This year has been a year like no other. The global COVID-19 pandemic has seen the emergence of new and complex work health and safety risks. Australian workplaces have faced new challenges in the COVID-19 environment which have affected all aspects of their operations, from the new physical distancing, hygiene and cleaning requirements to innovations in the way they do their work. COVID-19 also put a spotlight on other work health and safety risks, most notably from the large increase in numbers of people working in new locations such as from home.
The risks arising from COVID-19 are likely to have changed Australian workplaces forever.
What we’ve also seen through the COVID-19 pandemic is just how important work health and safety is and the significant role it plays in protecting workers and preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Safe Work Australia Members are proud to have been part of Safe Work Australia’s coordinated response to COVID-19. The centrepiece of this response was the development of a central hub of national work health and safety guidance material in the first half of 2020.
Members were integral to the development of this guidance, and our tripartite representation from the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, employer groups and unions ensured that all voices were heard. This is a real strength of Safe Work Australia’s collaborative tripartite nature. Informing each other of developments in our jurisdictions and industry sectors meant that Members could remain on the front foot and ensure the agency was responding to emerging issues.
I commend the agency for its proactive response to COVID-19 and driving this work from the outset. It quickly mobilised resources to revamp the Safe Work Australia website and publish comprehensive practical information, tools and guidance along with specific information for multiple industries, workers and small business. Over 1,600 COVID-19 related web pages were published and the Safe Work Australia website received record numbers of page views.
Safe Work Australia was put in the spotlight as the trusted source of COVID-19 work health and safety information. This has significantly raised our profile in relation to the important work we do and the impact we have on Australian workers. All Safe Work Australia Members are important, thoughtful leaders in work health and safety but I wish to acknowledge the special role played by Michelle Baxter, CEO of Safe Work Australia in ensuring an effective response by the agency during a very different way of working and consulting with stakeholders.
Our strong focus on COVID-19 – both as a membership body and as key leaders in our respective organisations – naturally paused other work as the COVID-19 pandemic evolved. There was, however, good progress on a number of important initiatives.
The National Return to Work Strategy 2020–2030 was launched, setting out an ambitious 10-year plan to improve return to work outcomes for workers with a work-related injury or illness.
Important guidance was published on the safe use of prefabricated concrete in the construction industry and guidance on managing risks associated with silica and silica-containing products.
Public consultation continued to inform our evaluation of the workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants to ensure they are based on the highest quality evidence and supported by a rigorous scientific approach. Members prioritised consultation on the workplace exposure standards for respirable crystalline silica and respirable coal dust before the standards for other chemicals were released for public comment throughout 2019–20. This significant body of work will continue in the year ahead.
As we look to the future, our key activities will progress and we will continue refining our COVID-19 content until the pandemic is resolved. It is vital that work health and safety remains front of mind as we work towards the new normal in a COVID-safe world.
Our response to COVID-19 has demonstrated we can meet new challenges head on and be a world leader in work health and safety and workers’ compensation. Safe Work Australia will continue to strive for healthy, safe and productive working lives for all Australians.
Diane Smith-Gander AO
Safe Work Australia