Managing people

What role do unions play in work health and safety?

Unions play an important role in effective WHS management. Find out about their responsibilities and obligations, as well as their workplace right of entry.

Unions have a responsibility to their members to consider their general welfare — this includes work health and safety. Communicating with management of the businesses where union members are located is a good start to effective involvement of unions in WHS management. Some unions are also actively involved in research in areas of WHS.

Responsibilities and obligations

Legislation allows unions to make a significant contribution to maintenance of, and improvement in, health and safety standards at workplaces. Unions have adopted a policing role in relation to WHS in many industries. However, industrial relations considerations bring unions into the picture in a very real sense.

In summary, the responsibilities/obligations of unions in relation to WHS are: 

  • to adequately protect the interests of their members when negotiating awards and agreements
  • to appropriately police WHS standards when the unions' role extends to workplace inspections for WHS compliance
  • to participate as required in WHS management through involvement in consultative processes and constructive exercise of right of entry powers
  • to be sufficiently well-informed to carry out an effective role in relation to WHS issues
  • to undertake adequate training to be able to provide useful support to members to achieve WHS benefits, and
  • to effectively lobby governments and regulators.

Right of entry

In all Australian states and territories except Western Australia, union officials with WHS entry permits have the right to enter a workplace to investigate reasonably suspected contraventions of health and safety laws.

Entry can be for one of three reasons:

  • to investigate a suspected breach of the Fair Work Act or an industrial instrument which applies or applied to a member of the union
  • to hold discussions with employees who are members of the union or eligible to be members and TFC outworkers (section 484)
  • to exercise a right under state or territory occupational health and safety law.

The rules vary from state to state as to how much notice WHS entry permit holders must give, and the details of their rights and entitlements.

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