We’re living in a world incomparable to that we knew just twelve months ago. The pandemic has drastically impacted our economy, social interactions, places of work and, as legislation is revised and new regulations are introduced, businesses are struggling to keep up with the ever-changing requirements.
Keeping up with legislation changes can be time-consuming and costly in a time when many businesses are already doing it tough – but complying with the latest requirements is imperative. In so doing, you not only keep your staff, customers and the greater community safe, but also avoid the financial burden of hefty fines for non-compliance.
To keep your business on track for post-pandemic success, staying informed and acting on the latest legislative updates is crucial.
Legislative updates and the pandemic
While the process of introducing new legislation in Australia usually takes weeks or months, this process has recently been streamlined to allow Government to act swiftly to legislate important changes required during a pandemic. However, it also means that businesses are under more pressure than ever before to keep up with more frequent changes in legislation.
At Integrated Compliance Solutions, our consultants have extensive experience helping organisations understand and maintain compliance with environmental and occupational health and safety legislation. In the following article, we’re discussing some of the key regulatory changes that have recently come into action. But, for information relating specifically to your business’ context and industry, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team.
Occupational health and safety legislative updates
The regulations surrounding occupational health and safety in Australia have undergone many changes in response to COVID-19.
While specific expectations differ between states, to control the spread of COVID-19 in the community, employers are generally expected to:
- Allow for remote working options when possible;
- Ensure that those on their premises physically distance by staying at least 1.5 metres apart;
- Ensure all workers maintain good hygiene by regularly washing their hands or using hand sanitiser;
- Ensure that any workers that display coronavirus symptoms do not come into work;
- Regularly have the workplace cleaned and disinfected;
- Provide staff with any information important in stopping the spread of coronavirus, such as on signs and posts around the workplace.
While it isn’t a legislative requirement, business owners are also encouraged to consider redesigning the way they conduct operations. For instance, they may switch to online ordering or ‘click and collect’ to minimise risks.
For many organisations, adjusting their operations to account for new regulations has and will continue to be challenging. However, it’s important to remember that these measures are necessary in keeping staff, customers and the general public safe in these trying times.
Face masks and refusing service under current legislation
In Victoria, face coverings are now a legal requirement when individuals are out in the community.
If someone that isn’t wearing a mask visits your business’ premises, under current legislation, you can refuse entry or service. However, this is only if they don’t have a lawful reason to not wear a face cover. Acceptable reasons include if they’re an infant or child under 12 years old, have a relevant medical condition or are deaf or hard of hearing and; thus, seeing their mouth is essential for communication.
If a customer refuses to wear a mask while on your business’ premises, as the business owner, you will not be fined. In such cases, the customer would be personally liable for this breach.
That said, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure that, while on their premises, staff members comply with all appropriate safety precautions. Unless a lawful exception applies, employees must wear their face covering at all times.
If you refuse entry or service, you need to be aware of and ensure you aren’t breaching any anti-discrimination laws. This is consistent with regulations prior to the pandemic, whereby individuals cannot be refused service based on their age, sexual orientation, race, gender identity or a disability.
Legal obligations regarding workers’ mental health
The measures introduced to control the spread of coronavirus, such as lockdown and remote working arrangements, have, in many ways, had devastating impacts on the mental health of those across the globe.
There’s no denying that working from home and the like can be very isolating. However, as an employer, it can be difficult to understand your role in helping staff manage their mental health, as you want to ensure you’re not overstepping. That said, it’s more important than ever before to show your employees that you’re there for them. This involves making sure that, when necessary, they have access to appropriate emotional support.
Under WHS laws, you have the legal obligation to comply with occupational health and safety requirements, which includes looking after your workers’ mental health.
Legally, business owners in Australia must:
- Provide employees with a physically and mentally safe workplace;
- Manage mental health risks that could arise from the work staff do for your business;
- Ensure staff with mental health conditions aren’t subject to discrimination or the like in the workplace;
- Respect and protect workers’ personal information. For instance, if an employee has a mental health condition, unless they consent to this information being shared, it should be kept private;
- Ensure that those with mental health conditions are treated fairly in the workplace.
When it comes to ensuring your business adequately supports staff both during and after the pandemic, working with employees to identify, minimise and monitor hazards is crucial. This involves having regular conversations with staff, understanding different causes of stress, taking action to manage them and looking out for signs of stress in workers.
While taking these measures can be exceedingly beneficial to employees, the flow-on effects can also benefit your organisation. Through creating working conditions that support staff, companies can reduce absenteeism, increase morale, improve productivity, lower staff turnover and more.
The Victorian Government postpones the Environment Protection Amendment Act
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Victorian Government has delayed the Environmental Protection Amendment Act 2018 (the Act) coming into effect. It will now be implemented on 1 July 2021 and, at this time, will bring about significant changes for environmental regulation in Victoria.
The Act will introduce numerous fundamental changes to current legislation, one of which is a General Environmental Duty (GED). Unlike previous regulations, this will make both organisations and individuals responsible for identifying risks to human health and the environment. Respectively, they must take proactive measures to control these risks and, where possible, minimise the potential for harm.
In the Act, core obligations include:
- Ensuring your business has acquired any relevant environmental registrations, permits and licences;
- Correctly disposing of any industrial waste;
- Reporting certain pollution incidents, known as ‘notifiable incidents’, as soon as reasonably possible;
- Managing contaminated land suitably, regardless of whether or not your company was responsible for the contamination.
Making sure you take the time to understand your legal obligations and, respectively, that you take any suitable action is crucial. Once introduced, the amended act will allow for substantial increases in fines, and those that commit a serious breach can face fines of up to $3.2 million. Further, if these are found to be deliberate or repeat incidents, involved individuals may be imprisoned.
Australian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) expectations
The response of various countries to the COVID-19 pandemic has been drastically different. While some have enforced strict restrictions, others have comparatively left their laws relatively relaxed. Expectations around a business’ environmental obligations are just one area where this can be seen.
In February 2020, the United States EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) eased their environmental legislation, suspending some requirements in the wake of coronavirus. This controversial decision was largely criticised, with some experts describing it as a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future.
In numerous Australian states; however, the response was all but incomparable. While states like New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria recognised that compliance has been made more challenging due to coronavirus; there is a continued emphasis on maintaining conformance with environmental legislation.
While organisations are still expected to minimise environmental impacts where reasonably possible and maintain their records, there has been some leniency in certain areas. For instance, while EPA license holders typically have from 1 July to 30 September to submit their annual performance statement (APS) from the previous financial year, they now have until 30 November 2020 (in Victoria).
Get up-to-date on legislative updates
Our team are available Australia-wide and have extensive experience in helping businesses get and stay compliant with legislation. For more information or if this article has brought up any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our legislative updates consultants.
At ICS, we also specialise in a variety of other services including compliance management software, integrated management systems, ISO internal audits, compliance audits, ISO gap analysis and more. Contact us today and find out how our team can help you achieve your business’ compliance goals.