4 What is work health and safety?

Understanding how to achieve effective work health and safety (WHS) management is complex.  Also, when we start to think about WHS, it could mean many different things to different people.  This chapter is designed to help you understand some key concepts in WHS by exploring some of its complexities and defining important terms. This will set you up to explore theories that try to explain why certain approaches are useful, while others lead to serious injuries for workers.

Learning Objectives

  This chapter introduces:

  • Key work health and safety (WHS) concepts and definitions.
  • The purpose of, and motivations behind, undertaking WHS management.
  • The concepts of incident versus accident to define human resource (HR) manager boundaries for their ‘duty of care’ when engaged in WHS.

Defining WHS

What is WHS management?  In it’s simplest sense, WHS management comprises the actions employers undertake to ensure a safe workplace for workers.

Words associated with workplace health and safety are randomly distributed across a sphere-shaped object to help readers ponder the meaning of these technical words including safety, risk, prevention, wellbeing, health, incident etc.

Figure 4.1: Workplace health and safety terminology
Source: Lynnaire Sheridan, CC BY-SA 4.0

There is a lot of technical terminology involved in WHS management (see Figure 4.1); let’s cover the basics. The World Health Organization defines work (occupational) health and safety as “all aspects of health and safety in the workplace…[with a] strong focus on primary prevention of hazards” (World Health Organization, n.d., para. 1) where, health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization, 1946, p. 1).  What then is a hazard?  A hazard may be defined as “anything with the potential to harm life, health or property” (Dunn, 2012, p. 53).

WHS management is then any action taken by responsible parties to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. This means protecting the people, plant, and environment from hazards that potentially could cause harm. In simple terms, it can be considered to be the approaches, processes, tools and techniques used by organisations to keep their workers safe so they can achieve their work.  Notably, taking into account the World Health Organizations definition of ‘health’, WHS is not just preventing illness or injury, but proactively helping workers to be, and stay, well.

What then does ‘safety’ mean in this WHS management context?  Safety is a “state in which the risk of harm (to persons) or damage is limited to an acceptable level” where risk is defined as the “likelihood and consequence of injury or harm occurring” (Standards Australia & Standards New Zealand, 2001, p. 5).  This means that an employer is only expected to manage health and safety to an ‘acceptable level’ of risk for injury or harm to occur to their workers—that which is reasonably practicable or “reasonably able to be done” (Safe Work Australia, 2023, part 18).

While WHS has traditionally been about health and safety in a ‘workplace’, the notion of ‘ workplace’ is changing and evolving over time.  To address this, the focus and responsibility is placed on a PCBU, a person conducting a business or undertaking (NZ Parliament, 2015; Safe Work Australia, 2023).  WorkSafe New Zealand explains,  “a PCBU may be an individual person or an organisation.  This does not include workers or officers of PCBUs, volunteer associations, or home occupiers that employ or engage a tradesperson to carry out residential work” (WorkSafe, 2019, p. 4).  This shift towards PCBUs being responsible for workers, rather than a workplace, means PCBUs are responsible for managing worker health and safety wherever workers are engaged in work.

Who then is a ‘worker’?  A worker is a person undertaking work for a PCBU (Safe Work Australia, 2023).  Notably, a worker does not have to be an employee—contractors, sub-contractors, interns and, in certain situations, volunteers are all considered workers (NZ Parliament, 2015; Safe Work Australia, 2023).

Note: While notionally the same, there are some nuanced differences between Australia and New Zealand legislated definitions of a worker so it is important to follow the legislation that applies in your jurisdiction.

In summary, WHS management is designed to keep workers (people who undertake work for a PCBU ) in good health (not just unharmed) and safe (to an acceptable, reasonably practicable, level) from any foreseeable hazards that could present as they undertake their work.  However, what should a PCBU actually manage?

Managing WHS

What WHS management comprises for a PCBU, in any given context, is determined by the legislation that applies in that jurisdiction, the existence or adequacy of WHS regulators and, very importantly, the attitude of the organisation and its people towards WHS (safety culture).

Managing worker health

In most legal contexts, PCBU WHS responsibilities extend to occupational diseases (health) and workplace incidents (safety).  Let’s start with occupational disease which is “any illness associated with a particular occupation or industry.  Such diseases result from a variety of biological, chemical, physical, and psychological factor that are present in the work environment or are otherwise encountered in the course of employment” (Kazantzis, 2022, para. 1).  From a WHS perspective, these diseases are preventable through the control of employee exposure to the hazards that cause disease (Kazantzis, 2022).

While some occupational disease can occur through immediate exposure, detection of most occupational disease is done via occupational epidemiology which is the investigation of the occurrence of disease and clusters of impacted people having their exposure linked back to specific workplaces or industries (Merletti et al., 2014).  It can take many years to identify the hazard associated with an illness, given it requires accumulated exposure over time before it presents as disease in a worker.  For example, asbestos was first industrially manufactured in the 1880s with the first recorded case of asbestosis disease being documented in 1906.  Many deaths subsequently occurred before, in the 1970s, there was enough epidemiological evidence to conclude that asbestos was a carcinogen (cancer causing) and that those working with asbestos were at most risk (Lemen et al., 1980).  The need for long-term, epidemiological evidence, means that occupational disease identification is often beyond what is reasonably practicable for an individual HR practitioner or their organisation; to identify and control these hazards requires collaboration between public health agencies, WHS regulators and specialists in occupational health (Ahrens et al., 2014).  The United State’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health” (CDC, 2023a, para 1.), is a public health entity that incorporates worker health in its remit.  The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) operates through partnerships with employers to enhance worker health outcomes (CDC, 2023b).

Past influencing the present

Occupational health, as a specialisation within WHS, has its modern-day origins in the Industrial Revolution.  In Chapter 2, we saw that Dr Thomas Percival identified the crucial link between the congested, unsanitary, conditions at a cotton mill and the outbreak of malignant fever (Meikeljohn, 1958) which, in turn, led Sir Robert Peel to introducing Britain’s first WHS legislation, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 (UK Parliament, n.d.).

Occupational health had its modest beginnings in first aid and disease controls for high risk heavy industry workplaces, such as mines.  It gained greater recognition in the 1970s when the World Health Organization acknowledged its contribution to the identification of workplace-derived factors causing occupational illness, suggesting its remit be broadened to encompass public health.  As such, many occupational health specialists now have more of a public health, rather than ‘occupational’, focus (Schilling, 1989).

An occupational nurse for the US Navy is taking someone's blood pressure. The main focus of the image is on the nurse and we only see the arm and the blood pressure taking equiptment.

Figure 4.2: Occupational nurse, Sharnice Johnson, checks a patient’s vital signs.
Source: “Naval Branch Health Clinic Albany occupational health 210525-N-QA097-201” by Navy Medicine, Flickr.com, Public Domain

Schilling (1989) notes that historical WHS occupational health challenges are simply repeating themselves today in developing economy contexts:

The health problems arising from industrial progress in developing countries today are, in many aspects, similar to those during industrialization in the nineteenth century; these countries also have to face major threats from endemic disease and generalized poverty. Weakly organized labour with a large work force available places little pressure on employers to provide anything more than wages and basic services. (Schilling, 1989, p. 4)

If you have ever had a workplace medical examination, or you schedule these regularly for your employees, these are likely part of a health monitoring initiative designed to identify any early-onset symptoms of occupational disease but may also be seeking to identify repetitive strain injuries (WorkSafe, 2022).  In this aspect of occupational health, you would be likely to work with ergonomists, “someone who studies the design of furniture or equipment and the way this affects people’s ability to work effectively” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2023a, para. 1), to ensure office set up avoids the poor posture or unnecessary movements leading to strain injuries. However, if someone incurs a workplace illness or strain injury, or you wish to employ someone already living with a disability, you will likely collaborate with an occupational therapist who will make reasonable adjustments:

The concept of reasonable adjustments reflects the understanding that a worker with an injury, ill health or disability can often perform tasks if adjustments are made to accommodate the effects of their injury, ill health or disability.  The aim of any reasonable adjustment is to minimise the impact of the injury, health problem or disability to enable the worker to fully take part in work-related programs and effectively undertake the inherent requirements of their job. (ComCare, 2013, para. 1)

Where an illness or injury is temporary, return to work plans will be designed with occupational therapists to enable the worker to return to work in a reduced or different capacity that, over time,  ideally will see them return to good health and their full original work role (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 2022).  Reasonable adjustment is also important when employing a person already living with a disability:

Reasonable adjustments are changes an employer makes to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to someone’s disability. For example: making changes to the workplace, changing someone’s working arrangements, finding a different way to do something, providing equipment, services or support. Reasonable adjustments are specific to an individual person. They can cover any area of work. (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, 2022, para. 1)

Considerations for this cohort of workers is often also addressed in legislation relating to disability discrimination (Mason, 2017).

As you can see, occupational injury tends to involve HR managers more than occupational disease control.  Often it is these WHS practitioners who become embedded, or at least quite closely affiliated, with HR departments within organisations.  The following Contemporary WHS challenge explores how HR and occupational therapists can collaborate together to address the transition to retirement for workers who experience the emergence of dementia symptoms in the workplace.

Contemporary WHS Challenges: Dementia in the workplace

What is dementia?  According to the World Health Organization, “dementia is a term for several diseases that affect memory, thinking, and the ability to perform daily activities” (n.d., para. 2).  The occurrence of dementia increases with age (Dementia Australia, 2022).  Workforce participation by Older Australians (65+ years) has doubled from 6.1% in 2001 to 15% in 2021 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2023).  The aging of the Australian workforce increases the likelihood that some employees will have dementia.  However, as Alzheimers New Zealand points out, “although dementia tends to affect older people, for younger people with dementia or those who choose to stay in the workforce at older ages, dementia can affect their capacity to work” (Alzheimers New Zealand, 2017, p. 45).  So, no matter the age of the worker, if they have dementia it will impact on their work performance.

A team of professionals appear to be engaged in a workplace meeting. The focus on the camera is on a three middle-age workers and the viewer is looking at them over the shoulder of a out of focus older gentlemen with a bald patch amongst his grey hair.

Figure 4.3: In a multi-generational workplace, you might be surprised which worker is living with dementia.
Source: “Business people” by Direct Media, StockSnap, CC0

The challenge with dementia in a workplace is that it generates risks, particularly when the worker is expected to undertake a highly skilled role such as driving (Andrew et al., 2015) but, at the same time, it can present to a manager simply as poor work performance (Andrew et al., 2018).  When identified and managed effectively by an occupational therapist, people with dementia can continue to work and generate great outcomes for the business while having their own lives positively enhanced through the financial and social benefits that work generates (Andrew et al., 2018).  Finally, when it is time for a person with dementia to finish up at work, it can be incredibly beneficial that they have access to a medical retirement, compared to being managed out of an organisation via a disciplinary processes, as medical retirement can enable access to critical retirement savings at the very time they need and can enjoy these funds (Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, n.d.).  Quite simply, as New Zealand’s Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment explains, “medical retirement allows an employee to leave an organisation with dignity” (Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, n.d., para. 21).


Box 4.1: Catherine Andrew Dementia Research

In the following video, Catherine Andrew discusses the important role that WHS (and HR) staff should play to ensure that organisational performance management processes and disciplinary procedures capture all potential causes of performance decline in employees and to ensure that illnesses, such as dementia, are managed according to WHS legislation, and not employment relations policy.


Source: Sheridan, L. (Producer). (2016). Dementia concepts for business curricula. Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, University of Wollongong, Australia. YouTube


Imagine you’re an HR professional and one of your organisation’s managers approaches you about a clear case of performance decline in a middle-aged, long-term, employee.  How would you determine if this issue should be managed in accordance with employment relations or WHS legislation and policy?


Interested to find out more?  In the following video Catherine Andrew explains dementia before providing insights and models derived from her research into dementia in the workplace and management of the transition to retirement.


Source: “Dementia Symptoms While in Paid Employment” by Catherine Andrew for the Work Wellness Institute, YouTube

Further reading:

Andrew C., Phillipson, L. & Sheridan, L. (2018). What is the impact of dementia on occupational competence, occupational participation and occupational identity for people who experience onset of symptoms while in paid employment? A scoping review. Australian Occupational Therapy 66(2), 130–144.

Evans, D., Murray, C., Berndt, A., & Robertson, J. (2021). Supporting people with dementia in employment. In D. Evans, L.-F. Low, & K. Laver (Eds.), Dementia Rehabilitation: Evidence-based interventions and clinical recommendations (pp. 149 – 170). London, United Kingdom: Academic Press.


Managing worker safety

Prevention of workplace incidents of any scale is a strong focus of day-to-day WHS management in organisations.  In the WHS context, “an incident is an unplanned event or chain of events that results in losses such as fatalities or injuries, damage to assets, equipment, the environment, business performance or company reputation” (Wolters Kluwer, n.d., para. 1).  It is important to distinguish an incident from an accident which is defined as “something bad that happens that is not expected or intended and that often damages something or injuries someone” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2023b, para. 1) or “something that happens by chance or without expectation; an event that is without apparent or deliberate” (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d., para. 6).  Both appear very similar, but what distinguishes them is that, under the law, accidents are considered Acts of God: “The operation of uncontrollable natural forces, an instance or result of such forces, frequently in the context of insurance” (Oxford Dictionary, n.d., para. 3)—they are uncontrollable—whereas incidents, with effective WHS management, are considered potentially controllable (and therefore potentially makes organisations legally liable for negligence for poor WHS practice).

Box 4.2: Video 1, An introduction to work health and safety management

The following video is a useful summary and further contextualisation of this discussion around key definitions in WHS management.


A transcript of this video is available here.

Source: Sheridan, L. (producer, narrator). (2019). Video 1: An introduction to work health and safety management. 
Preston, A. (audio engineer); Orvad, A., (artist) and Franks, R., (animator), Learning, Teaching and Curriculum. University of Wollongong, Australia.  YouTube

Now technically understanding what comprises WHS management, it is useful to understand how different organisations, and even regions of the world, approach it.

Differing perspectives on WHS and its management

As mentioned earlier, the World Health Organization defines work (occupational) health and safety as “all aspects of health and safety in the workplace and has a strong focus on primary prevention of hazards” (World Health Organization, n.d., para. 1).  So, at the organisational level, why might one organisation be very proactive about WHS, to the extent of doing worker wellbeing activities, and another may only do the minimum or try to avoid any focus on worker safety?  Some factors to consider might be:

  • Size – the number of employees and/or financial capacity.
  • Danger – some jobs might be physically or psychologically more dangerous than others. So some businesses – just to get the job done – may need a stronger safety focus than others.
  • Legislation – different parts of the world have different laws, so WHS requirements might be different.

As such, there may be some scenarios where an employer could get the job done more cheaply without safe work practices (perhaps in developing economies without legislation and with many available workers; a similar situation to Britain during the Industrial Revolution in Chapter 2), alternatively, in a knowledge economy (where employees are valued for thoughts and ideas) an employer might want to support wellbeing as they require relaxed and thriving employees to achieve the company’s aims. Every situation, and response to WHS, will be different depending on historical and contemporary contexts.

Two men are waist-deep in muddy water manually moving around a large timber log. They are surrounded by other building materials including steel rio which is used in supporting concrete. They are not wearing any type of protective clothing (one even doesn't have his shirt on) and they have no machinery assisting them.

Figure 4.3: Workers without safety equipment patching the roads in Metro Manila, Philippines.
Source: “Dangeous jobs” by , Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Likewise, employees come to work with different attitudes towards health and safety. Together employer and employee values—the attitudes and beliefs towards WHS—will either prioritise or deprioritise it in a particular business.  Values and goals are a combination of top-down, employer, values but also bottom-up, worker, behaviours.  Hopkins & Palser (1987) suggest that organisations and their workers either blame-the-victim, and believe that the worker causes the situation and/or injury,  or blame-the-system, and believe that the situation and/or injury occurred because of a series of workplace errors. Every decision from then on is based on which of these two approaches an organisational has towards WHS management and, subsequently, creates a proactive or reactive safety culture. We will address the concept of safety culture in more depth in Chapter 6.

Box 4.3: Video 2, An introduction to work health and safety management

The following video discusses the differing worker and employer perspectives on WHS.


A transcript of this video is available here.

Source: Sheridan, L. (producer, narrator). (2019). Video 2: An introduction to work health and safety management.
Preston, A. (audio engineer); Orvad, A., (artist) and Franks, R., (animator), Learning, Teaching and Curriculum. University of Wollongong, Australia.  YouTube

Activity 4.1

Take this ten question quick quiz to review your understanding of key concepts introduced throughout Chapter 4 and see how your learning is progressing.

WHS management is not applied consistently between organisations or in different regions of the world.  Organisational and worker values will prioritise or de-prioritise safety management.  This is because there are different philosophical perspectives towards WHS management.  At this point you may be asking yourself, as an HR manager, how can I possibly manage WHS in my organisation?  In the next chapter you will be introduced to conceptual models, together with practical know-how, that will help you prepare to embark on safety management.


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