In the Event of Emergency: Workplace Safety Inspectors

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
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In the event of an emergency incident, it’s likely you will find Workplace Safety Inspectors at your place of business.

It is important to remember that Workplace Safety Inspectors have legislated powers. This gives them broad powers of inquiry, including coercive powers, whereby people can be compelled to provide information, answers to questions and documentation to inspectors.

Inspectors have the authority to require access to people and information at your workplace, including:

  • names and addresses
  • conducting interviews and making enquiries
  • taking photographs, recordings and measurements
  • taking possession of items for examination, testing or for use as evidence
  • taking samples of substances or objects
  • requiring documents to be produced for examination and copying
  • calling in other people to assist them, including technical or scientific experts, interpreters or police officers

Put simply, unless a person has a reasonable excuse, they must answer questions or provide documents and cannot rely on the privilege against self-incrimination as an excuse not to do so.

Think of the time following a fatal incident at a workplace. Workplace Safety Inspectors are on-site swiftly, asking questions. That is their role. For employees, it is often not the best time to be answering questions, suffering as they may be from personal shock and stress.

1. Have Someone Present

As an employer, you are within your rights to have a third party present at interviews. This may be a legal counsel. If you dispute an inspector’s findings, you can also request a review of their decision.

For example, a WorkSafe Inspector may form an opinion that an activity in a workplace involves a risk to health and safety and issue an improvement notice. The employer may wish to contest the decision and ask for an independent internal review because they believe the activity is safe.

Alternatively, an Inspector may form an opinion that an activity is safe and take no action. An employee affected by the decision (and in some cases a health and safety representative) may wish to contest the decision and ask for an independent internal review because they believe the activity to be unsafe.

The review process is designed to be speedy and transparent. Most internal review decisions have to be made within 14 days; some have to be made within seven days after the application is made or in the case of a stay of an inspector’s decision, within 24 hours.

2. Showcase Due Diligence

Workplace Safety Inspectors respect good systems. Ensure you can demonstrate due diligence. A mining company, after an incident involving a third party transport supplier, welcomed the inspectors on-site for interviews. Before they were allowed onto the mine site, both inspectors were taken through the rigorous induction process (over an hour) and written test. This was due diligence at its finest.

Know what inspectors look for. Government websites offer great advice on actions that can be taken to improve safety, including this video from the Victorian Workcover Authority that interviews safety inspectors.

3. Clearly Outline Your Emergency Response

An emergency plan is a written set of instructions that outlines what workers and others in the workplace should do in an emergency.

The types of emergencies to plan for may include fire, explosion, medical emergency, rescues, incidents with hazardous chemicals, bomb threats, armed confrontations and natural disasters. 
The emergency plan should be based on a practical assessment of hazards associated with the work activity or workplace, and the possible consequences of an emergency occurring as a result of those hazards. External hazards should also be considered in preparing an emergency plan, for example a chemical storage facility across the road.

Emergency plans do not necessarily have to be lengthy or complex. They should be easy to understand and tailored to the specific workplace where they apply.

It may include practical information for workers such as:

  • Emergency contact details for key personnel who have specific roles or responsibilities under the emergency plan, for example fire wardens, floor wardens and first aid officers
  • Contact details for local emergency services, for example police, fire brigade and poison information centre
  • A description of the mechanisms for alerting people at the workplace to an emergency or possible emergency, for example a siren or alarm bell
  • Evacuation procedures including arrangements for assisting any hearing, vision or mobility-impaired people
  • A map of the workplace illustrating the location of fire protection equipment, emergency exits, assembly points
  • Triggers and processes for advising neighbouring businesses about emergencies
  • The post-incident follow-up process, for example notifying the regulator, organising trauma counselling or medical treatment.
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