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26 June 2022

Why you should never share WHS documentation with your mates

Workplace safety is critical for any business. Find out why sharing WHS documentation is a bad idea and how to keep your workers safe.

You can share all kinds of things with your mates; especially if you’re both small business owners dealing with the same day-to-day struggles. Sharing your wins and frustrations with someone who gets it is invaluable for business development and even your mental health.  

Great friendships are born from business relationships every day and that’s a brilliant thing. But there’s one thing you should never share between businesses — your WHS documentation. Here’s why: 

Sharing WHS documentation puts people at risk

The ultimate goal of WHS compliance is the safety and wellbeing of the people that make your business function – your workers. If WHS information or documentation is being recycled from one business to another, there’s no way that documentation addresses your highly specific WHS needs the way it should. And we’ve seen first-hand that any gaps in WHS documentation can be dangerous.  

Alison Wolf, one of ASSA’s Senior Workplace Safety Consultants, says, “Companies have different workers so what might be acceptable for controlling risks to one worker or workforce may not be appropriate for a different worker or workforce.” 

Alison also explains that a shift in mindset is essential to holistic work place safety. “Most small businesses see WHS as a chore that detracts from their actual work time, rather than a positive required to keep workers safe.” Recognising that WHS is about people may help you look at it as more than just a set of documents to tick off a list. 

Sharing WHS documentation can get you in legal trouble

WHS documentation shared across multiple businesses is almost never legitimate because it’s not truly tailored. Even if two companies are within the same industry and it appears that you are doing essentially the same work, there are always differences. As Alison points out, “Even companies of the same industry may use different tools and equipment, or have different processes by which they perform their work which may create differing hazards/risks or controls.” 

According to Safe Work Australia, Australian WHS authorities undertook over 230,000 workplace interventions in the 2019-20 financial year with over half of those being proactive (rather than reactive) visits. That means that even if you’re fortunate enough to avoid a workplace incident, a WHS inspector could visit your workplace without notice and conduct a review of the facilities as well as your WHS documentation. They will quickly identify if documentation isn’t aligned with your operations. 

Source: Safe Work Australia Comparative Performance Monitoring Report 23 

Sharing WHS documentations actually makes WHS way harder 

Like most things, WHS compliance is most manageable if you do it correctly from the start. Piecing together compliance using information from a mate’s business will cause you stress and likely leave you feeling like it’s impossible to implement and maintain compliance. We sometimes call this “patchwork compliance” and it’s the opposite of the holistic, functional safety culture we help our members develop. 

As Les Blake, another senior member of our Compliance Team explains it, “It would be like trying to use an owner’s manual for a Toyota Corolla to drive a Mustang – there will be some similarities but the differences would not be addressed, or even identified, leaving the user at a high risk of an accident.” 

So, what’s the first step toward tailored WHS compliance? 

We get it. It’s easier to “tweak” existing documentation than start from scratch. Especially because many business owners don’t know how to find the gaps in their existing workplace health and safety documentation or processes.  

Australian work health and safety law states that any business must: 

  • provide a safe work environment 
  • provide and maintain safe machinery and structures 
  • provide safe ways of working 
  • ensure safe use, handling and storage of machinery, structures and substances 
  • provide and maintain adequate facilities 
  • provide any information, training, instruction or supervision needed for safety 
  • monitor the health of workers and conditions at the workplace 

You could start by stepping back and using these headings to create a checklist of your business’ specific WHS requirements. If you find there are significant gaps or your operations are complex, you may need to enlist the help of an expert auditor to inspect your workplace and analyse your operations; they can then make recommendations and even put a step-by-step plan in place.  

The bulk of the work goes into putting that solid foundation in place and if you need assistance, one of ASSA’s auditors can work with you to put a comprehensive plan in place. However, many sole traders or small businesses are able to lay these foundations themselves with a WHS management system such as ASSA’s Work Safety System for Sole Traders or Work Safety System for Small Business

And for businesses of any size, the ASSA Work Safety System is an all-in-one system that makes it easy to maintain WHS compliance in the long-term. Our members have access to hundreds of templates, checklists and other resources, industry or operation-specific procedures, customisable induction courses, as well as cloud storage and internal team chat so you can keep everything in one place.

And best of all – as WHS laws change, our in-house compliance experts update the resource library to ensure your business remains compliant. 

How can small business owners work together to tackle compliance? 

Even if sharing specific documentation is off the table, there’s still value in keeping the work safety conversation going with your small business mates. Alison suggests that business owners can help each other maintain safe, compliant workplaces by sharing information about what’s worked for them.  

She says, “Business owners can help each other by sharing information relating to improvements in safety due to different equipment/ or engineering of equipment or processes, new or improved communication methods, or ways to make documentation easier and less time consuming.” 

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