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National policy and strategy

COVID-19 WHS guidance

Safe Work Australia has a critical role in leading a coordinated national WHS response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Safe Work Australia was proactive from the outset of the pandemic in Australia in ensuring that WHS and workers’ compensation were key areas of focus, first publishing guidance about managing the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces in January 2020. We have continued to play an important national role in relation to the pandemic, which was formally recognised by the National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles agreed by National Cabinet on 24 April 2020. The principles make it clear that Safe Work Australia is responsible for the national repository of guidance and tools for Australian workplaces to address the WHS risks of COVID-19.


  • We published more than 1,600 COVID-19 specific webpages, including case studies, checklists and other practical tools for Australian workplaces.
  • We have tailored guidance for 34 industries, small business, workers, and visitors to workplaces.
  • We responded to around 700 COVID-19 related enquiries from the public between February and June 2020.

During the pandemic, the agency has worked with Safe Work Australia Members to adjust priorities under a revised Safe Work Australia Work Plan focusing on the immediate needs of government, industry stakeholders and Australian workplaces as a result of COVID-19. A new COVID-19 Response branch was stood up, with other staff across the agency reassigned to work on COVID-19 related issues.

As an agency we proactively engaged not only with our Members but also with relevant government bodies, including the Australian Government Department of Health, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, to ensure WHS was a key consideration in governments’ response to the pandemic. We also connected with a wide range of industry and worker stakeholders. This was to ensure that our material catered for the diverse range of workplaces across Australia needing to discharge their WHS duties appropriately when it comes to COVID-19, from the smallest arts organisations through to the biggest corporations.

An important part of this work was the development, in consultation with our Members, of a central hub of WHS guidance and tools made available on the Safe Work Australia website. This comprehensive, and targeted guidance ensured that all WHS duty holders had information available to guide them to identify and manage risks to workplace health and safety posed by COVID-19. It also ensured businesses could play their part in the broader government and community efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Safe Work Australia’s guidance covers a range of important health and safety topics affecting Australian workplaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including physical distancing, hygiene, cleaning, personal protective equipment, mental health, working from home and workers’ compensation. The guidance makes it clear that employers must consider COVID-19 in the context of their risk assessment process and includes guidance on industry-specific controls that can be implemented to manage the spread of COVID-19. This guidance has been central in the management of COVID-19 in Australia. It was very well received by all stakeholders including, importantly, businesses who were seeking simple and clear advice on what to do to protect their workers and their workplaces from COVID-19.

In addition to industry-specific guidance, Safe Work Australia developed general information on COVID-19 for particular groups, such as small businesses. It also provides key information on issues related to the pandemic such as the manufacture of hand sanitiser and how and when to notify WHS authorities if there is a COVID-19 case in the workplace.

A key part of Safe Work Australia’s suite of guidance is its COVID-19 resource kit, which includes a range of practical tools and resources that businesses can readily use in their workplaces to help meet their WHS duties regarding COVID-19. The kit includes a template and example COVID-19 risk register, a small business planning tool, a working from home work station set-up guide, signage and posters for businesses to display in their workplace, phone and email scripts for businesses delivering in-house services, and a number of infographics, case studies and checklists.

Safe Work Australia also contributes to a number of industry-specific working groups, such as the Department of Home Affairs’ Supermarket Taskforce Safety Working Group, which we work with on matters relating to COVID-19 in supermarkets and shopping centres.

Safe Work Australia will continue to review our COVID-19 guidance to ensure it remains relevant and appropriate to community circumstances, and will produce additional guidance as required.

The Australian Strategy


  • The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 (the Australian Strategy) has contributed to reductions in traumatic injury fatalities, the incidence rate of serious injuries and the incidence rate of musculoskeletal claims.
  • A wide range of activities have been undertaken to improve health and safety based on the priorities identified in the Australian Strategy.


Eight years after its launch, the Australian Strategy continues to inform the strategic efforts of WHS regulators, industry, unions, governments and other key organisations. Stakeholder commitment to the vision of supporting healthy, safe and productive working lives, along with working towards the identified outcomes and national targets, is clearly having a positive impact on WHS in Australia.

The 2 key principles underpinning the Australian Strategy are:

  • All workers, regardless of their occupation or how they are engaged, have the right to a healthy and safe working environment.
  • Well-designed, healthy and safe work will allow workers in Australia to have more productive working lives.

The Australian Strategy has set national targets to be achieved by 2022, including:

  • a 20% reduction in the number of traumatic injury fatalities
  • a 30% reduction in the rate of serious injuries resulting in one or more weeks off work, and
  • a 30% reduction in the rate of musculoskeletal claims resulting in one or more weeks off work.

Data compiled by Safe Work Australia indicates that if current trends continue these targets are achievable by 2022. The latest data shows:

  • a 36% decrease in the number of traumatic injury fatalities
  • a 26% decrease in the incidence rate of serious injuries, and
  • a 31% decrease in the incidence rate of musculoskeletal claims.

During 2019–20, Safe Work Australia continued to progress work in the high priority areas identified in the Australian Strategy, including work-related musculoskeletal disorders, agriculture, occupational lung disease, occupational violence and vulnerable workers. In particular, we:

  • completed a detailed examination of the causes, impacts and prevention of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) and published a report outlining the current knowledge of WMSD hazards and risk factors, statistics on incidence and impact, and a review of WMSD interventions in Australia and internationally. The report findings highlighted that a systemic approach is likely to be more effective in preventing WMSDs
  • undertook further research on the agriculture industry, including research on the barriers to and enablers of introducing safety measures on farms, and identified a series of strategic questions for future research in agriculture
  • progressed research with the Monash University Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health on occupational lung diseases in Australia. A report to be finalised in 2020–21 will outline the current landscape of these diseases in Australia and present changes in their extent and incidence since 2006. The conclusions drawn from the report will be used to further inform the occupational lung diseases work plan and national policy decisions related to occupational lung diseases
  • continued to investigate measures to improve data and evidence to better estimate the incidence of occupational lung diseases and understand national data holdings. As part of this, in early 2020 we received agreement from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) to publish additional burden of disease studies related to silicosis from 2020
  • undertook work to assess the application of the model WHS laws in the gig economy for consideration by Safe Work Australia Members in late 2020
  • supported the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into sexual harassment and drafted guidance on sexual harassment for consideration by Safe Work Australia Members in late 2020.

In addition to progressing work under the Australian Strategy, in early 2020 Safe Work Australia commenced planning for the development of the next national WHS strategy. The current strategy concludes in 2022.

Family support project

In 2019–20, Safe Work Australia commenced work to identify jurisdictional arrangements for providing support to families affected by industrial death and to identify features of best practice in providing this support. This project reflects the agency’s commitment to examining relevant recommendations around family support that were set out in the 2018 Senate inquiry report: They never came home – the framework surrounding the prevention, investigation and prosecution of industrial deaths in Australia.

Earlier this year we undertook consultations with a wide range of government stakeholders – including regulators, policy officials, police, paramedics, coronial staff and unions – and with families affected by an industrial death. Some of the families consulted had recently engaged with the system, while others had lost their loved one several years before or more. This work will highlight family experiences as well as outlining current practice, processes and available supports.

The project is nearing completion and will be finalised in late 2020.