with mental health concerns
  • mental health training for all levels of the organisation, including all employees, managers and the Senior Leadership Group, designed to raise awareness of mental health in the workplace and provide self-care strategies to individuals.

Mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19

Defence recognises that the mental health and wellbeing of our workforce has a direct impact on overall Defence capability. It is an active leader in both military and workplace mental health reform for almost 80,000 employees and serving members across the Australian Public Service
(APS) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The Defence Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2018–23 has further focused the organisation on strengthening mental health and wellbeing support for our workforce. It has driven increased mental health awareness and access to mental health services to its serving members and public servants.

Defence’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how far we have progressed in developing a whole-of-Defence approach to mental health and wellbeing.

Upon the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Joint Health Command and Defence People Group joined forces to implement an ADF and APS rolling communications plan to promote evidence-based mental health and wellbeing messages consistently to Defence personnel. During this collaboration we remained responsive to the changing environment caused by COVID-19 and focused on ensuring that Defence personnel remained informed about key mental health and wellbeing considerations.

We updated our resource hub for personnel with links to Defence and community sources that are trusted and reputable. This information was also made available to our contracted workforce.

Between March and July 2020, through our industry partner, we offered 133 wellbeing webinars to all Defence personnel. The webinars focused on assisting Defence personnel to manage life disruption, uncertainty and personal wellbeing in response to COVID-19.

Defence will continue to invest in the mental and physical health and wellbeing of all our people to help them through all phases of their careers and lives and ensure they are ‘Fit to Fight, Fit to Work, Fit for Life’.

Employee Assistance Program

The Employee Assistance Program is a key mental health and wellbeing service provided to assist Defence employees who are experiencing difficulties of a personal or work-related nature. It offers a confidential work-based intervention program designed to enhance emotional, mental and general psychological wellbeing. The program provides short-term preventive and proactive interventions to address issues that may adversely affect performance and wellbeing. It aims for early detection, identification and resolution of work and personal issues.

The Employee Assistance Program is available to all APS employees (ongoing and non-ongoing), Reservists, Cadets and their immediate families. ADF supervisors of APS employees can access the Manager Assist service for advice and support.

Defence expanded the support available through the Employee Assistance Program during the 2019–20 summer bushfires by setting up drop-in centres at various Defence sites. At Latchford Barracks, Victoria, which was set up as an evacuee centre for members of the public directly affected by the bushfires, counsellors also provided in-person support to over 126 members of the community, including children.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the Employee Assistance Program provided additional services to support the mental health and wellbeing of our people, including:

  • Employee Assistance Program Connect, which consists of a welfare check conducted by the Employee Assistance Program provider for APS personnel requiring additional support during COVID-19
  • self-guided sessions for APS secondees, supporting mental health and wellbeing for personnel seconded from their usual position in Defence to support the national COVID-19 Government response
  • a wellbeing webinar series focusing on mental health and wellbeing issues personnel may face during COVID-19.

Emerging hazards

The Work Health and Safety Branch undertakes biannual environmental scans in order to identify emerging hazards that may have an impact on the health and safety of Defence workers. Through the dedicated identification and evaluation of emerging hazards, Defence can proactively develop strategies to control the hazards, allowing the safe and beneficial use of new technologies. The emerging hazards capability consists of occupational health subject- matter experts in the Work Health and Safety Branch, in consultation with the Defence Science and Technology Group, academia, areas of government and industry as appropriate. To date, the capability has reviewed and published guidance information on augmented reality, glyphosate, nanotechnology and three-dimensional printing.


Defence continues to maintain a strong and collaborative relationship with Comcare. The biannual Defence– Comcare liaison forum and Comcare representation on Defence senior work health and safety committees ensure sharing of information and a better understanding of the priorities of Comcare as a regulator.

In 2019–20, Comcare undertook 187 investigations across Defence, based on known high-risk areas, and issued two notices.

Defence actively investigates safety incidents. In 2019–20, investigations focused on contact with electricity, contact with a chemical or substance, and being hit by falling objects. Defence used these investigations to develop and refine associated hazard reduction programs and improve work health and safety performance.

In addition to partnering with Comcare on investigations, Defence is working closely with Comcare on a number of initiatives. These include:

  • the APS Medical Care Pilot, in which Defence has partnered with Comcare to offer early medical services for Defence APS employees in Australia with a new or emerging injury. Defence is working with Comcare to explore opportunities identified in the pilot evaluation report findings and how they may be incorporated into Defence programs and the broader Comcare scheme
  • Beyond Blue’s NewAccess stress and anxiety coaching program. Defence supported Comcare in evaluating their trial of the NewAccess program across a number of agencies. The evaluation measured the effectiveness of the NewAccess program by comparing agencies’ results and successes against the Defence NewAccess program. The results will be used by Comcare to offer a streamlined NewAccess program across their jurisdiction, which Defence will look to participate in.
Table 6.26: Number of Comcare work health and safety notices, 2017–18 to 2019–20

Type of notice




Improvement notice1



Prohibition notice2



Non-disturbance notice3



  1. Improvement notices are based on incidents and occurrences that contravene work health and safety legislation.
  2. Prohibition notices are issued to remove an immediate threat to the health and safety of workers.
  3. Non-disturbance notices are issued for a specific period of time to remove a threat to the health or safety of personnel.

Work health and safety audits

In 2019–20 the Work Health and Safety Branch conducted 15 work health and safety audits across Defence. This comprised two safety management systems audits and 13 compliance audits in the risk areas of hazardous chemicals, and the joint special licence for the operation of high-risk plant.

Notifiable incidents

The number of work health and safety incidents declined in 2019–20, as shown in Table 6.27.

Table 6.27: Number of work health and safety incidents and number of people involved, 2017–18 to 2019–20




Number of incidents2

Number of people involved in an incident3

Number of incidents2

Number of people involved in an incident3

Number of incidents2

Number of people involved in an incident3








Serious injury or illness1







Dangerous incident1














Minor injury







Near miss





























Incidents are reported from the date of occurrence. Figures in Table 6.27 can vary from previous Defence annual reports, as reports can be made for incidents that occurred in previous years and severity statuses can be updated. Data is as at 19 June 2019. The Australian Signals Directorate became a separate statutory body on 1 July 2018; therefore their data has been included for 2017–18 and excluded for 2018–19 and 2019–2020.

  1. Fatalities, serious injuries or illnesses, and dangerous incidents are notifiable to Comcare. Incidents of these severities that occur while on a Defence declared operation are not notifiable to Comcare and have not been included.
  2. The ‘Number of incidents’ columns show the number of incidents occurring in that financial year. A single incident can include multiple individuals.
  3. The ‘Number of people involved in an incident’ columns show the number of people involved in the incident. One incident may result in multiple injuries or none.