Just about the first job on any new building site is to put up a safety fence, do the foundation work and lay the slab. You’ve got to get that right before anything else can go up.

Once the slab is ready it can get pretty hectic on site – with any number of tradies from any number of companies on site at any one time. From the outside, and to an untrained eye, it can look chaotic. But it needs to be organised chaos. All the various parts need to work together to pull the project together.

It’s the same with health and safety. You need strong foundations and everyone needs to work together.

Take that typical new house build. There are lots of players involved – the client, maybe an architect, a lead contractor and all the subbies. Under the new Health and Safety at Work Act they will all have a role to play in keeping not only their own workers safe on site but others as well.

It’s called ‘overlapping duties’ but in practice what it means is the person or business that is best placed to manage a risk that affects more than just their own workers has primary responsibility to do so – but everyone has to play their part.

So, on our house build the company that’s contracted to dig the drains has a duty to ensure the excavator is operated safely – with proper measures in place to keep workers on foot away from the digger and the like. But if the lead builder (let’s call them ABC Construction) has workers in the area too they have a duty to ensure their people are kept safe as well. So there needs to be discussion and agreement between ABC and the drain layer about how the risks associated with the digger are being managed.

The law is designed to encourage co-operation on site. For example, all workers will need access to first aid gear. ABC Construction is going to be there for the duration of the project so it’s likely they will provide first aid facilities. The tiler that’s working on the bathroom for a couple of days needs to ensure they have access to first aid as well. But they don’t necessarily have to bring their own; they could do that by confirming they can use ABC’s gear if needed.

Whenever a new subbie turns up there should be an induction process which includes discussion about current site hazards as well as any new hazards they might introduce. In fact, health and safety should be a feature of the tender process for work and there should be an exchange of any relevant information before subbies even arrive on site.

Many building sites already start the day with a tailgate or toolbox talk. Having open lines of communication between workers, supervisors and managers has always been a good idea. The new Act specifically encourages that sort of approach by introducing a duty to engage with workers that applies to all workplaces. It doesn’t set down in stone what form that engagement should take, but a quick daily chat about safety and hazards on site each day is a good place to start.

There are some new worker engagement rules for larger workplaces (with more than 20 workers) and those in high risk industries, such as construction. For those businesses they are required to hold an election for a Health and Safety Representative (HSR) if requested by a worker. And they must consider forming a Health and Safety Committee (HSC) if an HSR or five workers request one. Find out more about the role of HSRs and HSCs.

Health and safety doesn’t have to be difficult and doesn’t have to mean a lot of paperwork. The basics of good health and safety management aren’t changing on 4 April. It starts with identifying risks, talking about them with anyone on site that might be affected, and finding appropriate ways to manage them. Of course not all risks can be eliminated – risk is part of life and will always be part of construction work.

The key is doing what is ‘reasonably practicable’ to control and minimise risks. So identify on-site risks, the likelihood of an incident and the consequences of them. Your control measures should reflect the seriousness of the risk.

Some risks are obvious. That new house is going to need a roof and that means working at height. We all know a fall can cause death or a life changing injury. The new law requires you to manage the risks of working at height (just as the 1992 law does). So if you are using good fall from height safety measures today (such as scaffolding, edge protection, nets, harnesses or soft landing systems) they will still be appropriate under the new law. If you aren’t – it’s time to sort yourself out.

The introduction of the new law is a great opportunity to review your current approach to health and safety. Think of it as a core part of your business and any project. It’s not something you do once and file away on a shelf – make sure it is part of your daily routine.

There are other changes in the Health and Safety at Work Act that businesses need to come to grips with as well – including new legal requirements for company directors and top management. To learn more see Understanding the law.

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