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Small business WHS: What you need to know

The backbone of the Australian economy is small business. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics notes, of the more than two million actively trading companies in Australia, 97.5 per cent have fewer than 20 employees.

Almost five million people work in the nation’s many small businesses, a sector of the economy that is growing all the time. For the people that own and run these organisations, ensuring workplace health and safety processes are current and effective is mandatory. Even businesses with just a handful of workers have their own unique hazards, and independent entrepreneurs often need to manage all aspects of operations themselves.

Small businesses – like any business – have a mandatory legal obligation to ensure they meet their compliance requirements. Unfortunately, many companies are unaware they have an obligation, or business owners are unsure about how they go about protecting themselves – or their staff.

Even the smallest businesses need adequate WHS policies.
Even the smallest businesses need adequate WHS policies.

Understanding workers compensation responsibilities

Australian small businesses can implement policies and procedures to minimise the chances of worker injuries on the job, but the reality is that accidents do occur, and having adequate insurance cover is essential. Each state has their own nuances regarding worker’s compensation, but essentially any organisation that has paid employees must have an insurance policy.

In Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, the state’s workplace safety regulator offers worker’s compensation insurance – WorkCover in the first two and the State Insurance Regulatory Authority (SIRA) and icare in NSW. For all other states and territories, accredited insurance companies can provide the necessary policies. Safe Work Australia has gathered links to all the important state-by-state information, which can be found here.

Having adequate worker’s compensation insurance cover is essential.

There are exemptions to worker’s compensation obligations. Sole traders that do not employ any additional staff, for example, obviously do not need insurance policies to cover nonexistent employees, however they will need personal insurance for themselves in the event of an accident.

Contractors may also factor into your worker’s compensation needs. It’s common for small businesses to commission independent contractors to assist with work, and the PCBU has an obligation to protect these workers. In Victoria, for example, if the work being carried out comprises more than 80 per cent of a contractors total workload, the employer likely needs to have a policy to cover them.

Certain small businesses may need to consider the potential of visitors coming to their facility in WHS policies as well, and hold insurance policies to account for injuries to members of the public. The link above to Safe Work Australia can help business owners calculate their insurance requirements.

Making small businesses safer

Many of the hazards present in a small business will be similar to those found at a large facility, however with a much smaller workforce and often no dedicated health and safety officer present, the risks can be deceptive. For even the smallest workplace, business operators need to be aware of health and safety responsibilities and identify and control workplace hazards.

Below are some of the most common trouble spots for small businesses:

  • Manual handling: Small businesses may not have the resources necessary to ensure safe movement and transportation of heavy items. Whether it’s moving boxes of stock around a storage facility or installing a new piece of equipment like a large photocopier, taking care to not overexert yourself or your employees is critical.
  • Maintenance and housekeeping: Rather than having to budget for a dedicated cleaning and maintenance staff, small businesses often handle the housekeeping and repairs of their facility themselves. A loose stair or cracked footpath can be a source of worker injury, so remain vigilant and address any maintenance concerns quickly in a timely fashion.
  • Adequate amenities and equipment: Having enough bathrooms, kitchen facilities and items such as personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential, and employers must be aware of the correct ratios for the size of their workforce.
  • Emergency procedures: Appropriate evacuation procedures for emergency situations must be reviewed and tested regularly to ensure they remain effective. During bushfire season in parts of Australia, for example, teams should meet to discuss suitable action should the business need to be evacuated quickly.
  • Support for remote or solo workers: Particularly small businesses with just a handful of employees may encounter situations where people are working remotely for long stretches of time. Having a plan for when an employee goes out of contact for an extended period may be a necessary element of WHS response.
Providing personal protective equipment can make the workplace safer.
Providing personal protective equipment can make the workplace safer.

These are just a selection of some of the workplace safety factors you may need to consider in your own business. Managing health and safety does not need to be difficult, and there are organisations such as Safe Work Australia with plenty of helpful and informative advice for small business owners, whether they’re starting afresh or looking to improve their existing processes.

As a small business owner, your employees are your most valuable asset. The mandatory legal and insurance obligations are designed to ensure your workplace is as safe as possible, and cover you for when the inevitable happens.

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